Consider the McDonald's french fry. It's a cliché, yes, but these fries really are crispy on the outside and soft and mealy on the inside, tossed with salt straight out of the deep-fat fryer and served in a little cardboard cup while they're still hot. They might be the best $1.79 you'll ever spend.
Or what about Wendy's Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger? For $1.19, you get a beef patty topped with applewood-smoked bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayo. It fits perfectly in your hand while you're driving -- the bun sturdy enough to hold together, but still soft enough to absorb the juices and give a bit in your mouth. It's the platonic ideal of car food.
Living in L.A., you're not supposed to admit that you like fast food. You're supposed to be healthy; you're supposed to do yoga. It's far more acceptable, surely, to admit to the occasional late-night cigarette than a fondness for combo meals, extra ketchup please.
And yet fast-food drive-thrus are everywhere in L.A., just like everywhere else. Someone is eating this food. And it's not just the tourists.
Let me out myself. My name is Sarah, and I love fast food.
I love Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers, and Sourdough Jacks at Jack in the Box, and the In-n-Out cheeseburger done animal-style, and, OMG, everything at Pollo Loco (HOW LUCKY IS CALIFORNIA TO HAVE THAT?). I love McDonald's fries so much that, after traveling abroad, it's the Golden Arches I immediately head to after landing at LAX. I love fast food so much, in fact, that I'll even make the occasional Taco Bell pit stop -- even though everyone knows you try to avoid the fast-food places that serve Pepsi instead of Coke. (The one place I won't eat at? Burger King. Dude, have you seen how pathetic their squashed old buns and nasty light-pink tomatoes are looking these days?)
Of course the arguments against fast food are strong. It isn't good for us. It isn't good for the Earth, or those poor slaughterhouse-destined cows. Plus, eating at a franchise, a place that is almost exactly the same whether it's in Los Angeles or Los Alamos, is homogenizing once-vibrant cities even as it consigns yet another generation to tedious jobs asking if we want fries with that.
I get all that. And overall, if I had a choice between the omakase menu at Orsa & Winston or McDonald's, of course I'm picking Orsa & Winston. If I could eat either a steak at CUT or a lamp-warmed Crunchwrap Supreme, I'd take the steak.
But that's not the choice I'm making on the days I pick fast food.
I eat at the city's best restaurants quite a bit. I go there to meet friends, to celebrate, to marvel at what our top chefs are up to. But on all-too-packed work days, or after a 7 p.m. meeting runs into 9:30, when I'm stuck contemplating the long ride back to my apartment in the winter's dark, I'm not looking to sit down in a convivial room and I'm not looking for innovation. I'm looking to eat -- quickly, cheaply, comfortably.
Despite what the scolds will try to tell you, most of us fast food lovers aren't Morgan Spurlock, stuffing our face with extra value meals day after day, breakfast lunch and dinner, until we're so gross we need a master cleanse. Gaining 24.5 pounds in a single month is a stunt -- not life in this fast-food nation.
Instead the person you see pulling into the drive-thru is a busy person, in a hurry, who decided that instead of buying a salad from Trader Joe's, this one day a week (or, OK, two or three), she's going to give herself a little treat. And so she's going to stay in her car. She's going to tell the little box what she wants. She's going to pull up to the cashier 90 seconds later and be charged less than $6 and handed a slightly greasy bag of happiness.
And then she's going to eat something that's salty and cheesy and, yes, slathered in mayo. She's going to be alone in her thoughts, with her french fries, as she sits in the interminable L.A. traffic. And she's going to feel just a little better for just a few minutes because she's there by herself. For these all-too-brief moments, no one needs anything from her. And those fries taste really damn good.
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You can judge her -- or, OK, judge me. You can sip your overpriced water while you head to Pilates, contemplating your next cleanse. But you're the one who's missing out.
And if you ever figure out the error of your ways, may I recommend the Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger? It's really pretty extraordinary.
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