As my mum picks me up from Heathrow at 23:00 after a hellish 24 hour stint in San Francisco Airport, my stomach churns for some food – Marks & Spencer is closed; W H Smith’s selection of confectionary is tempting but then, the unavoidable hits me: the Drive-Thru McDonald’s on the way home. A pastime, nay a tradition, of stocking up here after a journey has developed in my family and so within what seemed like seconds I was clutching a quarter-pounder like there was no tomorrow. Something was wrong – was it too greasy? Not greasy enough? Had we forgotten French Fries? And then it hit me – I had been indoctrinated into the American Fast Food culture – chips were now French Fries and the idea that a burger a day wasn’t normal was a concept only worthy of my contempt. Every Subway, Burger King or KFC I passed in the next few weeks pushed me further towards desperation; seeing the fast food weight that I’d put on in America (approximately 10 lbs) slowly drop off me left me feeling wrong, even cheated. Why couldn’t I clutch my love handles with ease? Where was the love?
It was and is abandoned in the USA but it seems a shame not to describe the beauty and intricacy of the American Fast Food institution.
We should start with the Mothership, the oh-so-beautiful-burger topped with cheese and perched coyly next to a slice of gherkin. “I’m bloody delicious”, it screams. American burgers are wonderfully to the point; there’s none of this “I’ll have a blue cheese and avocado burger with no bun”, just pure, simple hamburgers or cheeseburgers. However, there is often the choice of a double burger – these come in varying degrees of lush, either there is the double patty or the third bun and double patty combo… needless to say I wasn’t keeping tabs on calories. I was, however, ever conscious of my budget – a £10 GBK burger wasn’t really in my financial grasp – this turned out to be OK really with my favourite double cheeseburger from Five Guys dubbed “the best $5 burger a man can buy” by GQ Magazine. The burger market seemed to be a sort of classist system – there was a slight difference in prices but the level of service and quality was miles better in say In’n’Out burger than in McDonalds or Burger King. The East Coast/West Coast divide between Five Guys and In’N’Out was a hard one to judge so I settled on the conclusion they are equally beautiful culinary institutions. The famous Hooter’s was a great experience (I even bought a classic Hooters vest to my companions’ despair) and it was the only place that I couldn’t finish a burger (what a feat). It turns out that the ever so slightly misogynistic food parlor has a male counterpart, Dick’s. This was truly a disaster: we walked in and the waiter started explaining to us how Dick’s was all about “sarcasm” whilst he threw our menus on the tables. I wasn’t really sure which definition of sarcasm he was getting at but decided to embrace the restaurant’s “kooky” approach… what a mistake – the food was fine but the poor waiter’s annoying jibe of “come get your soda yourself” fell on deaf ears. I did feel quite bad as he looked as dejected by the whole experience as we were – I guess we just didn’t get his wit.
Each different city had a form of “Fast Food” that drew me, only momentarily, away from my burger fetish. I won’t go into the $1 slices of Pizza and footlong hotdogs from New York because I’m still mourning their absence in my life. However, there were many other cities that had worthy fast food – the first being Virginia Beach with its deep fried crab sandwich. When you think of a crab you think of snapping the pincers and scooping out the delicious white meat; this crab meal was quite a different affair. They had deep-fried the crab till the point of no return; its shell had disintegrated into the batter and even the pincers were edible. Although I would recommend trying this at least once, I wasn’t a huge fan and was left feeling a little bereft of a crab’s usual freshness and taste. Nashville’s BBQ pulled pork sandwiches, on the other hand, were quite a different story – one sandwich was enough to fill two hungry travellers but we were tempted to order another just for the taste. If you ever find yourself in Music City and want to try one of these head down to Union 417 and share it! We found that the portions in America were monstrous and could be split between two, especially at ‘Mother’s’ of New Orleans where they sold their famous “Ferdi Special” – this has to be the pinnacle of my non-burger foods… a “Po’Boy” sandwich filled with baked ham, roast beef, gravy and debris, which is the roast beef that falls into the gravy whilst it is baking in the oven – it sounds grim but it makes the meal. The sandwich was hard to fit into your mouth and when the waiter first slammed the plate on the table I thought that he’d given us double but no, it truly was a monster. Despite being horribly full I still managed to fit in one of Mother’s beautiful Pecan Pies – if you can stomach it, definitely try both.
The phenomenon that is the constant filling up of your “soda” was one of the best culinary revolutions to have hit the Western world – but why, oh why, has it not affected the UK. Apart from this the drink situation was fairly average, they have the same “soda” with some extras (Mountain Dew isn’t really something to shout about however) and wine can only be bought in Liquor stores so I ended up drinking a lot of Coors Light, which was described by many fellow Englishmen as piss-water (I secretly really liked it). Their milkshakes were far superior however – but there was only one that brought boys to the yard and Kelis, it wasn’t yours – it was Jonny Rocket’s 780-calorie banana milkshake. Yellow in colour and so thick you can feel your arteries giving way with a scream of happiness. For over $6 it was a bit extravagant, especially as at that point I was living on a tenner a day but either way nothing could have been more worth it.
If you want to enjoy some amazing American Fast Food in the comfort of your home nation, go to Covent Garden to the new Flagship “Five Guys” restaurant – you will not regret it.