Thinking about the food we ate in New Orleans reminded me of some of the less fancy meals we’d enjoyed on our three months driving round the US.
Whilst driving away from the highways we tried to use UrbanSpoon to find some local hotspots, and did visit a great selection of diners and family restaurants. Other times we had a simple pit stop at whatever was on offer at the next Interstate junction.
A few fast food places we tried in the last three months:
Arby’s – Roast Beef Sandwich with au jus was ok. The rest wasn’t that memorable. I’m told everything comes out of the microwave, which would explain the oddly chewy bread roll.
Country Kitchen – interesting menu, but everything was undercooked. Didn’t go back.
Cracker Barrel – far more popular than it deserved. Not bad, but the huge plates emphasised the tiny portions.
Dennys – good for a cheap breakfast. My first taste of a chicken-fried steak, which sets you up nicely for the whole day (and the next).
IHOP – Full breakfast, followed by unlimited pancakes. Went to three different branches and noted that the staff were always very cheery. It’s hard to say no to more pancakes so each time ate far too much food.
Jack-in-the-box – went into two different branches in Los Angeles. Both had people begging for money inside the restaurant. Food was dire.
Popeyes – everything on the menu looked to be covered in batter. Left without ordering and went for a salad.
Long John Silver – fried fishy fast food. Whole place smelt of old oil and old fish from the outside, so didn’t bother even make it to the doors.
Whataburger – Thoroughly enjoyed this place thanks to some interesting variations on burgers all cooked freshly to order. Unfortunately it’s only available in and around Texas, but the wonderfully thick chocolate milkshakes became a regular treat.
Other chains we knew already from Europe, so skipped – they mostly serve the usual burgers and fries: McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Sonic, Whitecastle, Dairy Queen, Subway, Chick-Fil-A.
There was so much hype about this chain that we actually detoured from a long driving day along the coast just to hit an In-n-Out at lunchtime. Whilst it was a perfectly good burger it really wasn’t the life changing experience I’ve been promised by numerous Californians for years.
I think the problem may have been its simplicity. It’s a lightly seasoned meat patty with bread and cheese. I’ve got too used to bacon & blue cheese, or onion rings and barbeque sauce, or salsa and jalapeno peppers, or in some cases all of the above served between two grilled cheese sandwiches…(Beyond Burger near Texas City)
There are many famous restaurants in Key West, serving wonderful seafood and other gourmet dishes. Instead we set off on the long drive back towards Miami and stopped at Wendy’s.
It’s just fast food burgers, but took me back to the few weeks at university, where the food landscape of my dull college town was brightened by the arrival of one of the UK’s first Wendy’s hamburger branches. I remember happily studying whilst eating on of their square burgers. No fries though. Wendy’s were fancy enough to offer baked potato with sour cream and chives which was a huge change from the only other fast food chains at the time – McDonalds & KFC.
Wendy’s short-lived foray into the UK market ended a few months later they pulled out and were replaced by another experiment – Taco Bell. That shut even quicker, although that caused considerably less anguish from anyone that had tasted it.
Avoiding Fast Food
I’d suggest using Urbanspoon and you’ll find great independent restaurants in almost every neighbourhood. Their scores are easily gamed, so take note of the comments from people with lots of reviews, rather than going by the overall ratings.
Buffet places were usually great, especially along the Gulf Coast. At least it was always possible to find a variety of dishes to try for the first time, plus a selection of salad-type items.
Make sure to try at least one BBQ place – we didn’t find a bad one and the welcome was always warm.
As a last resort just wander along the street and go somewhere that looks busy. Larger supermarkets often have a hot food counter, so you can get a simple meal to take away – it’s not gourmet fare, but makes a change from fast food hamburgers and sandwiches.