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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Drive-Through Food

March 23, 2015

One would have to look long, hard, far, and wide to find a more enthusiastic proponent of local, independent restaurants than the guy typing these words. Your columnist started working in independent restaurants in 1981 and for the last 34 years has, either worked in or, owned, dozens of independent restaurants. Independent restaurants have fed and clothed my family and they will put my children through college. This column, my books, my speeches, and my personal testimonies are filled with love and enthusiasm for independent restaurants, independent restaurateurs, and recommendations of favorites that you should visit.

I wear a button every day that reads “Eat Local.” I believe, to the core of my being, in eating locally and supporting local businesses. With all of that established, this column is about drive-through food joints.

Locally owned and operated restaurants and bars are always my first, second, third, and fourth choices when dining out in my hometown, or when visiting another city. But there are rare occasions— whether it is because I am on the road and in a hurry, or I have bowed to the will of my teenagers— that I eat drive-through food.

Yesterday I read a piece on the Esquire website that listed famous chefs and their favorite fast food. My culinary hero, Thomas Keller, loves In-N-Out Burger. You know why, because In-N-Out Burger makes a great hamburger. Alfred Portale, owner of one of my favorite restaurants in New York— Gotham Bar and Grill— has been eating at Dairy Queen since he was a kid. Chef Stephen Pyles, one of the godfathers of Southwestern cooking in Dallas, loves Taco Cabana. Chef David Burke eats Wendy’s on his late-night drive home from work. And one of the hottest of red-hot chefs today, David Chang, speaks often of his love for Popeyes fried chicken.

After reading the Esquire piece I started thinking about my drive-through food favorites. Again, whether in my hometown or travelling on the road, my first, second, third, and fourth choices of dining establishments are local, independent restaurants. Though if time doesn’t allow, or if it’s late at night when we’ve finished a demo or a speech and there’s nothing open but fast food joints, you might see me pulling up to a drive-through window. Here are my choices:


Fried Chicken

When it comes to fried chicken, David Chang nailed it. Popeyes chicken— especially the spicy drumsticks or thighs— is the best. To my taste, no other fast-food chicken franchise comes close. I have a huge affinity for the fried chicken my grandmother prepared and served in her dining room. It was the best. But I also loved sitting in her dining room, surrounded by family, and all of the things that add up to a great culnary memory. Popeyes chicken is almost as good and I have no fond family memories of driving through their restaurant and picking up a box of chicken. It just tastes really, really good.



Keller, and tons of other chefs who agree with him, is spot on. In-N-Out Burger makes the best fast-food hamburger. Period. Unfortunately all of their locations are west of the Mississippi River, and most are in California and Arizona (though they are making a heavy push into Texas), so I would have to go with Whataburger.



French fries are the universal fast-food item, but none of the fries at fast-food joints really impress me. I guess if someone were holding a gun to my head I would have to go with Cane’s (who would also get my vote for best chicken tenders) crinkle cuts when they are cooked crispy. Unfortunately it is extremely hard to find fast-food fries that are crispy.



As a kid I grew up eating at the Frostop in my hometown of Hattiesburg. They made their own root beer, but I always opted for the orange drink that was shooting up like a fountain inside of the large, clear plastic dome. That would probably taste a little too sweet to me these days. Lately ‘ve been drinking Wendy’s lemonade. Chic-Fil-A’s lemonade comes in a very close second because the Wendy’s lemonade can be inconsistent (occasionally it’s too sweet or a little bland).



The drive-through window is a key component in fast food, and the one qualifier for a food-item to make this list. The first drive-through window in my hometown was at a restaurant called Burger Town across the street from the University of Southern Mississippi. They had an actual telephone that one had to pick up to place an order. The food at Burger Town was OK, but the fried apple pies were good.

I love a fried apple pie. Today, fast-food joints either bake them, or render them too sweet up by rolling them in tons of sugar and cinnamon. The only place that does an old-school fried apple pie like I grew up eating is Krystal. I stopped eating Krystal burgers when I stopped drinking alcohol over 31 years ago. But you might see me at a drive-through picking up a fried-apple pie a couple of times a year.

Check out a few of these, or better still, eat local.


Caramelized Onions

3–4 tablespoons olive oil or unsalted butter

3 cups yellow onion, sliced into 1/2-inch wide x 2-inch strips

2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tsp black pepper

Melt the butter or oil in a skillet over a low-medium heat and place sliced onion in the skillet.

Sprinkle salt and pepper over the onions. This will help draw out moisture which will prevent the onions from burning and sticking. The heat should remain at a low to medium. Continually toss onion or stir with a spoon. Long, slow cooking will draw out the onion’s natural sugars and caramelize them.

Continue to cook onions until a dark caramel color is reached. Too dark will result in a slightly bitter final product. Caramelized onions may be made in advance and held one week. Cover well.

Yield: 2 cups


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