The Secret Chain Restaurant and Fast-Food Shame of an Englishman

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You see all those chain restaurants, Dallas? All those bright shiny lights, beckoning you in to eat products of a questionable providence at a price so reasonable there's no need to go home and time-consumingly construct a meal for your baying, hungry, ungrateful family? You grew up around them (the restaurants, not the family, although presumably you know them quite well too). You know what happens there, what the deal is, what to expect (still the restaurants, not the family members. Focus now). Imagine if all this was alien to you -- if everything you knew about fast food and chain restaurants had been changed.

Imagine, if you will, moving 5,000 miles away, from a country where Papa John's pizza was a new arrival that was considered really quite an exotic pizza choice, to a place such as Dallas where neon food advertising coats the sides of the road, and there is no freeway exit without something that will only serve to knock valuable years off your life. All these places would seem infinitely more appealing to you. They'd have an air of mystery, that irresistible "Americana" the world is so desperate to capture. Deep down, you'd know that they were places serving reheated frozen food via surly staff members in demeaning clothing, but that wouldn't stop you. You'd have to try them all. And so I have. Here are my findings.

Firstly, and let's get this out the way up front, Waffle House is incredible. Pancakes, waffles, hash browns, bottomless coffee, bacon everywhere you look. Always a friendly greeting, always open, it kind of melds the "I need somewhere to sober up now" venue with the "Jesus, it's three in the afternoon and I still have a hangover, let's eat something" place into one glorious palace of heart attack. That, and it's mind-blowingly cheap and cheerful. I mean, the Waffle House Index is an actual real life rating of how ravaged a disaster-hit area is, simply because they will never close, come rain, shine, plague or apocalypse. Plus, it's "real" -- customers of a Waffle House invariably look like that's where they spend a lot of their time, like if you'd cast a movie that featured a Waffle House, they would have all been chosen by the casting agent. It's far superior in my mind to IHOP, which, while fancier, is overpriced and feels more like a sanitized restaurant. Plus, the hash browns aren't as good. Four dollars for a huge plate of hash browns with everything you can find in the back of the restaurant piled on it? Sold.

I also really like Arby's. The sheer amount of beef and cheese you can get in one of their "deli" "sandwiches" (both of those words are questionably employed) is both awful and great, much like every show on TLC. Anywhere that does a dollar Oreo milkshake in a tiny cup, and then puts a straw in the milkshake that is five times the size of the cup thus making you look simultaneously like a midget and a giant, gets my vote. It's a nightmare of perspective that tastes like cookies. Chili's is fine by me, with $4 gigantic margaritas and a plethora of cheese. My wife is scarily obsessed with their Southwestern Egg Rolls. Denny's also gets my seal of approval for the sheer brass neck of having an entire menu dedicated to bacon, topped with a maple bacon ice-cream sundae. Really, everything I hoped about America is true. I am free to combine savory with sweet, as long as the savory is bacon and the sweet will kill me.

As far as fast food-burgers go (we already had McDonalds and Burger King so I essentially have ignored them, much like I did in the UK), Kellers on Harry Hines does an incredible burger for pretty much no money whatsoever. I prefer it to Whataburger and In And Out, and I find In And Out particularly terrifying -- ordering everything "Animal Style" is a sure-fire route to an early grave. Kellers also comes with the added bonus of you being forced to sit in the car while they cook it and bring it to you. This is another alien experience that makes me chuckle and feel like I'm somewhere really foreign. While I'm on in-car experiences (a sentence I never saw myself typing), drive-through banking? What the fuck happened there? I can't even reach the ATM from my car window, and there's no ATM inside for me to calmly use, instead I must flail at a screen I can't see while a series of angry cars releasing fumes into the atmosphere wonder how I can possibly be taking so long. It's a nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions. I have ended up parking alongside the flippin' thing, getting out the car and using it like a normal sodding ATM.

Positive food over. Wendy's and Applebee's both absolutely blow, especially Applebee's which I think is trying to pull off a TGI Friday's style menu at the same cost with worse quality food (we have TGI Friday's in the UK too, I told you we liked Americana). Taco Bell is just bizarre, not being too familiar with "Mexican" food anyway (and I'm sure Taco Bell barely qualifies as Mexican food). I mean, a taco made out of one massive Dorito? What sort of waking horror have I stumbled into? Will my insides ever recover? KFC has somehow managed to be worse than its UK incarnation, which was hardly a temple of chicken to start with -- the chicken is drier, the coating is less interesting, and there's no baked beans on the menu, just biscuits in gravy, whatever the hell that is. All the other places I've tried are not awful, just a bit "meh"... either not very interesting or overpriced for what they are.

By way of closing, my wife, a fellow Brit who is much funnier than me, has adapted Shakespeare to express our true love, as a family, for the Waffle House. Please picture this as a dramatic soliloquy delivered by Kenneth Branagh in front of a roaring fireplace, in the dead of night.

Shall I compare thee to Wendy's? Thou art more tasty and more laureate. Wendy's serve no hash browns with ham and cheese The breakfast there is quick to terminate. Sometimes too hot Texas heavens do shine Or the metroplex is wrought with harsh wind; And every restaurant shutter doth decline, All dinner plans, once made, are then rescind; But thy tenacity shall never fade, Nor lose possession of that grill thou ow'st, The destitute seek comfort in thy shade, When eternal needs in mans hearts do grow'st. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives waffles to thee.

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