An East Coaster gets his first taste of In-N-Out Burger. Photo by Michael V. Chopko
Growing up, my house was healthy. Bran stocked the cupboard, gallons of skim milk sat in the fridge. We didn’t eat fast food except on rare occasions. On busy nights, my parents picked up sprout-laden sandwiches and baked potatoes from our nearest Fresher Cooker franchise. After multi-million dollar losses year after year, the locally-owned company (conceived as a healthy alternative to burger joints) filed for bankruptcy, folded, and the restaurant in the strip mall parking lot near my house fell apart and came back together as a Skyline Chili.
Fast food mainly happened on road trips then, when we’d drive from Louisville to New Orleans or Northern Florida for a vacation. I remember one drive down with my brother and dad. I must have been ten. We stopped for fries and Arch Deluxes. I had a fish sandwich. An hour later, not far from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, my brother started throwing up. He hadn’t been poisoned; he was car-sick, a tendency worsened by his habit of doodling in notebooks as the Volvo heaved and pitched over I-65’s pocked surface. We stopped at a gas station so my dad could clean him off and buy a styrofoam cooler. My brother was still throwing up, leaning out of the car, near the pump. A scraggly old yokel sauntered over. “What’s wrong with ‘im?” he asked, practically chuckling. My brother threw up into the cooler all the way to Hattiesburg. As soon as he was done, he wanted another burger. Vegetarianism dulled the allure of fast food for a while, but even in college, it permeated the culture. My senior year, I lived next to a Rax, a pitiful little lump of a franchise my friends and I always assumed was the last of its kind in the country — so disconnected so under-patronized that perhaps — like Edwina, the cookie-baking dinosaur — it hadn’t gotten wind of its own extinction. Then, for some people, going for fries at Rax was as palatably ironic an act as stacking toilet sculptures in the main quad or carefully growing a neat cop-style mustache to sport above a bemused smirk.
Today, I avoid fast food. I strive to eat healthily, responsibly, and well — and I manage to get two out of three right most of the time. In other words, if I’m going to eat fried chicken, it’s going to be good fried chicken — featuring a bird whose life was reasonably pleasant prior to its sudden conclusion. However, this general rule isn’t always easy to follow. Over the last five years, I have spent a lot of time touring around the country playing music — and eating on the road in any way resembling that to which I am accustomed in San Francisco is tough if not impossible. If I were more of an urban homesteader, I’d make my own jerky, dry fruit, and roast nuts for snacks. Instead, ducking into parking lights, entranced by warm neon glows, I forage along the inter-states with wildly varying results. Thanks to a soggy half-rotten “veggie delight” foot-long somewhere in Michigan, I haven’t eaten anything from Subway in three years, and I never will again. On the other hand, I have learned that Arby’s makes a decent vegetable soup. Its coffee shakes are good too. I have also learned that Carl’s Jr. has one healthy sandwich that doesn’t make me feel sick after I eat it: the grilled chicken with barbecue sauce and crunchy lettuce on a whole wheat bun. The sauce tastes like low-cal ketchup dosed with liquid smoke, but I don’t quibble. I’m always happy to see that yellow star rising up on a pole in the dark next to the highway. In general, grocery stores are better than restaurants. Whenever I stumble across a reasonably well-appointed one, I buy carrots, bananas, bread, and peanut butter, or some deli turkey and cheese. While these eats assault my body with less malice, something remains appealing about fast food on the road, particularly when it’s eaten in the car, as music hums from the stereo, and the windows rattles as the wheels tumble along. Towns give way to cities, suburbs, and towns again. The windshield steams up from unwrapped burgers. A greasy smell oozes into the upholstery and hangs in the air between the front seats. Ketchup packets fall on the van floor. Someone steps on one, and he is cursed as red spits across the carpet.
On the West Coast, In-N-Out Burger — every famous chef’s favorite drive-through — reigns supreme. My band was heading up from Los Angeles last weekend. As we approached the parking lot, the keyboardist, a Lebowski fan visiting from D.C., awoke from a two-hour nap and practically dived out of the rolling van to get his first taste. While little approaches a double-double animal-style, the Midwest and East Coast offer a few nice options you can’t get out here. Wawa, a Mid-Atlantic chain of convenience stores, has excellent sandwiches you can customize via touch-screen. Frequently found in service plazas along East Coast turnpikes, the Falls Church, Virginia-based Roy Rogers has the “Gold Rush” chicken sandwich, fried breast on a roll with bacon, melted provolone, and honey barbecue sauce. The closest White Castle outpost may be 1 and 1/3 days away from us by car — in Shakopee, Minnesota to be exact — but you can buy frozen sliders from Walgreen’s stores anywhere. I know because I have done so from the one on 24th and Potrero.
Some fast food restaurants have short menus focusing on a specific culinary theme — fried chicken and little besides fried chicken, just burgers, or chili — and others, like Jack in the Box, for example, try to be all things for all customers, offering tacos, egg rolls, and cheese-steaks as well as burgers and fries. In my experience, the former — focused, quality-conscious enterprises in the vein of In-N-Out Burger — tend to be more successful. To play with the idea, I’ve come up with a few unique fast food concepts — inspired appropriately by San Francisco — to diversify the field.
Offal promises to stay hot in the food world. Falafel is a fast food Americans outside of cities don’t know or trust yet. I was thinking a restaurant serving both could be both excellent and successful. Chris Cosentino and the proprietors of Old Jerusalem would have to consult. I would call it Fal-off-All in honor of Chik-fil-A and serve lavash wraps stuffed with fried sweetbreads, kidneys, and liver.
Mini-cassoulets. Sounds a little precious for sure, but I think even road-trippers in far-flung bastions of rigidity would warm up — especially in snowy weather. I know I would have loved to stumble across a franchise of Le Petit Confit zipping across Nebraska several Februarys ago.
This past fall, New York City Momofuku impresario David Chang ticked off a bunch of sensitive locals when he semi-drunkenly accused low-watt San Francisco chefs of “fuckin’ just serving figs on a plate.” He might have been taking a cue from an expat. Over the summer, former A16 and SPQR chef Nate Appleman abruptly abandoned local stardom to move to New York in search of a louder buzz. He popped up in a New York Times profile to lightly dis San Francisco diners: “In San Francisco the audience is easy. You put tripe in a bowl and tell them it’s from a humanely raised cow and they’re going to eat it.” In honor of both famous chefs’ opinions, someone should start a faux-Chez Panisse fast food restaurant serving austere mockeries of the perfect-simple-thing-in-a-bowl motif: shriveled radish slices with table salt, canned pears with a touch of low-grade honey, and gassed half-green tomatoes with “balsamic” drizzles — all served with pseudo-artisan sourdough bread. Bowls and Rolls — it’ll be huge, I’m telling you.