I’ve got a bit of a split personality when it comes to fast food. Most times, I hate the stuff. It’s processed, homogenised, downright bad for you, and I blame it (and I’m not alone) for causing my dual home countries – America and Australia – to be the two fattest countries in the world. I stay away from fast food whenever I can.
And then there are those times when I’m in a rush. Suddenly, only fast will do. We’re talking those 10 minutes I have at the airport between connecting flights (and on a plane that I know will cook me even worse food), when I need a quick bite on the way to a meeting, or those inevitable road trips where gas, food and a pitstop is on the cards. That’s when I drop my fast-food loathing and give in to the creature comforts of the Golden Arches and other near-instant delicacies.
I only started thinking about fast food this morning because Esquire magazine came out with a poll of top US chefs about their go-to fast food, and the largest percentage selected California’s In-N-Out Burger chain. It even got the nod from Thomas Keller, chef of the country’s top-rated restaurants, Per Se and The French Laundry. Iron Chef America’s Alton Brown and TV celeb chef Tyler Florence were also among the In-N-Out faithful. What makes it even more impressive is that the California-born burger chain is only located in four states in the American Southwest. That is some serious regional burger patriotism. I have friends from LA, so I’ve seen the loyalty first-hand, and the photo above is from my sole Inn-N-Out experience in San Fransisco in May. It was, well, a good burger: a step up from Mickey D’s, a step down from Shake Shack.
The Esquire poll did get me thinking about my own preferred fast food joint. Or joints, at it may be. As I’ve got dual residency, I thought it appropriate to pick one for each of my ‘hometowns': New York and Sydney.
When I’m in New York, there’s no denying that my ultimate fast food is pizza, and it’s not fast unless you’re talking about by-the-slice operators, so we’ll leave the likes of Di Fara’s, Una Pizza Napoletana and Keste aside for slower-food mullings. As I live across the Hudson River in Hoboken, you’ll find me at Benny Tudino’s pizzeria (pictured above) more often than any other eatery in the metro area. I’ve been coming to Benny’s for 20 years now, and it’s always been a reliable spot for a quality, monster-sized slice (from a 26-inch pizza!) at a ridiculously low price – where else can I get a satisfying meal for $3.75? Even cheap Chinese costs more and takes longer. Benny’s is a veritable Hoboken instituion, and it gets my vote for being both a great product and for being geographically desirable. If you don’t know where it is, just ask the cops – they’re long-time regulars.
When I’m in Manhattan, I don’t have as much loyalty when it comes to pizza slices, but the venue that probably scores the highest frequency is Joe’s Pizza in the West Village, located on the corner of Carmine Street and Bleeker. It’s got a choice of plain cheese or Sicilian slices, uses good-quality cheese and has a nicely flavoured, sweet-yet-simple tomato sauce. I never plan to go to Joe’s, I just usually wander there as a last-minute, late-night decision. That means I never look at the website, but I did today to research this post and discovered that they have expanded to three other locations: one in Brooklyn, and two in Los Angeles. And even though I only know Joe’s as a local joint, it’s apparently gained a level of superstar status since it got a cameo in the Spiderman 2 movie, with Peter Parker (in the guise of Tobey Maguire) working a delivery job there. Who knew?
Other pizzerias used to get my patronage: Famous Famiglia before it went for world franchise domination, and Famous Ray’s of Greenwich Village – the true, original Ray’s on 6th Ave and 11th St that inspired all of the other imitators across Manhattan. I’ve been back to Famous Rays a couple of times, but I have to say I found the cheesy slices were pretty bland.
As for Australia, that’s an even easier choice. No fast food gets my cravings going more than a double Bondi Burger from the Sydney-born Portuguese chicken chain, Oporto. We’re talking two, thin, crispy-grilled chicken fillets with lettuce, tomato, mayo and just enough of a chilli hit make your cheeks go misty. I don’t know what’s in the “secret” chilli sauce, but Wikipedia says it’s a “piri-piri sauce made from chilli, ginger, lemon and garlic”. That’s probably close, but I reckon there’s also a dash of sugar in there and maybe something else to add that je ne sais quoi that makes it so damn good. Oporto’s thick-cut fries are also ever-pleasing and should be sent to Burger King (Hungry Jacks in Australia) so the latter can see where they went wrong.
Fast-food longings aside, let’s all do ourselves a favour. Let’s not make fast food a regular habit. Save it for those rare, cherished moments when we’re running from work to a party, or driving hours up the highway to get to a beautiful beach or ski mountain. Let’s support those seldom, even special breaks from our usual dining patterns. Life’s all about balance, right?
So what about you? Do you have a fast-food craving? Fess up in the comments section below, and together we can spread the guilty pleasures around.