Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Enjoy Every Sandwich

You didn't think I'd forget Big Boy Month, did you?

A few weeks back I was inundated with messages and comments from readers, friends, acquaintances, frenemies, and enemies about a video the noted YouTuber, author, and Vlog Brother Hank Green had uploaded to the YouTube channel he shares with his brother, John. He discussed at length their childhood meals at the local Rax restaurant and segued those memories into a discussion of an ad campaign for the fast food chain that was launched shortly before their 1992 bankruptcy. I had long been aware of Uncle Alligator, the Rax mascot geared toward the youngest Rax customers, but I had never heard of Mr. Delicious, the plaid suit wearing middle-aged character associated with the chain’s final pre-bankruptcy ad campaign. Mr. Delicious was the antithesis of the avuncular cartoon gator that adorned Rax kids meal bags and molded plastic drink bottles. Mr. Delicious was instead meant to appeal to adults looking for a grown up, dare I say, stylish fast food experience. Amid the Rax bankruptcy, Mr. Delicious faded into obscurity as quickly as he appeared, and he likely would have been largely forgotten were it not Hank Green’s video.

Mr. Delicious, Rax pitchman and Steve Higgins lookalike. 

Mr. Delicious, and obscure restaurant mascots in general were on my mind as I was brainstorming how I could best observe Big Boy Month in a time when travelling long distances and eating in restaurants are both inadvisable, if not impossible. Earlier this year, seemingly in response to the chicken sandwich craze that Popeye’s sparked, the Michigan shard of the shattered Big Boy empire revived one of the Big Boy brand’s own obscure mascots to be the face of their entrant into the suddenly crowded premium chicken sandwich market. Dolly, the namesake of the new sandwich, was once a character who appeared with Big Boy in the eponymous Big Boy comic books that were once handed out to the youngest Big Boy patrons. I don’t recall ever seeing a Big Boy comic book anywhere but the odd antique shop or vintage comic book store in my three odd decades as a human being and occasional Big Boy customer, but Dolly was ripe for rebirth nonetheless, likely because she could be resurrected cheaply without having to pay any artists or lawyers to create or license a new character. 

Dolly, holding her namesake sandwich in the traditional Big Boy pose.

I have somehow managed to avoid eating a Popeye’s chicken sandwich as well as its many analogs save for an occasional Chick-fil-A in my weakest moments when my desire for greasy poultry and pickle slices on a bun outweighs my distaste for the bigotry of the brand’s owners. As for Popeye’s, It’s not politics, but poor service that has kept me away. I’ve visited Popeye’s locations all over the country, but I’ve never been to one I would describe as “Clean” or “Well-run.” Add a drive-thru line that stretches out of the parking lot and down the block, and it’s been more than enough to make it easy for me to resist the allure of a Popeye’s sandwich. 

My complex feelings about premium chicken sandwiches had been the back of my mind for weeks when I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and happened upon a post by Tuckey’s Big Boy in Tecumseh, Michigan, where I had a very pleasant meal last fall, announcing that they had both online ordering and curbside order pickup. I immediately saw this as an opportunity to give the Dolly chicken sandwich a try and to get out of the house for the couple of hours it would take me to drive to Tecumseh and back, so as soon as I had the time, I got out my phone, navigated to the only slightly glitchy online ordering platform and put in a late lunch order. I’ve lately passed my free time exploring the back roads of Southeast Michigan, and I plotted a semi-circuitous route of my favorite semi-scenic, semi-paved thoroughfares to take me to Tecumseh. 

I pulled into the empty Big Boy parking lot at 1 PM on a Friday, two days into a three-week ban on inside dining issued by the governor. The governor’s order had little effect on me. I haven’t eaten in a restaurant since March, opting instead for takeout and DoorDash orders, but the sudden decline in business resulted in Tuckey’s Big Boy cutting back their hours to offer only dinner four days per week. On the days they were open for lunch, there didn’t appear to be much of a rush of takeout customers, at least there wasn’t a rush when I was there. I pulled into one of the four empty parking spots marked for curbside pickup, and called the restaurant. I informed them I had placed an online order, and the voice coming through my phone informed me that it would be right out, an assurance offered without asking for my name or order number, implying that mine was the only pending online order. A masked Big Boy employee emerged from the restaurant’s front door a minute or two later with my bag of food, which I promptly took before driving around to the back of the restaurant to eat in my car. 

My exact words upon receiving this bag were, "Ohhh Boy! Big Boy®"

I like my slaw cole, my TV loud, and my transmissions manual. 

Eating this sandwich in my car is in my top 5 best experiences of 2020. 

In addition to the Dolly sandwich I ordered, I also requested coleslaw, coconut cream pie, and mandatory fries came with my sandwich as is customary at Michigan Big Boys. I’m happy to report that the various sides and desserts were far from the worst I’ve experienced at a Michigan Big Boy, but the sandwich was the main event. Just like Popeye’s chicken sandwich, the Dolly is offered in mild and spicy variations. I opted for the mild version, not out of an aversion to spicy food, but due to the novel fact that the mild Dolly is topped with tartar sauce, perhaps inspired by Frisch’s, the Ohio/Indiana/Kentucky contingent of the remnants of the Big Boy chain that tends to put tartar sauce on everything. The first bite of the Dolly made it abundantly apparent what all the chicken sandwich-related hoopla has been about. It’s not an exaggeration for me to say it was the best chicken sandwich I’ve ever eaten, thanks to the presence of a thick and juicy fried chicken breast, and the perfect amount of tartar sauce and pickles that have a subtle spicy, tangy flavor that remind me of some flavor I experienced in better times, perhaps decades ago, but can’t quite place. The brioche bun, while trendy, was also the perfect delivery device. Its dense crumb held up well to the briny pickle chips and tartar sauce that had lost its viscosity once it came into contact with hot chicken. Best of all, the Dolly is a sandwich that can be experienced without strings attached. As far as I know, the Big Boy brand carries no political baggage comparable to that of Chick-fil-A, and the worst service I've experienced at a Big Boy is better than the best I've had at a Popeye’s. The Dolly stands as a great chicken sandwich, uncomplicated by the unpleasantness of the world around it.  

Standard issue Michigan Big Boy fries...
...and coconut cream pie

An individual more talented than myself once offered the advice to enjoy every sandwich, and that chunk of wisdom is on my mind as I recall eating that Dolly chicken sandwich in my car while parked behind the Tecumseh, Michigan Big Boy. In a time with relatively few bright spots, something as simple as eating a really good sandwich stands out more than it usually would, and serves as a reminder that every sandwich, every small, simple pleasure is worth savoring and enjoying, especially when pleasant, normal, experiences are in short supply. But it was the ritual surrounding the sandwich, the drive to an obscure corner of the map, snapping the surreptitious photos, and indeed, writing this very blog post that have the fleeting, subtly spicy tang of the semi-recent past, and hopefully also the not too distant future when I can again travel wide and far to experience the surviving locations of the broken chains. 

With the conclusion of Big Boy Month comes Raxgiving, a day set aside to support the broken chains. I won’t make it to a Rax this year, but I plan on supporting a broken chain restaurant or two that are closer to my home. I encourage anyone reading this to support their local restaurants as well, whether or not they be associated with a broken chain, provided that you can do so safely.  

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Kewpee

Once upon a crazy year, while I fretted and cried into my beer, 

Over many a bleak and troubling story in the news-

As I trembled, nearly crapping, over politicians scrapping, 

I heard the crinkling of wrapping, wrapping like fast food joints use. 

“‘I am hearing things,” I muttered, ”Because of my anxiety and booze.”

I laid down to try to snooze. 

I was as blue as Papa Smurf or Grover, it was early in the cool October;

The year’s plans collapsed like Clarence Oveur after a fish dinner he did choose.

I tried in vain to relive the past; when chain breaking was a blast, 

My silly road trips unsurpassed, until the world turned into number twos,  

In the second year of my life with two zeroes and two twos, 

More off-putting than Ted Cruz.

And the constant, sad, uncertain stream of each news story

Distressed me-depressed me with panic worse than strenuous flus;

So that now to slow the dread, I mumbled prostrate from my bed

“‘Tis but leaves in the yard beneath some passing shoes-

Some jerk in my yard in passing shoes;-

I realized it was no time to snooze. 

Presently, I grew alerter paranoid from news of murder,

“Sir” said I, “or Madam, you of trespass I accuse!

The fact is I am close to snapping! You crinkle like a burger’s wrapping!

Show yourself and take a slapping! Slapping is the attack I choose!

I am built like Terry Crews!”

Into the night, I started staring, long I strained my eyes, hardly bearing,

The constant dry and crackling rustle that never lessens nor subdues;

The growing noise only stoked my fear as its source remained unclear,

And the only words there to hear was the phrase “Drive Throughs?”

This I sighed, and an echo groaned back the phrase, “Drive Throughs.”

I handled the truth worse than Tom Cruise. 

   Back onto my mattress falling, pretending I didn’t hear the calling,

Soon again though, came the flapping, now a sound that I could not confuse. 

“Clearly,” said I, “Clearly it’s a wrapper encrusted with dried-out lettuce;

Let me see, then, what the threat is, as I go to find refuse-

Let my mind be calm a moment as I go to seek refuse;”

I got up to look for clues.

Onward then I turned the lighting, when amid a sudden brightening,

Therein stood a creepy Kewpee wearing no shirt, pants, nor shoes;

Not the least attention it showed toward me, but for a hat, no clothing wore she;

Unsettling as the art of Edward Gorey, the Kewpee stood for burgers I could not refuse-

Printed on a Styrofom chalice, near the other cups that once amused-

A hallucination I failed to disabuse.

This unclad toddler forced my gloom to the forefront in my lighted room,

With its culinary toque and the spatula it used,

“Though you stand for burgers and fries,” I said, “you fail to appetize,

Naked pasty baby thighs forced obscure by Wendy’s ruse-

Tell me why I find myself nervous and confused!”

Quoth the Kewpee “Breaking News!”

I was surprised this cartoon baby could hear my inquiry so plainly, 

It’s reply a phrase I wish I my brain could lose,

For I cannot help but hearing, into my slipping sanity searing, 

Those two words signalling new situations to defuse

Kewpee cup harbinger of society eviler than Minions and their Grus.

With a proclamation of breaking news.

But the Kewpee blushing plainly on the flaccid cup, spoke only

Those two words, as if from the grail those two words did slowly ooze, 

Nothing further then it mumbled-as I shuddered, twitched, and stumbled

Until when I finally grumbled “My mind has likely blown a fuse-

In the morning, I’ll feel better, despite the blown brain fuse.”

Then the Kewpee said “Breaking News.”

   Flustered by the interruption and by the cartoon baby’s chilling gumption,

“Clearly,” said I, “what it says is nothing but a blatant ruse

Prompted by some depraved trickster to scramble my mind up like a mixer.”

I took a gulp of of my elixir- one of Milwaukee’s finest brews-

But the TV in my room bore that melancholy bruise,

A Chiron screaming “Breaking News!”

    But the Kewpee still unsettling, my addled nerves in need of fettling,

Down I plopped a bean bag chair in front of the Kewpee and the other cups in slews;

There upon the vinyl sweating, I betook myself to fretting

Worry begetting worry, betting that the Kewpee was following cues-

Who could feed this cutesy, nude chef-child corporate mascot cues?

To alert me to ever-more breaking news?

This I thought there, speculating, but not a word I considered stating, 

To the child whose cartoon eyes began to pierce like screws;

That and more I laid deciphering before the Kewpee in need of diapering

On the bean bag’s synthetic fibering that always smelled of Krazy Glues

And whose carcinogenic liner-ing smelling of ever-Krazier Glues

Was once the subject of, ah, Breaking News!

Slowly then, the air grew smelly, perfumed by my gassy belly

Loaded with burrito cannonballs, and a couple beers to light the fuse.

“Cup!” I cried, “Polystyrene soda silo, that I brought home from Ohio

Lay off-lay off and desist reminding me of the news;

Quaff, oh quaff this warm tall can and drown my fears in booze!”

Quoth the Kewpee “Breaking News.”

“Infant!” said I, “Discount Cupid!-much less weird if you were suited!-

Whether vile nightmare or whether you’re a product of my alcohol abuse, 

Your nudity you’ve casually flaunted, you disposable cup that’s clearly haunted-

Consider me now thoroughly taunted. Tell me as I sit before you bemused, 

Will there soon be a new normal? Will dining out again become my muse? 

Quoth the Kewpee “Breaking News!”

    “Mascot!” said I, “thing of marketing!-profit generating, appearance starkening!

By the state of Ohio below us-where I bought you with some foods-

As I sit with churning guts, tell me if in a few months, 

I shall inhabit a restaurant table, and eat food not from drive throughs-

Eat a burger, taco, chicken, fish not bought from drive throughs.”

Quoth the Kewpee “Breaking News!”

    “Those two words our sign of parting, Kewpee cup!” I yelled, while farting-

“Get thee back to Ohio with Rax Roast Beef and Cincinnati chili stews!

Leave no Styrofoam as evidence of your bad tidings of war and pestilence,

Leave me shaken in my residence! Leave my shelf, and follow my cues!

Take thy straw from out my brain, and from my life yourself recuse!”

Quoth the Kewpee, “Breaking News!”

And the Kewpee, never landing, still is standing, still is standing

On the flaccid Styrofoam chalice, in the environment it abused;

And its form has all the presence of a dark and evil essence,

Like a senator proclaiming, “My words against me you must use!”

As I pine for days gone by of wandering like Moses and the Jews

Put to a stop by breaking news!

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Fall Check-In

Hot 'n Now's drive thru only service turned out to be an idea ahead of its time. 

I'm still here. I'm healthy. I'm employed. Most of all, I'm thankful I can make make those statements when so many cannot. 

However, it is a ridiculously bad time for one's hobby to be travelling long distances to eat in restaurants. I therefore have not dined inside a restaurant since March of this year, and it's looking like I won't feel safe dining in again until sometime next year at the earliest. It's been tough for me to keep up with my normal fiveish (Finkle) post per month schedule that I maintained as recently as the simpler time known as seven months ago. I hope that I can one day resume something that resembles my travel and post schedule from the before times. In the meantime, you probably won't hear much from me aside from occasional cutesy rhyming blog posts, as my motivation to write vanishes in all but the best of times. 

Back in early June when it looked for an instant like the worst was behind us, I donned my favorite mask  and took a cautious, socially distant, multi-state trip across the Midwest to order from some of my favorite broken chain drive thrus as well as some I hadn't experienced before. It was a welcome taste of the old normal, even if I did have to sleep in my car. Of course, not long after my return home, things began to trend much worse than they had been, and I haven't ventured out of my home state of Michigan since. I can't muster the motivation to write much about those experiences from the road in late spring, but I thought I'd share some of the pictures I took along the way, as well as a few from a late February trip to what was then Lexington, Kentucky's newest Taco Tico operating out of a nicely converted G.D. Ritzy's building. I reserve the right to author full Broken Chains posts about any and/or all of these experiences in the future, but for now, it is my hope that the pictures will provide some distraction from what has been a pretty terrible year, and is likely to stretch into an equally terrible two to three year period. 

The Taco Tico at the corner of Man O War Boulevard and Pimlico Pike opened in February. It's still going strong, and another location has since opened across town in a former Arby's, making a total of three Taco Tico locations in Lexington, more than any other town outside of Kansas.

Modern signage and menu boards adorn the drive thru.

The dining area has been completely remodeled. These pictures were taken in February. The dining area closed not long after this, but the drive thru remains open. 

A curved corner hints at the building's origins as a G.D. Ritzy's.

This may have been the last time I dined in at a fast food place. 

Tastee Freez once had 1800 locations all over the US. Today, there are nine of them still in operation, including this one in Mt. Carmel, Illinois, that sports a strangely familiar trapezoidal sign.

That's right. This Tastee Freez is a former Dairy Queen. That's like opening a new Sears in a former Walmart building or putting Studebaker badges on a Hyundai. 

Wienerschnitzel owns the Tastee Freez brand these days and still supplies them with menus that look modern, if a bit generic. 

Promotional signage is similarly contemporary, if unremarkable. 

Their ice cream parfait is like a vertical, banana-less banana split. 

A chili dog, outsize the Tastee Freez, free of Cougar-Mellencampian innuendo.

The Big T is Tastee Freez's Big Boy inspired double deck burger. 

Despite being a G.D. Ritzy's fanatic, I had never ordered from their drive thru. I remedied that at the First Avenue location in Evansville, Indiana. 

It was a popular place on a Saturday afternoon. 

The drive thru speaker was equipped with a modern order screen. 

But the nicely maintained menu board still had its vintage Ritzy's flair. 

I don't disagree, but I found the placement of this sign to be odd. 

Nicely branded packaging. 

Banana supreme ice cream, a flavor unique to the Evansville Ritzy's locations.

The fabled Double Ritz with cheese, my favorite fast food burger. 
The outside building was spotless as always. 

And I was pleased to find that the unique three sided sign that was absent from its pole on my previous visit had been repaired and restored. The owners of the Evansville G.D. Ritzy's go to great expense to keep their facilities looking as pristine as the day they opened 30+ years ago. 

A sign of the times.

Across the river in Owensboro, Kentucky, the Ritzy's menu board has a bit more patina. 

But the building is still presentable. 
The signage is simpler here.

An Owensboro Ritzy's PB&J tasted great at my campsite.

The final broken chain stop of my trip was at the last operating Druther's restaurant in Campbellsville, Kentucky. Druther's was originally called Burger Queen, but the chain changed its name in 1980. Amazingly, if you look closely, you can still see remnants of the old Burger Queen signage on the roof of the building. 

Speaking of drive thru menu patina, Druther's has close to five decades worth of it. 

The drive thru was an addition to the existing building. I'm sure they're glad to have it these days. 

Blah blah blah... toilet paper... something something... Tiger King... yadda yadda... Unprecedented/uncertain times
I dare you to find a better breakfast sandwich this side of Tudor's Biscuit World. 

Queenie Bee, the old Burger Queen mascot still adorns the sign. Hopefully the hole Druther's sign is repairable. 

Thanks for reading and for your notes and comments, especially over the past few months. Hang in there, and we'll get through this sooner or later. In the meantime, wear a mask and wash your hands. Support your local restaurants if you can do so safely. 

If you're reading this from the US, take a minute to make sure you're registered, and make a plan to vote. It should be plainly obvious to any reasonable person who the bad guys are at this point. Vote against them, maybe? That's as partisan a statement as I'm comfortable making, at least on my silly fast food blog.