ten best!: 10 Best Fast Food Items

by Brian Clarey

Burgers, by Cook Out

A nod to the local folks here: When I worked in the service industry, a late-night stop at Cook Out was practically de rigeur. My old manager at Trilogy was partial to the Cook Out hot dogs, loaded with chili and slaw. My jam was the steak-style hamburger, medium, topped with grilled onions and A-1 steak sauce. Hot damn, I could go for one of those right now! Also, Cook Out has great fries. And I’m sure there is probably a way to rationalize Cook Out as exempt from my fast-food rules.

McDonald’s breakfast — all of it

I just polished off two sausage McMuffins and am in the throes of January eater’s remorse. I hereby swear off fast food for as long as I can stand it. I’ll miss McDonald’s breakfast, though. I like it all: the burritos with their bland packets of salsa, the McGriddles sandwiched in pancakes that have syrup chips in them, even the biscuits — and I’m not a huge fan of biscuits. And the egg McMuffin is, I believe, one of the best fast-food products on the market. When they go two for $2, my resolve will be sorely tested.

White Castle sliders

I won’t have to worry about sliders while I’m in North Carolina — those soft, savory mini-burgers ain’t from around here. But while I was on Long Island for Christmas I went through a White Castle drive-thru with a dude from the old neighborhood. It was about 4 a.m. and we were in a cab, and together we took down nearly an entire pallet of cheeseburgers. I’m pretty sure I had 10 of them.

The Meximelt, by Taco Bell

Taco Bell is one of the fast-food outlets that I think of when I think of how bad fast food is for me. It is also the joint that inspired one of my culinary lifestyle theories — namely, that you probably shouldn’t eat anything that costs less than a dollar. Still I find myself making occasional runs for the border, and when I do, I always get a beef Meximelt and eat it in the car on the way back to my home or office. I call it my “road piece.”

The Whopper Jr., by Burger King

Here’s one of the great mysteries of conveyor-belt food stylings: Why is the Whopper Jr. so much tastier than the original Whopper? Same ingredients: beef, tomato, lettuce, onion, pickle, mayonnaise, ketchup… but the Whopper Jr., at roughly half the size, is a much more satisfying nosh. Wise customers will double up on the Whooper Jr. and add a side of fries, which are admittedly mediocre.

The Mushroom-Swiss Thickburger, by Hardees

Publisher Charles Womack recently had an eye-opening experience while dining on the road at a Hardees. “They bring your food out in a little basket,” he raved. Plus, he was impressed with the new Thickburger line, made with Angus beef and hearty enough to satisfy real appetites. I am fond of the mushroom- Swiss burger, which boasts these rubbery mushrooms in, like, some kind of gravy? But I also will not hesitate to call an audible at the drive-thru and go with the Buffalo chicken sandwich at the last minute, if it’s available.

The McRib, by McDonald’s

Say what you want — it’s not real barbecue, it shouldn’t have pickles on it, it’s probably not even real pork — but I have remained loyal to the McRib, McDonald’s seasonal sandwich, since its debut in 1981. I even caught a nasty case of food poisoning off a McRib Jr. back in 2002, and still I find myself slamming one down whenever it makes its appearance on the menu.

Popeyes spicy fried chicken

Despite its lack of a possessive apostrophe (Al Copeland used to joke that he was too poor to afford one), Popeyes remains the absolute best fast-food fried chicken I have ever had, and it is superior to many homestyle fried chicken joints I’ve been to. The side items are quality, too — red beans and rice, dirty rice and the best damn mashed potatoes (with Cajun gravy) in the business. Alas, there is but one Popeyes franchise in the NC Piedmont Triad: in a truckstop off Interstate 40/85 in Whitsett, over by the Red Oak brewery.

Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips

Another blast from my youth. Again, you won’t find an Arthur Treacher’s around here, but back in the ’70s they were kind of a big deal. I always liked the fried clams — way better than at Nathan’s, in my opinion — but my fave was always the big triangles of battered, fried whitefish, both greasy and light at the same time. Now I indulge my habit when I’m driving Interstate 95: there are Arthur Treacher’s stands in truckstops in Delaware and Maryland.

Roy Rogers

Another I-95 favorite, Roy Rogers was once the Cadillac of fast-food brands based on the 1950s television cowboy. It’s gone through some changes over the years — the fried chicken is no longer named after Pappy Parker, for one — but if you find yourself lucky enough to stumble upon a Roy Rogers, you should go in and get something. The roast beef sandwiches are right up there with the egg McMuffin in the pantheon of great fastfood sandwiches, and are best, I find, with a bit of horseradish sauce.