Y’see, my wife spent part of her upbringing on the moors of Scotland, and when she was in the States, she was at boarding school, which left her with a disturbing deficiency in one crucial area: the woman has absolutely no idea about American fast food joints.
Occasionally, she’ll be on the road by herself, and I’ll get a call on the cell phone: she is starving and just passed one of those blue freeway signs that advertise the next exit’s food options, and has no idea what to do. So I’m making this entry for her, a little Clip’n’Save™ piece she can cut out and tape to the dashboard just in case I’m not there to stop her from ordering a Whopper© at Wendy’s®.
I’m going to give each fast food restaurant a rating (out of 100) that incorporates all the major factors: the selection, the rendered animal-fat by-products, and whether or not it makes you want to barf. I’m leaving out regional choices (i.e., don’t you DARE go to Jack in the Box if there’s a Carl’s Jr. nearby), and restaurants where you have to get out of your car (sorry, pancakes at Cracker Barrel, although you are really yummy).
89 – McDonald’s
As much as it pains me to say it, McDonald’s is still the gold standard of fast food on America’s highways, although it should be noted that the category itself implies a staggeringly low bar. It’s still horrible stuff, but very consistent, and the bathrooms are your best bet. Fries have not changed since your childhood (nor, I suspect, the vat of oil each franchise uses) and remember, the Filet o’ Fish is still on the menu. Props for continuing the Shamrock Shake tradition, and you can actually get a salad or grilled chicken (very rare on the road).
82 – Quizno’s
A hidden gem, and not so common, these grilled sandwich places remind customers that Subway tastes like wet toilet paper. They have soups, and while they may lack for a fryer, their sandwiches occasionally veer into Awesome.
79 – Taco Bell
They have certainly tried every mathematical permutation of tortillas, beans, cheese, chicken and beef – but you can’t deny their basic commitment to mediocrity. With enough Medium™ sauce, pretty much everything remains vaguely interesting, even if the aftermath – especially in a closed car – can be somewhat Vesuvial.
73 – Wendy’s
There was a day when I would have put Wendy’s atop this list – their burgers were sensational and the fries were McDonald’s perfected. You can still get a baked potato or chili if you don’t want to get fat. But the quality control of this place has plummeted since owner Dave Thomas wriggled free of his mortal coil. Serves him right for shooting those kids at Kent State, huh?*
71 – Chick-fil-A
I know I’m supposed to love this place, having come of age in the South and all, but that “Chick-fil-A” experience everyone always talks about? It happens only every five times you go. The rest of the time, it’s a sad, small dry circle of undefined chicken on a large bun, with a tiny pickle added the way some folks add a veranda to their motor home. Plus, they’re no friend to women, gays and progressives.
70 – Subway
Subway only gets this high up the list because you can actually eat on the road in a “healthy” manner – assuming you get the turkey on wheat bread, or something similarly uninspiring. Despite some clever new bread offerings and a plethora of condiments, it has always amazed me that Subway manages to make roast beef and lettuce taste exactly the same.
65 – KFC
65 – Pizza Hut
Both KFC and Pizza Hut are just fine when you sit down and eat at the restaurant – I mean, “just fine” as in “still total crap, but pleasurable in its own way” – and KFC especially knows what it’s doing with the different “recipe” techniques. But translated to the road? HORRORSHOW. Fried chicken somehow manages to deconstruct at a cellular level once handed to you through a car window, and don’t even get me started on those burnt hockey puck disaster ovals masquerading as “to go” Pizza Hut pizzas.
61 – Burger King
If you absolutely have to have a burger, and you haven’t seen a McDonald’s in an hour – which means you’re driving on Mars’ tiny moon Phobos in a lunar rover – you could stop at Burger King, but it better be an emergency. Maybe it’s a druthers issue, but I find the flame-broil technique makes their hamburgers taste like coins.
57 – Del Taco
Oh god. If you thought the post-mortem hours following Taco Bell were rough, you really ought to experience Del Taco.
51 – Hardee’s
I have been starving, and not stopped at Hardee’s. I have been hoarse with thirst, and not stopped at Hardee’s. I have been close to bladder bursting, and not stopped at Hardee’s.
47 – Arby’s
Alas, poor Arby’s: so bad that Slate had to write about it. With disturbingly-uniform beef product shaved off what could only be the tongue of a galactic space monster, not even Horsey Sauce could make this experience less bleak. Arby’s is the antithesis of capitalism: don’t change with the marketplace, do one thing, and do it disastrously. I was going to score it 46, but to be that demoralizing takes a little chutzpah.
*probably didn’t happen. I said PROBABLY.