Before I started full-time at Paste back in the fall, in a position that now pays me to drink copious amounts of beer and watch bad movies, I think it’s safe to say I was living a fairly pedestrian existence. No trips to the Great American Beer Festival? No interviews with horror legends like John Carpenter? What was I even doing on a daily basis, anyway?
Well, as it turns out, one of the things I did do was write about awful fast food. I did that a lot, because the Americana of the fast food industry simply has a weird appeal for me—horrifying, in a “love to hate” sort of way. Also: Journalists don’t make much, despite what you may have heard, so yes, I ate plenty of fast food sandwiches out of necessity while working in newspapers for the last five years. And in doing so, I studied the landscape, wrote pithy little humor columns about the inherent absurdity of fast food chains, and ended up surprisingly well-versed in the subject—all while managing to not balloon to astronomical size, for reasons beyond my ken.
My fast food exposure was limited by one key factor, however: Location. Residing in Central Illinois, selection was on the limited side. Sure, I could have stopped at a few new places during one of many trips to Chicago, but my interest in fast food isn’t that enduring, to choose it over actual, decent, real dishes. Fast food is what you eat out of convenience, necessity … or morbid curiosity.
And so it was when I arrived in Atlanta, with morbid curiosity running rampant. I was eager to try all of the new chains, if only to get a feel for the landscape and know which, if any, I might return to regularly in the future. In the last few months, I’ve gone out of my way to try as many of the staples as possible, and in the process I’ve inevitably compared them to the regional or national chains I had access to back in Illinois. What follows are my totally unbiased conclusions.
Compare to: KFC, McDonald’s
Chick-fil-A is the undisputed queen of Southern fast food, although within the last year it’s also passed national competitors such as KFC to become the nation’s most dominant chicken purveyor, controversy or no. With that said, I never saw them in Central Illinois, so the move to the chain’s Atlanta headquarters was like walking into Chick-fil-A’s stronghold for me.
It’s actually a bit tough to compare them to another national chain, because it’s not an equal equation with KFC (which offers full, bone-in fried chicken first and foremost) or McDonald’s (which is of course a burger place that does chicken sandwiches). Chick-fil-A carved its niche by specifically hammering chicken sandwiches and boneless chicken tenders, and as a result its typical menu is really quite limited, with only a few semi-novel “wraps” and such in addition to the chicken sandwiches.
The only real place to judge it, then, is the quality of the chicken, and in that … it’s okay? I find Chick-fil-A’s actual chicken quality to fall somewhere in the middle, with a breading that is a bit on the bland side and rarely seems have any crisp, crunch or ability to adhere to the meat. The waffle fries, on the other hand, are pretty awesome, and are reason enough to visit on occasion. I’m also still on a quest to try the highly touted “chicken biscuit,” which you can only get before 10:30 a.m.—this seems unlikely, as it would require ungodly hours of operation from me.
All of this is missing the real point, though, and I’m about to hijack this space to praise an entirely different chicken chain: Zaxby’s. Also focusing on chicken sandwiches and tenders, Zaxby’s simply does chicken better. The breading is more flavorful, crispy and crunchy. The crinkle-cut fries are excellent, on par with Chik-Fil-A’s waffles. There’s a reason they’ve grown to 600 locations despite being a much more recent phenomena—they’re like what Chick-Fil-A should be. Given a choice between the two, I’ll go with Zaxby’s every time. It’s some of the best fast food chicken I’ve had.
Compare to: IHOP
It would be hard for me to overstate the density of Waffle Houses in the Atlanta area. To begin with: There’s one directly next to the Paste office. If you stand in the parking lot of that Waffle House and gaze to the west, you can see a Waffle House museum a few blocks down the road. In fact, if you were to climb say, a five-story building anywhere within city limits and look out at the city around you, chances are excellent that you’ll lay eyes on at least one Waffle House, if not two. They are utterly ubiquitous, more common here than any other restaurant I’ve ever seen, even in the most McDonald’s-dominated neighborhoods. And yet, believe it or not, I’d never tried Waffle House a single time before arriving in the South, because you simply don’t see them in Central Illinois.
So how does your typical Waffle House compare to say, an IHOP? Well, it’s a bit cheaper, which is nice—I laugh every time I see the “All-Star Special” on the menu with its slashed prices, like you’re at a car lot and the waiter is haranguing you with “What can I do to put these hash browns on your plate TODAY?” The trade-off seems to be in the quality department—the waffles are simply flabby and boring (the specialty ones are a bit better), and even your typical IHOP pancake is more appealing. There aren’t as many Southern specialties as you might expect to find on the menu, which is streamlined toward simplicity. The Waffle House atmosphere is a cheaper, more relaxed, homier one that invokes diner culture to create an egg assembly line where you sort of just queue up to the counter and receive an intensely greasy mystery breakfast item. The sandwiches, meanwhile, almost have a Steak ‘n Shake vibe to them, all assembled on toast, but once again they’re lagging several steps behind in the flavor department.
Ultimately, your reason for going to Waffle House is going to end up being convenience and accessibility. That, or it’s 2 a.m. and you’re drunk. Almost any other locally owned diner or breakfast restaurant would surely be better. But do they have a location next door to your office? Didn’t think so.
Compare to: White Castle
The founders of the Atlanta-based Krystal were apparently “inspired” by visiting a White Castle location, which explains why the brand comes off as an almost note-for-note carbon copy of most of the White Castle game plan, with one notable variation—none of it is any good. Seriously. At its best, White Castle is a hedonistic guilty pleasure that devotees will drive across state lines to attain. Visit the corporate website and you can share videos detailing your own cravings and the despicable things you would do to family members/orphans if they stood between you and one of those tiny little burgers. For Krystal, though, something seems to have gone terribly wrong in the translation.
It doesn’t seem possible that the gap in quality would be so pronounced when the two appear more or less the same, but for whatever reason, its inextricably there. The average Krystal burger is like a White Castle burger that has gone through that soul-sucking machine in The Princess Bride, draining away the flavor while somehow leaving all the ill-advised health decisions intact. You might think you could salvage it with toppings, but the cheese sits there like a blanket of unmelted Kraft Single artificiality, and if you ask for mustard they’ll give you more net weight in condiment than meat on each burger. The fries, adding insult to injury, are thin, stringy, limp, soggy. Everything about the place screams “You need to be drunk to appreciate this,” to the extent that I’m surprised they don’t test your BAC when you enter to ensure you’re tispy enough to place an order. Hoping for a White Castle replacement in my backyard, Krystal was likely my greatest disappointment.
Next: Southern spins on Mexican and seafood
Compare to: Chipotle
A brand I’d never even heard of until arriving in Atlanta, Moe’s now has close to 600 locations, and they’re doing a fine job of tackling the fast casual Mexican food market that Chipotle has such a grip on nationwide, growing to rival another competitor such as Qdoba in size.
In comparison to Chipotle, Moe’s locations have a bit of a zanier aesthetic and less marketing copy spent promoting their authenticity or responsibility in sourcing ingredients. Rather, you’ve got menu items named after Seinfeld and Caddyshack references. The upside is that Moe’s is typically measurably less expensive than comparable dishes at a Chipotle, with one more great bonus: Free chips and salsa! Thank you, Moe’s, for not gouging for chips, something you could never get for free at a Chipotle or Qdoba. It’s such a small inclusion to throw in a basket of tortilla chips, but it makes a big customer impression.
The ingredients for your taco or burrito, meanwhile, might not be quite as high-quality as what you’re getting in your Chipotle burrito, but this is one arena where you’re not likely to remark too negatively on the difference. Moe’s simply comes off as wanting to offer an outstanding value with a minimum of fuss, and it does that very well.
Compare to: Long John Silver’s
I don’t think I really understand Captain D’s on any level. The brand is a competitor to Long John Silver’s, founded the same year but with only about 15 percent as many stores. The menus, save for a little bit of Southern flair when it comes to the side items, are borderline identical. You could probably put the pieces of fried fish and “planks” of chicken side by side with Long John Silver’s items, and you wouldn’t be able to tell they came from two different companies.
It’s not just appearance, either—the food is functionally the same as a Long John Silver’s menu, which is to say it’s horrendously unhealthy but a weird sort of guilty pleasure that I’ll indulge roughly once a year on average. It’s the greasiest, heaviest fried Fishlike Meat in the world, and it will send you home to lay on the couch and reconsider your life choices. But in terms of comparing it to Long John Silver’s, it’s a dead heat.
Compare to: KFC, Popeye’s
Church’s is a national chain, but you find them in much greater concentration in the South, and I’d never seen a single one in Central Illinois. In theory, they’re essentially offering the same basic product lineup (perhaps a bit smaller, more tightly chicken-focused, and with more soul food sides) that you’d find at a KFC—in theory. In execution, the food is a bit of a mess.
One expects fast food fried chicken to be greasy, fatty, simultaneously disgusting and irresistible, but Church’s chicken takes this well past the point of diminishing returns. The breading is so choked with grease that it’s simply rendered a soggy mess, and there’s so much of it that you’ll be at a loss when it comes to identifying exactly which piece of the chicken you’re supposedly holding. Until this moment, I’d never seen a bone-in chicken breast that just looked like a round, softball-sized sphere of breading. Now I have. I see no series of events that will likely lead to me eating in a Church’s again.
Compare to: Boston Market, maybe?
I was familiar with the concept of a “meat and three” in Illinois, but it wasn’t the sort of thing you actually saw on a regular basis. Now, there’s one right across the street, and I eat there more than I care to admit.
The name comes from the meal you construct yourself from a cafeteria-style lineup, starting with a main protein in the Southern tradition such as meatloaf, baked chicken, or just about any other meat that can be cruelly smashed into loaf form. You might even choose a vegetarian dish that has been drenched in butter to avoid the delivery of any accidental nutrients, and then supplement it with up to three sides that have also been drenched in butter, because “we melted a big tub of it this morning, and dammit, we’re gonna use it.”
Suffice to say, meat and threes can be awesome, as long as you don’t mind the vegetables being thoroughly scrubbed of any nutritional content. Or “macaroni and cheese” being considered a vegetable by some of the customer base.
Compare to: Burger King
Ah, finally something comforting—Burger King is just as pathetically uncreative here as they are everywhere else. It’s good to know that some things never change.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he actually doesn’t eat fast food quite as often as this piece would imply. When he does, however, you will hear about it. You can follow him on Twitter.