Eat @ Joe's By Ralph Raffio
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Fast Thoughts About Fast Airport Food
October 23, 2014 -- If you're like me… Oh, never mind. Who am I kidding? None of you could possibly be of similar mind on the topic of fast airport food.
See, nothing--and I mean nothing--would make airline travel more palatable to this chowhound than if every single major U.S. airport, from Boston/Logan all the way to LAX, reeked of White Castle hamburgers. That's right, I said reeked! You got a problem with that?
It takes courage to be a White Castle enthusiast. Never has a fast food been more maligned. "Belly bomber" is the most common term used to denigrate the two-bite-and-you're-done little square hamburgers. "Greasers" is another. "Sliders," a term embraced by the company itself, appears not to carry with it an air of negativity or shame.
That's right, I said shame. You should see the way some people look at me when they find out that I love me some White Castle burgers. And I'm talking civilians here. Imagine airport security screeners sizing me up as I lug sacks of fragrant little bombers (sorry, bad choice of term) around with me from terminal to terminal, gate to gate.
Airport fast food would be a lot less boring if this Ohio-based chain got in on the action. After all, White Castles are anything but unsatisfying. Considering the way they are cooked, how could they be? First the hot grill is covered in finely chopped soft onions and water, which are then topped with little square hamburgers, each with five holes punched into them. (The holes allow steam to pass through the burger; this ensures quick cooking without flipping the patty.) On top of the patty goes the bun, which becomes infused with the steam coming from the onions and the beef as they cook. A dab of ketchup, slice of pickle and you've got yourself one soft, moist, flavor-rich handful of tasty goodness. All for around 75 cents.
But no such luck. There isn't a single outlet of my favorite fast feeder operating inside an airport. So when traveling and in a hurry, I have to cherry pick from various other fast feeders' menus. And I'm not alone here since nearly half of all airport food outlets are fast-food joints and almost half the money we spend on airport fare is at the fast-food places.
So while continuing to object to the lack of White Castle sliders at airports, here are a few items served up by the other major chains that I find acceptable.
NATHAN'S FAMOUS: HOT DOG
Full disclosure: I'm from Brooklyn and grew up eating hot dogs at the original Nathan's Famous in Coney Island. The dogs you get at an airport (and even the chain's other locations) are not as good, but they are still better than most all the other fast food you'll run across between gates. I cannot counsel you on dogs that are topped with items such as cheese sauce or chili and the like, as I am a spicy mustard-only kind of guy. Nathan's Crinkle-Cut Fries, when freshly made, can be quite satisfying. Oh, and I once tried the Crispy Chicken Sandwich--on layover at Atlanta/Hartsfield, if memory serves--and did not find it objectionable.
POPEYES LOUISIANA KITCHEN: CHICKEN TENDERS
When only fried food will do, the Chicken Tenders at Popeyes are actually pretty satisfying. Don't think McNuggets. The Tenders are well-sized strips and fairly tasty, available in mild, spicy or blackened seasonings. I wish there were more Popeyes units located at the airports because they would be my go-to on-the-go snack. (Though if I was looking at a flight delay or longish layover, and had more time on my hands, I'd probably settle in with a Popeyes Fried Chicken & Biscuits dinner.)
MCDONALD'S: SAUSAGE BISCUIT
The only thing I eat willingly, if not terribly often, at McDonald's is the plain Sausage Biscuit (no egg or cheese) during breakfast hours. The somewhat crispy biscuit is tasty, if a bit on the greasy side, and the sausage patty is fine, for what it is. (The coffee got a lot better when McDonald's switched a few years ago to the Newman's Own brand at its Northeast region restaurants.) Gun to my head and gotta eat at Mickey D's but not at breakfast? A Quarter Pounder with no cheese and no onion (they use raw and I am getting on a plane, after all) with fries--if the fries are hot.
BURGER KING: ONION RINGS
When I was a kid, the first onion ring that I ever ate was at a Burger King. After I learned to drive, my friends and I used to drive to the BK, mostly because they had the onion rings on their menu. What can I say? Some habits die very hard indeed. Oh, and you could do worse with a fast-food onion ring than this one.
ARBY'S: MARKET FRESH SANDWICHES
I've never been a huge fan of Arby's but several times, and admittedly when in a pinch, I've partaken of its Market Fresh Menu, specifically the sandwiches. I've been quite satisfied with the results. If the airport location has a Chicken Salad sandwich on the menu, go with that. If not, try the Roast Turkey Ranch and Bacon Sandwich.
SBARRO: PLAIN CHEESE PIZZA
I am of the "bad pizza is better than no pizza at all" school, so a stop at Sbarro is fairly typical for me when scoping out the airport food court. I'm not lumping Sbarro into the "bad" pizza camp necessarily, especially since, like Nathan's, this chain began in my old hometown of Brooklyn. However, I only grab a Sbarro slice maybe three times out of ten. It all depends on how the pies look. Simple as that.
A&W: ROOT BEER FLOAT
Yeah, I know, there are frozen yogurt shops up the wazoo in airport terminals. Ice cream joints, too. But when I'm looking for something that's down-and-dirty, sweet and satisfying, a root beer float trumps all those other things. A&W has been in the float game a long time, too. Probably worth a try, at least once.
I have avoided Wendy's and KFC for decades, so I can offer no guidance there. And while I know many of you will disagree, I just don't get Five Guys, the fast-food burger so many travelers love. I think they are outrageously overrated.
And a final caveat: I make no claim that this is a complete list of acceptable airport fast food. After all, even I can't eat everything. If you've got a favorite menu item at your go-to fast feeder, send it along and I'll get to it the next time I rant about the lack of White Castle on the road.
This column is Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Raffio. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Ralph Raffio. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.