Friday, November 23, 2018

The Milepost

Place: Cook-Out
Lunch: Cook-Out Tray (Cheddar-style burger (add pickles & ketchup), onion rings, Chicken quesadilla), Cook-Out-style hot dog (no slaw), Cheerwine (hellz yeah!)

Everything you need to know to understand Cook-Out is in their dining room tables.

Cook-Out is a Southern chain that focuses on grilled foods as if they were made on an outside barbecue.  They serve burgers from fresh never frozen beef, chicken, hot dogs, BBQ pork, and, for some reason, quesadillas.  And 40 flavors of milkshakes, which I assume are NOT grilled.

Their version of a combo meal is a "Cook-Out Tray", which gets you a main menu item, TWO sides, and a drink.  The drink options at all 200+ stores includes Cheerwine, which would have been enough alone to draw me in.  The food is served unapologetically in a styrofoam clamshell with the burgers and quesadilla wrapped in foil.  And Cook-out is cheap...this whole lunch, including the Cook-Out style hot dog I added beyond the tray, was less than $9 even with tax.

The Cheddar-style burger has bacon, onions, and cheddar sauce.  The bacon is thick, crunchy, and flavorful.  The patty tastes legit home grilled.  The onions seem grilled too but not enough that they're soggy.  It isn't pretty. It isn't premium looking.  It's an unapologetic total in-your-face "screw you, i'm a burger, and I'm awesome" kind of burger.  And it is.

"Cook-Out Style" means chili, onions, and slaw, and that's what's on this dog (minus the slaw).  It also has a deli mustard.  Perfectly decent chili dog.  You can get the burger "Cook-Out Style" too.

The onion rings are good.  Nothing remarkable.

But the big surprise for me is the quesadilla.  It's really great.  Similar to Taco Bueno's.  Smaller, but just as good.  A single is an option as a side in the Cook-Out Tray.  If you order it as a main entree, they give you two of them.

Tradition for years has been to spend Thanksgiving weekend and the week after in Salt Lake City.  It's my biggest vacation of the year.  But it's not happening this year because next week is my last week of gainful employment.  Seemed silly to not show up.  So I'm on a four-day road trip to eat a couple of chili dogs I haven't had before.  Because chili dogs are synonymous with Thanksgiving.

Last week, I started going through papers and personal effects at my desk and ran into a folder full of stuff from years gone by.  Inside were a pile of old state road maps...the kind you used to get for free at rest areas...and a sheet I used to have on the wall of my office (back when I actually had a physical office in our nice building before we moved into the unremarkable dump we're in now where I have a desk in a cattle pen) called The Milepost.

Yep.  My favorite restaurants and the distance to their closest locations at the time.  This has to be at least ten years old, as a lot of this is inaccurate now.  Some have closer locations (one even in town now).  Some are now further away.  One entry isn't even in business at all anymore.

In 1978, my family packed into the late 60's VW Bus my dad had converted into a camper (a very convincing replica of an official VW camper) and took our last vacation together.  A 90-mile ferry ride and 3,700 road miles later, we arrived in his hometown.  After a  week of fun and mayhem with all the aunts and uncles and cousins, we headed back west to my hometown to see my mother's family before heading back up to catch the ferry back.  I was 12.  I wouldn't see the Midwest family again until I was an adult.

Being a pop culture fanatic on a remote island with no road access out (let alone being under driving age) made for a depressing childhood, particularly in the pre internet and social media days.  I was as alone as it got in the world.  So I often killed the hours by going down to my father's work after school, locking myself in the camper, and pouring over the old road maps, travel guides and brochures I collected on that trip.  Wishing I were anywhere but there.  In class, I used to draw depictions of interstate exits on the header of school assignment papers from the vantage point of approaching from the highway with big glorious signs of the era for everything from McDonald's to Stuckey's to the Holiday Inn Great Signs and the flashing crowns of Best Westerns popping up on the horizon.  The artwork was probably better than the school work turned in because paying attention in class is boring.  I drew hundreds of these.

My first great road trip of my own was at the age of 20 when I moved to the Midwest.  With the promise of a job awaiting, I packed all my personal belongings into my '75 VW Dasher Wagon and headed east.  Stayed in no-name motels with $19 rooms.  Subsided on McDonald's and 7-Eleven roller grills.  Broke down once (an issue solved with duct tape), and had all the car lights quit working (solved with fuse box fidgeting in cold howling winds in the dark at a Husky Travel Center.  Said fuse box, of course, was in the engine compartment, not inside the vehicle like most cars).

I loved every minute of it.  I was finally out there.  I was finally free.

Being out there became a way of life for me.   When the wanderlust hit and I craved some food from a distant land, I didn't go digging for a travel guide, I just went there.  At my high point, I was putting in excess of 50,000 miles on my cars annually.  It's sort of an obsession.  One of my greatest regrets in life is that I never got to experience Pup 'n' Taco.  That would have been my dream restaurant  Tacos and chili dogs in a 70's style wood panel dining room.  Doing my best to not make that mistake again.

And that's how I ended up at Cook-Out.  First heard of them a few months ago.  People raving about their food.  So here I am, having driven hundreds of miles to eat another burger, eat another chili dog.  I'll be doing the same thing tomorrow at G.D.Ritzy's, a nearly extinct chain I hear really shouldn't be.  And don't think I didn't take advantage of the Krystal down the street too.  It's been years since I've been near one of those.

My search for new work starts in January.  I'm taking December off.

Haven't made any specific plans, but I'll be out there.

Not sure where, but I'll be out there.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Last Straw

Place: McDonald's
Lunch: McRib, fries, Coke

Remember that time I told you about the area's ugliest McDonald's?  That's this one.  But it's getting an exterior remodel and will look like any modern McDonald's when finished.  The interior, which has the recent brown-brown-beige-brown-off brown-brown-brown-brown interior, apparently will remain...brown.

America is at war.

War with the plastic straw.

Not all of America, of course.  It's the latest environmental fad.  Because we don't need straws.  You can just drink from the cup.  We're filling the oceans with waste straws and it's KILLING EVERYTHING YOU FAT SELFISH CAPITALIST BASTARDS!!!!!!!!!

We're not, really.  According to National Geographic, eight million tons of plastic flow into the ocean every year.  Straws comprise just 0.025 percent of that.  But it's said this is the first step in trying to eliminate single-use plastics.  And yet it's the one single-use plastic I can think of in the restaurant industry that will anger more customers than anything else.  Not that this matters to the radical environmentalists, who found a bandwagon people will actually jump on, so who cares about common sense.  They've even gotten some municipalities to go as far as to ban plastic straws.

There are better ways to reduce.  I for one have stopped using cup lids when dining in.  If I refill the drink for the road, I just fill it a little less.  It rides in my cupholder just fine.  But sipping said cup while in motion from the rim?  No.  A straw is far safer.  You're not obscuring your view from the road with your cup.

And about those cups...why do they need to be plastic?  We did just fine with wax cups for years.  Why not go back to those?  You can't even throw them in the recycle bin, at least at my home.

But leave my freaking straw alone.

The best straws are those found at McDonald's and at Whataburger.  Very solid quality straws.  Just the right width.  From what I can tell, they're physically identical, only differentiated by stripe color (red and yellow at McD's, orange at Whataburger.)  I sometimes grab a few extra so I can have spares in the car in case I end up with a milkshake from a place with inferior straws.

There's also reusable straws,  I have a few made of aluminum that were branded and sold at convenience stores.  Use it, rinse it out, stick it in your purse or up your butt, pull it out at the next restaurant.

Think drinking from a straw that was up your butt will make your drink taste like ass?  Try a paper straw, which is being offered as an alternative.  That's even worse.

Until common sense prevails, if any McDonald's or Whataburger store is finding themselves in need of getting rid of their straw supply, I'll happily take a box off your hands.

Look at what you've done, America.  You've created a straw hoarder.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Not So Bueno

Place: Taco Mayo
Lunch: Crispy beef taco, 3-cheese chicken quesadilla melt, refried beans, ice water

I haven't had Taco Mayo in forever.  I thought the entire chain had folded.  Every location I'd ever been to had closed.  But the other day I thought to look them up online and found they're still out there, albeit only half the chain they used to be with around 50 locations left, most of which would require me to go out of my way to get to one.  They used to number around 100.  They used the classic "concentrate on quality over quantity" excuse on all the store closures.  The support group for management of such chains living with that denial meet Tuesdays in the carcass of the local abandoned Sears.

The mostly Oklahoma Taco Mayo is your typical fast food cheap eats Mexican place with tacos that barely have any meat in them (though the guy who made this one was unusually generous), burritos, nachos, and that traditional Mexican dish known as tater tots. re branded to give them that south of the border stereotype  (Mexi Fries, Potato Ole's, or in this case, Potato Locos).  Taco Mayo is also now apparently trying to be Chipotle with a "Fresh Mex" menu where you go down the line and dictate how your burrito is made with ingredients outside the typical Taco Mayo line.  Yeah...not bothering with that.  The classics are perfectly decent. Though even the classics are now made on said line.

The thing that triggered my memory of Taco Mayo was another surprise in the fast food taco world...Taco Bueno filed for bankruptcy this week.

172 unit Taco Bueno has been my favorite of the fast food taco chains the past couple of years.  The chain was founded by Bill Waugh, the guy who also brought us the legendary Casa Bonita.  Taco Bueno was owned by CKE, the parent company of Hardee's and Carl's Jr, when I first tried them out  CKE was in the process of revitalizing the brand with a new logo and some really out there new building designs and remodels, something the media and customers liked to compare to something out of The Jetson's.  CKE eventually had to sell Bueno off to reduce debt and focus its sights on the disaster that was Hardee's.  Taco Bueno was flipped through a number of capital investment firms., all of whom have toned down the hipness CKE broought to the table.

Taco Bueno attempted expansion in a number of Midwest markets outside their comfort zone in the early 2000's that mostly crashed and burned.  There were five in Omaha and Lincoln for awhile, there's none now.  There were six in Wichita, there's one left.  There were five in Colorado Springs, those are all gone.  There were once as many as eight in Kansas City, there's three left.  And so on.

The official restructuring plan involves a scheme were a real restaurant company who operates a bunch of franchises of known national outlets (none of which are Taco Bueno) bought their debt, is loaning them some operating cash, and will ultimately swap the debt for the equity.


We'll see, I guess.  They say there will be no store closures...Taco Bueno closed 16 locations just recently in advance of this...but you can bet that'll change once the new company takes over.  I'm sure they'll get rid of nearly everything corporate run outside of Texas and Oklahoma.

If you ask fans of the brand (known as Buenoheads) where everything went wrong, they'll point directly at the queso.  Taco Bueno changed their queso recipe recently and those who hate it REALLY REALLY hate it.  (I for one like it just fine, but if they reverted to the old stuff, it wouldn't bother me either.)

Taco Bueno brags of having real cooks in real kitchens who prepare everything fresh daily.  Sounds Chipotle-like, but it's Taco Bell quality food.  There's your usual tacos and burritos, "Muchacos" (think Gordita), nachos, and quesadillas.  There are full dinner platter variations where rice and beans are included.  And there are value items mostly smaller versions of the mainline items usually labeled "party size".  Each location has a salsa bar to spike your food with.

I have current and past Bueno favorites.  Their Mucho Nachos are my favorite nachos.  Where some chains have gone fancy with theirs, Taco Bueno sticks with the classic chips, nacho cheese, beef, beans, sour cream, chili sauce, and tomatoes. I love Bueno's chili sauce.  It's actually more like chili than red enchilada sauce.  The Big Freaking Taco is another favorite of mine.  It's kind of my replacement for Del Taco's long gone Ultimate Taco, which may have been the most perfect taco ever made.  Bueno also makes my favorite chicken quesadilla.  The creamy zesty sauce they use really makes it.

Past menu items start with their chicken tortilla soup, my second favorite behind Qdoba's.  It was a regular menu item, then became a seasonal item for a couple of years, then they just quit making it.  That's their most missed menu item based on comments on their Facebook page.  They also used to do a really good chili pie, basically a bowl of Fritos topped in taco meat and chili sauce.  So simple, yet so amazing.

So here's hoping I get to keep a little Bueno in my life.  It sounds like I will, but I might have to drive further to get to one.

I should just move to Texas or Oklahoma.

So many good tacos.