Except perhaps in remote rural neighborhoods, fast food restaurants are like gas stations — they are everywhere. Wherever you are right now, there is more likely than not a McDonald’s, Wendy’s or other such restaurant within a short walk or drive.
So what possible reason would one have to purchase “fast food” at a grocery store?
Some stores now have mini-fast food restaurant outposts inside of them. If you’re grocery shopping at certain Wal-Marts, for example, and don’t want to commit the common “food shopping while hungry” sin, you can hit the tiny McDonald’s in the store and grab a bag of Big Macs to scarf down before you hit the aisles. (This is also an easy way to help you remember to buy Pepto-Bismol.)
But you can also purchase some fast food restaurant items in the frozen section to take home and eat later, for when you’re craving fast food, but also have a lot of extra time on your hands to cook it yourself.
Only certain fast food companies have entered the grocery retail game. This suggests such items aren’t great sellers; if they were, every company would do it.
Taco Bell makes salsa, as well as burrito and taco kits (but you have to buy your own fillings — there is no “Taco Bell lettuce” for sale. Yet.). Skyline and Gold Star offer their Cincinnati chili in various formats (frozen, canned) at grocery stores. Though locals likely buy the majority, Skyline and Gold Star offerings are still good examples of restaurants that aren’t nationwide making their products available to a wider audience. Which makes sense.
Though also from somewhat of a regional chain (limited to the Midwest and East Coast), one of the most puzzling retail fast food items you can find in most grocery store frozen food sections is a box of frozen White Castle hamburgers (or cheeseburgers).
I also grabbed two bags of frozen fries for my “side dish” — Arby’s Seasoned Curly Fries and Rally’s/Checkers Famous Fries (I have enjoyed Arby’s curly fries from the restaurant in the past, but was unaware of the fame Rally’s fries had achieved).
The White Castle burgers can be ready in about a minute if you go the microwave route. But I was in it for the long haul, so I used the seven-part conventional oven instructions instead.
I was not just required to use my oven; I actually had to use the broiler pan (hey, that’s for storage!). Per the instructions, I carefully covered the bottom of the broiler pan with “steaming hot water.” The instructions then said to place the slotted broiler pan top over the water, then put the burgers directly on it. It then told me to cover the sandwiches and the entire slotted top with foil, sealing it tightly, which was impossible without removing the slotted tray top (or burning my hands).
Fifteen minutes later, I pulled the burgers out. You know what’s worse than a normal White Castle hamburger? A half-frozen one. I gave them another five minutes, but they still weren’t fully cooked. It appeared that I had somehow extinguished the pilot light (all that “steamed water” must’ve been jostled around too much).
Frustrated, I tossed them into microwave because my fries, which were much simpler to make, were ready in about 20 minutes.
The taste of each product was fine. It’s not, after all, like trying to recreate Paul Prudhomme’s Avery Island Seafood Gratinee or something. Out of all three, the Rally’s fries were probably the best, crisp but not overly so (like the curly fries). The oven lightly toasted the White Castle buns, which is unnatural (they are traditionally “lightly soggy”), and the whole broiler ordeal left a bad taste in my mouth. Though that could’ve just been the burger.
All together, the “meal” took me about 45 minutes to completely prepare. Driving to all three restaurants and picking each item up individually would have taken about 20 minutes. And my pilot light would still be on.
We, as humans (save those who are especially health-conscious), eat fast food for various reasons — it’s inexpensive, it’s tasty, it’s easy, it’s fast — though one could successfully argue against all of those points. Modest home-cooked meals are cheaper. Taste is subjective. And we’ve all probably had at least one experience in our lives where buying fast food was as far from “fast” and “easy” as you can get.
But if the options are restaurant-bought vs. frozen, store-bought, don’t waste your time — make someone else cook it for you.
CONTACT MIKE BREEN: firstname.lastname@example.org or @CityBeatMusic