Newsflash: Food critics are people, too. Do we love exciting, expensive, exotic meals served on white tablecloths in atmospheres of equipoise and refinement? We do. But equipoise and refinement don’t count for much when you’re stuck in traffic on the LIE, ravenous and hangry. At moments like that — OK, not just moments like that — there’s only one thing to do: Detour into the nearest strip mall for a quick dose of carbo-comfort from America’s chain restaurants.
You’ll never see us give out stars to the following establishments, but each produces at least one menu item that even critics are powerless to resist. Herewith, a few foodstuffs we pretend not to like, but devour when nobody’s looking.
FRENCH FRIES AT FIVE GUYS
Do you remember the first French fry you ever had? Of course you don’t. Your memory is obscured by all the millions you’ve swallowed since. Expect to have it jogged mightily, however, by that temple of fast-casual hamburger-ness called Five Guys, where the fries are so good, it’s like you’re eating them again for the first time. Their potato planks are thin-thick and crunchy-soft, and every order comes with roughly 500 of them. That extra scoop they throw on top of the cupful that’s already in the bag makes for a meal-sized side order, pushes calorie counts into the four figures and requires no less than 5 percent of Idaho’s annual potato crop.
Originally modeled after the boardwalk fries at Thrasher’s in Ocean City, Maryland, Fives Guys’ method involves power-washing the starch off of fresh-cut unskinned potatoes before frying them in 100% peanut oil to create a strong outer layer. Next, the fries are allowed to rest, which lets the insides cook to a mashed-potato softness without burning the outsides, and then fried again to produce a divinely crisp result. Steak fries, shoestrings, crinkle cuts and wedges are all fine, but if there are French fries in heaven, I’ll bet they come in a red checkerboard, grease-stained paper bag. — Scott Vogel
CINNAMON ROLLS AT CINNABON
Later this year, the world will mark the 35th anniversary of what to my mind is one of the most spellbinding smells to ever becloud an airport terminal or shopping mall. No mere foodstuff could ever deliver on the promise of that fabled aroma, but the Cinnabon cinnamon roll continues to be my guiltiest of guilty pleasures nonetheless. And I’m far from alone. That 880-calorie spiral of pancreatic assault — in which a flypaper-sticky, impossibly sweet blend of molten spices finds a perfect foil in slicks of tart cream cheese frosting — is now for sale in 50 countries worldwide. There’s a Cinnabon flavored Cream of Wheat, K-cup, creamer, toaster strudel and popcorn. There are Cinnabon candles, mugs, aprons, onesies, socks, pajamas and shirts (including a “Bon in the Oven” tee that’s just perfect for expectant mothers — or, for that matter, anyone who eats too many cinnamon rolls.) They are such stuff as dreams are made of. Literally. I once dreamed I was walking a labyrinth as a Zen monk when suddenly my dizzying path morphed before my eyes, enveloping me in a giant coiling Cinnabon. I awoke in shock, but also strangely at peace. — Scott Vogel
LETTUCE WRAPS AT P.F. CHANG'S
It’s hard to convey how monumental P.F. Chang’s felt when it first debuted in the mid-1990s. Outside of big cities, most Americans’ conception of Chinese food had been shaped by their local takeout spots; in bounced P.F. Chang’s, a slightly kitschy but soaring palace of dark woods, giant horse sculptures and fusions pan-Asian dishes re-engineered for broad appeal, yet still incredibly fresh tasting. (As an aside, co-founder Philip Chiang’s mom, Cecelia Chiang, opened the country's first influential Chinese restaurant, The Mandarin, in San Francisco in 1961). The P.F. Chang’s on the edge of Westbury’s Source Mall had a buzzy energy, its bar and half-moon booths always packed. From the very beginning, the lettuce wraps were the most-ordered menu item (still are), an appetizer that basically paved the way for every keto-friendly wrap in their wake: A chocolate-hued crumble of gingery, soy-splashed ground chicken that you spooned onto crisp petals of iceberg lettuce and dripped all over as you reduced them to nothing. Nowadays, P.F. Chang’s often feels half-empty, a sad state that mirrors the malls where they're usually found, but I still stand for the lettuce wraps; they're always a little too salty but their sameness over the decades is both a comfort and a feat of consistency. pfchangs.com — Corin Hirsch
SHACKBURGER AT SHAKE SHACK
Choosing the Shackburger feels like a little bit of a cop-out, because universal love for Shake Shack crosses multiple class and coolness borders. I'm allergic to lines, so I never had one of these back when the original Shake Shack opened in Manhattan's Madison Square Park in the early 2000s — I could see the fits of bliss as I walked through the park, though, where the chain's famous hot dogs were devoured by the thousands. Years later, I had my first (single) Shackburger, neatly wedged into a brown paper sleeve with a romaine leaf peeking from its side, and was propelled headlong into love. The slightly tangy, secret "ShackSauce" smeared onto each cheeseburger helps it vault above its competition; the LaFrieda patty is always drippy; and it's basically about as perfect a quick lunch that exists. Washing it down with anything less than a chocolate (or salted caramel) shake is heresy, and so is waiting on line. Embrace the app: Your quarry will be waiting when you show up. shackshack.com — Corin Hirsch
CHICKEN BOWL AT CHIPOTLE
If there’s a Chipotle around, it means that there is a source of fresh, wholesome, responsibly sourced and delicious food, prepared to my individual specifications and rarely topping $10. My go-to order (and I go to it a few times a month) is brown rice (here, delicate and subtly cilantro-ed), grilled chicken (always and only dark meat, which is why I fell in love in the first place), pinto beans (which I think go a bit better with chicken than do the equally accomplished black beans), mild salsa (whose tomatoes are always red) and a final filip of medium salsa. Corn salsa, crema, guacamole might also find their way into my bowl. I very occasionally swap out the rice for salad. The coup de grace? They give me a cup that I can fill with seltzer for free. — Erica Marcus
FRIED CHICKEN AT POPEYES
Now this is a guilty pleasure. But consider that all fried chicken is, for me at least, a very occasional treat. Certainly Popeyes’ is better than the fried chicken at that other national chain. The truth is it’s better than the fried chicken at many “better” restaurants too. The crust, whether regular or spicy, is crunchy and substantial, but always in the service of the meat beneath, which is juicy whether thigh, leg, wing or even breast. It’s also worth pointing out that at a “proper” restaurant, you have to content yourself with whatever combination of parts the kitchen has deemed “an order,” but at Popeyes I can order as many thighs as my heart desires. Of the sides at Popeyes, only the biscuit can hold a candle to the chicken. But considering that a biscuit has 260 calories and 26 grams of carbs and a thigh has, respectively, 280 and 7, you might as well go for the extra thigh. If I’m thinking clearly I might order a couple of extras for Day 2 because the only thing better than hot fried chicken is cold fried chicken. — Erica Marcus