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Parking Lot Dinner


Ellen Shapiro
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We have a tradition we call "Parking Lot Dinner." This is something that gets hauled out when we're driving long-distance and we pull into a town a) that has only chain restaurants, b) when it's late enough that only the chains are open, or c) where the standard of cuisine is so low that it appears the chains will be the best bets. In that case, we declare Parking Lot Dinner to be in effect.

This involves cherry-picking only the best items from the available chains. So one example of a recent Parking Lot Dinner menu was:

--McDonald's fries

--Kentucky Fried Chicken coleslaw

--Wendy's chicken breast fillet sandwich eaten without the bun

--Popeye's biscuits

Of course obtaining this variety of food -- usually from drive-through windows -- leads to consumption in a parking lot, thus the name of the procedure.

So, what's your ultimate Parking Lot Dinner?

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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Ellen, is the "Fat Guy" with you on those trips. He never sounds like that this would be one of his most desired ways of food intake. Also, do you cross your fingers so that all the mentioned establishment are fairly close to each other? (I meann who wants cold Fries?)

Peter
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As I think I mentioned, this is a dinner of last resort -- but we try to make it fun. Don't let Mr. Fat-Guy fool you with his fancy gourmet image, though. He gets junk food cravings from time to time, as do most gourmets I know. He's just very selective about what junk he'll eat. He likes the biscuits from here, the chicken from there, and so on and so forth.

Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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More realistic might be the "Food Court Lunch".  You walk into a mall and cherry-pick items from food court restaurants...  Malls are almost everywhere in the country, so its feasable.

-Side Salad Shaker from McDonald's--providing it seems to have been prepared that day. Side salad is lettuce only, except for a bit of egg, tomato and scalions, so you are fairly safe from bad ingredients

-Fries from Nathan's or Chick-Fil-A

-1st choice - Shakes from a Haagen Dazs: 2nd choice: Shakes or Frostees or whatever the heck they call them, from Wendy's

-Popeye's biscuits

-Onion Petals and/or Jalapeno Poppers from Arby's

-Chic-Fil-A chicken sandwich -- original style only

-Cinamon Bun from Cin-a-bon

Not all of these would be in the same mall, of course, so you just pick the ones available and double portions if a variety doesn't exist.

I'll bet Holly Moore more than Steven would have strong opinions on this topic.  Holly... are you out there?

(Edited by jhlurie at 1:23 pm on Sep. 2, 2001)

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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I enjoy Parking Lot Dinner very much, in limited doses, when there is no better alternative. It's certainly my favorite way to eat junk food, because although I don't think there's any fast food chain that serves a fully acceptable menu I do think most every one of them serves a good product or two.

As for hotness, the trick is to sequence the purchases so as to get the most perishable items (usually the McDonald's fries) last, and the more stable items (like biscuits) first.

Shopping mall food courts tend to have a very different selection of chains than highway/suburban strip malls. There is some overlap, but not much. For example most food courts have a Chinese restaurant, invariably with the word Panda in it. They have Cinnabon and Chick-fil-a and Sbarro. Very rarely do I see free-standing versions of these places. At the same time it's unusual to see Wendy's, KFC, Popeye's, McDonald's, et al. in malls. Sometimes you see them, but not often.

Malls tend not to be open late, and Parking Lot Dinner rarely occurs before 10:00pm. At earlier times, unless you're truly in a culinary wasteland, you can usually find something better to eat than the shopping mall or strip mall stores. Thus I rarely eat at the shopping mall food court stores because the need rarely arises.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I've driven through most of the country and am fortunate to report that I've never found myself in such dire straits as to be forced to assemble a "pick-of-the menu" dinner from fast food row.  To me that's like putting together a baseball all star team from Pittsburg and Tampa Bay.

Cursed with such a quandry, I'd find the nearest supermarket and assemble a loaf of pseudo italian bread, Cracker Barrel aged cheddar, some sort of sausage and then seek out a bottle of red wine.

Or I'd keep driving.  There's always a decent diner or truck stop or buffet or local eatery within the next 500 miles.

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Let's not call it an "all star" team. I hope Shaw doesn't refer to "Parking Lot Dinner" as dining. Hmm, I guess I have trouble even seeing it as "dinner." At least until we enter Chicago, San Francisco or one of a limited number of cities in this country, I think I'd rather be in the car with Holly. Maybe it's my sense of sport and adventure, but patronizing fast food joints and even chain restaurants of that certain level, always seems like capitulation.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Since I have no political or philosophical objections to chains -- I only object to them insofar as they sometimes serve bad food -- my decisions tend to be quite utilitarian. Most of the time my travel is planned around meals at specific destination eateries and this never comes up, but once in awhile for whatever reason -- especially in the parts of the country where distances between populated areas can run several hours -- I wind up in a situation where the chains represent the best food available at that time and place. Long-distance travel can be exhausting and if there is an element of capitulation in going with the chains it is merely capitulation for the sake of convenience. I find no dishonor in that. I wouldn't endorse it as a way of life, but it's not necessary always to fight against convenience -- it's rather perverse, actually. I include supermarkets in this calculus, and do plenty of cooking and non-cooking meal preparation on the road too.

I will however also say that even in New York City -- surrounded by excellent restaurants and markets of all kinds -- if the craving strikes me I may on occasion procure some McDonald's fries, a biscuit from Popeye's, or some other item that would make Bux and Holly wince. I do this because I like these items in that, though they be unsubtle, they satisfy basic cravings for fat, sugar, and salt effectively and efficiently.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I've always found that chains--even fast food chains--can do SIMPLE things correctly and consistently.  This would never recommend them above a real restaurant, but if the point of the exercise is to assemble a "safe" dinner in a circumstance where you either don't have the time or inclination to experiment, then its possible to eat "safely" even in one place.  

Use McDonald's as an example.  An oasis of consistency and never of excellence, nevertheless they still have some items that are better than others.  Their so-called "Mighty Wings" for example, are hardly mighty, but because all the employee has to do is pop it into the fryer and take it out when the little timer goes 'ding' they are consistently decent.  Compare it to any food they prepare which requires adding ANYTHING by hand.  This is the same reason people like their fries... the ingredients are consistent and preparations consists of taking it out of the freezer, making sure the oil is fresh and waiting for that 'ding'.

Now I know we don't aim for mere decency here, but even the most hard core anti-chain person should be able to admit that some chains prepare certain items that are excellent merely because they've been cleverly engineered.  Take the simple Cinnabon.  No doubt many of us have had better Cinnamon Buns.  But with the combination of ingredients being used, and the relatively simple methods of preparation, is it at all surprising that a Cinnabon bun is still good enough to make your mouth water even though it was prepared by a pimply faced 15 year old in a mall?

The same is true for many fast food items, and while we would rarely choose them if a good alternative is available, circumstance can force you into it.  And a late night snack assembled from Supermarket items, as Holly suggested, is really the same process--a series of compromises made because of the consistency of the items chosen.

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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I usually drive Interstate 95 between New England and Florida twice a year.  I have had little trouble finding restaurants that are better than fast food restaurants-- not great restaurants, but adequate ones.  If this can be done on I95, it can be done anywhere!!!

Pat G.

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Might as well confess here.  Once or twice a year I have a craving, probably paternal, for a Big Mac.  I buy one, I eat it, I regret it.  Not sure what's different but the 1969 ones were a lot better.

Also, on occassion I stop at Popeyes or KFC.  I buy a couple of thighs and a couple of biscuits.  I like to make sandwiches of the crusty skin in the biscuits with just a bit of the thigh meat.  I do this usually on 700 mile days when I'm burning pavement and don't want to take the time to scout out real food.

Also I don't avoid all national chains.  There are some that seem to care about flavor or allow their people to add their own personality to the place.  I am speaking about chains like the Waffle House, Steak and Shake, White Castle, Krispy Kreme and the Palm.  There are also a number of good, local chains with four or five restaurants.

The chains I object to are the ones that bland out their food and/or make their people come across as autotrons.  I also object to the forced cheerfulness some chains force their employes to petrate on customers

My overall objection to all chains is that they have Wall-Marted many of the good local restaurants out of existence.  

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Now it's time for Buxbaum to confess that once he used dried parsley in a sauce when fresh wasn't available.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think I mentioned a long affair with a bacon or ham and scallion bread from one of the Maria's bakeries in Chinatown. For those who don't know this chain, which I believe is an import from Hong Kong, they're mostly a white bread and bun bakery, although Chinese bread is a bit different from western bread. They also serve some fast food in some of the larger shops. The white bread and buns are not, by any standard, up to supermarket bread, but they have their charms. There are better bakeries of that sort as well. Currently I stick to char shu bao.

Dried parsely is pretty nasty stuff. Some herbs dry very well and some are useless.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Quote: from Holly Moore on 10:32 am on Sep. 3, 2001

I'd find the nearest supermarket and assemble a loaf of pseudo italian bread, Cracker Barrel aged cheddar, some sort of sausage and then seek out a bottle of red wine.

Holly, regarding the items mentioned above, I can barely tolerate most supermarket bread. Maybe if I had a toaster I could do something with some of it, but most is inedible -- especially the fresh-baked breads from frozen dough that have fooled so many people into thinking they're good bread. I've found that I prefer crackers, or large hard pretzels as my starch. Cracker Barrel's top-of-the-line cheddar is pretty decent, though I bemoan the general decline in quality of supermarket cheddar in recent years. Depending on the region you're in, there's sometimes a better local brand. Finding a decent sausage-like product is probably the most difficult order on your list. Most supermarket brands taste so artificial to me that I'd rather just stick with the cheese and crackers. Sometimes if there's a kosher section you can find a decent kosher-style beef salami, though. Another good supermarket item is those prewashed bags of salad greens. Sometimes you can do better than iceberg, though not always.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm hoping I'll find some Italian or French bread that comes in a paper bag.  It won't be Sarcone's South Philly bread, but it won't be all that bad.

As to sausage - generally I can find a local brand of summer sausage or Thuringer.  When all else fails it's to the cold cuts case and Oscar Mayer Cotto Salami or, per chance, some Lebanon Bologna.

I'm of the opinion that it's getting easier to find decent food in the less than urban supermarkets nowadays.  People are living longer and retiring, moving from the cities, bringing their tastes with them.  

Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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I agree with that, and perhaps it's worth a new thread. I've found that even in the very small cities, there are now a lot of products on supermarket shelves that used to be considered gourmet. (We could also discuss on this new thread how much credit should be given to the large chain supermarkets for this improvement.) At the same time when you get to towns below a certain size, the situation can be pretty hopeless. In some, of course, you can find a local market with integrity, but in others it's hard even to find an edible head of lettuce, or acceptable ground beef for a hamburger.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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  • 2 months later...
Quote: from Fat Guy on 5:07 pm on Sep. 2, 2001

They have Cinnabon and Chick-fil-a and Sbarro. Very rarely do I see free-standing versions of these places.

Well, I don't know about that; in NYC, the only Sbarro stores I've seen are free-standing. There are more of them now than there used to be; for instance, the pizza joint on the corner of 8th street and Broadway that used to be named "Mama Mia, Whatta Pizza!" in honor of that old Alka-Seltzer commercial (anyone remember that?) changed over to a Sbarro recently. Must be a Riese restaurant now; soon we'll probably see Sbarro in Grand Central.
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  • 1 year later...
Wow, cool. And I thought I was the only one that did this.

That's what eGullet is all about, my friend.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Can anyone name the seven characteristics of a McDonald's french fry? :rolleyes: As taought by McDonalds to their employees.

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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I enjoy Parking Lot Dinner very much, in limited doses, when there is no better alternative. It's certainly my favorite way to eat junk food, because although I don't think there's any fast food chain that serves a fully acceptable menu I do think most every one of them serves a good product or two.

I beg to differ. Popeye's is perfect in every way.

Queen of Grilled Cheese

NJ, USA

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Can anyone name the seven characteristics of a McDonald's french fry? :rolleyes:  As taought by McDonalds to their employees.

Ooh ooh, lemme guess

1) hot

2) salted

3) golden in color

4) skinny

5) crisp on the outside

6) soft on the inside

7) ummm...cooked all the way through? :biggrin:

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Okay, heartfelt disclaimers about the pall fast food chains have cast upon the land (no really, those fries under the seat are from my kids! :raz: ) . . .

But in keeping with the spirit of the game:

[*]Arby's curly fries (or Chik-fil-A waffle fries)

[*]Chik-fil-a original chicken sandwich (Wendy's spicy chicken 2nd)

[*]Bojangles biscuits (I'll have to try Popeyes -- I haven't seen a Bojangles in 15 years)

[*]Breakfast sandwich from Spangles, a local chain in Wichita (the usual breakfast bacon, egg, cheese combo but on a toasted sourdough bun that looks like a giant English muffin)

[*]Captain D's pecan pie

Chad

Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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