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.