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I never met a Whopper, a Chalupa, or a Slider that I didn’t like. When it comes to fast food, I am either fearless or profoundly stupid. I am allergic to nothing. Add this to the fact that I have a low tolerance for alcohol and a fairly casual attitude about what constitutes a proper meal, I am a cheap date.
I understand it’s possible to dine out without spending a lot of money or sacrificing nutrition. But sometimes, I just don’t care. I love the organic mesclun greens from Stanley’s as much as the next person, but sometimes you just want a bowl of 5-way chili from Chili Mac’s. You’ll have a lovely salad at Star of Siam, but take your Thai iced coffee with a shot of Kahlua. This is why fast food exists — to satisfy quickly and almost painlessly an itch that would probably be better left unscratched.
Ordinarily, a craving for grease, salt, and sugar can be satisfied with a trip to McDonald’s or to “Kentucky Fried Panda” (which you “Simpsons” fans will recognize as Panda Express), but sometimes a Polish from Portillo’s can’t answer the call for a frank from Gray’s Papaya.
Chicago, I love you, but I would love you a little more if the following jewels bedazzled your culinary crown.
Culver’s is more than the ButterBurger. After the salads (which no one actually orders) and the fish sandwiches, they sling a frozen custard which is so good I forget my own name while enjoying a cup. I find that the ice cream at Coldstone Creamery is a good substitute for the custard, but I haven’t yet found a city counterpart to the ButterBurger.
When I visit Los Angeles, I must do three things: buy shoes at Sportie LA, gawk at celebrities over drinks at the Chateau Marmont, and get a burger “Animal Style” at In-N-Out.
Animal Style is one of the items on the In-N-Out secret menu that is a secret to exactly no one. What isn’t a secret is the freshness of the ingredients — I swear that an In-N-Out tastes fresher, more immediate than any burger I’ve ever had in Chicago. A bold statement, I know, but I swear this is true.
A couple years ago, I celebrated the birthday of a co-worker by surprising him with a card signed by his favorite colleagues and an ice cream cake from the undercover downtown Dairy Queen. I ordered the cake that morning during a break, and picked it up in time for some mid-afternoon snacking. As it was August, the two block walk back to work was enough to soften the rock hard ice cream but nothing could make up for the fact that the “cake” was in fact a mass of cookie crumbs pressed into a rectangle then spackled together with DQ soft serve. Much love to DQ, but a Fudgie the Whale from East Coast chain Carvel never would have wilted in such heat. Also, who doesn’t love a cake in the shape of a large aquatic mammal?
When it’s 4 in the morning and you find yourself in the middle of Manhattan with $1.50 in your pocket, which is all you’ll have left after a long night of drinking, go to Papaya King (or Gray’s Papaya on the Upper West side). Get yourself a frank and a papaya drink. Not only do you have something solid for your stomach (the frank) and something liquid to rehydrate you (if you get orange drink instead of papaya, that’s a strike against scurvy!), the food is portable, so you can walk around and sober up before your 7 a.m. flight back home.
Pollo Campero is actually in Chicago but for carless wonders like me it may as well be in Guatemala, which is where the restaurant originates. The long bus trip is well worth it, and if you can find a friend to drive you out to the Brickyard Mall, even better. Once there, you’ll find the restaurant (which is quick service, not fast food, meaning you order at a counter but your food is brought to your table) full of people of various colors, ages, shapes, and sizes, chowing down on chicken so delicious you’ll wonder how you got along without it. The sides are nothing to scoff at — plantains and beans and rice are a wonderful complement. The special chicken spice rub is a secret known to few, but the the chicken is loved by all who encounter it.
It’s not often that I get to eat Filipino food. There is no big old Filipinotown where Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike can shop for pig’s blood and dried anchovies at their convenience. Filipino restaurants being so few in this city, Jollibee would make a welcome addition to the bunch. Jollibee is the number one food chain in the Philippines, serving everything from burgers to Palabok, a wicked confection of “bihon noodles topped with a special pork-shrimp sauce, garnished with pork strips, shrimps, toasted garlic, flaked smoked fish, pork cracklings, and sliced eggs”. An unlikely combination to be sure, but it’s so uniquely Filipino that the mere fact that a big chain like Jollibee can do it well is a revelation.
When was the last time you had anything so inspiring at Burger King?