SG | Somewhere along the line, I began judging restaurants by the quality of their sides. Anyone can do a meat or a main course, I figure, but to really nail that side of asparagus and make it memorable in its own right? That takes skill. This belief truly took hold in a Nepalese restaurant where the eggplant far outshone the chicken. I mean it was really good eggplant — I’ve never looked at one the same since.
But with this as my barometer, one could imagine all fast food burger options begin to blur together. I have my favorites, but when push comes to shove I can enjoy a Whopper (with cheese, of course) just as much as an In-N-Out burger, Five Guys, or whatever other trending burgers might be out there. The burger will be fine, and I’ll eat it with fries. Milo’s begins to rise above the others a bit, but it holds to the same formula.
And then there’s Cook Out.
My wife spent her high school years in Raleigh, and my first experience with Cook Out came on a trip down to visit her parents. There’s one in Oxford off I-85, and we stopped on the drive home. It was a really good burger. It made an impression. Enough that when we moved down here I made a point to seek out Cook Out once more.
The regional chain got its start in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1989 and has since found its way to eight other Southern states (plus Maryland). There are more than 200 of them out there, so there’s a good chance that if you’re in the South, you’re within driving distance. You can’t miss the red and yellow billboards.
Their marketing strategy is fine — fresh beef, grilled “out door style,” a meal for under five bucks, etc. etc. But I think they’re missing their core strength: Your burger will come with essentially any food item you can blurt out. Pair that with a double-sided drive through where you may find yourself yelling across the passenger seat, and the experience is downright surreal. Potentially overwhelming if you’re not prepared, so consider this post a public service announcement.
Their typical combo (the Cook Out Tray) comes with two sides, so yes, you’ll get fries. But after that, options open way up. There’s the standard for a step-above fast food place, like slaw, onion rings, chili and hushpuppies. But then it just gets gluttonous. Chicken nuggets. A chicken wrap. A bacon wrap? A corndog. Quesadillas. IT IS AMAZING.
At first, you’ll hesitate. You may chuckle a bit out loud as you strain against your seat belt to be heard through the passenger window. “Huh … yeah, I guess I’ll have fries and, I don’t know … can I just double up on fries?” But then one day, likely when you’re alone, you’ll break. Those hushpuppies sure sound good. And why can’t you have a few nuggets with your burger? It’s a slippery slope right into the day you find yourself, as I did on one lunch break, double-fisting a loaded, Big Double burger and a corndog slathered in yellow mustard. Each clutched above my greasy steering wheel at respective 10 and 2 positions.
It was tough to go back into work that day.
If you’re a little extra perceptive at fast food restaurants, you can start to pick up on local preferences. It’s subtle, like when they ask if you want a Coke instead of leaving the option to you, until it’s not. Like when they asked if I wanted a Dr. Pepper and barbecue sauce at a Wendy’s south of Charlotte. I most certainly did not, but kind of them to make that assumption for me.
I like to think that, along these lines, the second-side choice at Cook Out serves as a very real gauge of our society. I need some data to back this up, but I’ll bet during a recession they serve more double orders of fries than anything. Life is good when that deep fryer basket is kept packed with corndogs.
At the original Greensboro Cook Out, as it so happens, the number one second-side is chicken nuggets, according to one manager. That’s fine. It’s the sensible option, really. Personally, I would have hoped the answer to be corndogs, the care-free, carny food option. I like to think we’ll get there.
Just keep it in mind the next time you pull up to a Cook Out and begin crafting the perfect tray combo. Go ahead. Order the corndog, and nudge that data just a bit more in the right direction.
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