The first time I had Cook Out was after a mediocre rock show at The Brewery, a now defunct venue on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. The details of the show and the moments leading up to that first trip to Western Boulevard’s Cook Out don’t matter as much as the fact that I made it to Cook Out.
In my youthful high school days, much to my parents' chagrin, I’d often make Friday night trips to Raleigh to see concerts with friends who’d already embarked on their college adventures. The Brewery, with its sticky floors, threateningly low drop ceilings and less than desirable acoustics, is for me an inextricable part of my Cook Out story, one filled with love, commitment and experimentation.
Since the very beginning of those late night indulgences in the mid-2000s, North Carolina’s most customizable fast-food joint has consistently tugged on my heartstrings, appetite and car. I’ve sampled Cook Outs in Sanford, Wilmington, Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Durham, Dunn, Cary, Fuquay-Varina and Boone—to name a few. At Cook Out, I’ve christened New Year’s Day at 2AM with a carload of sequin-covered, “we’ll-start-our-resolutions-after-this-meal” friends. An absolute long-distance drive savior, I’ve pulled off I-40 (East and West) more times than I can count for a road-trip pick-me-up. I’ve eaten Cook Out alone, just for the hell of it, and I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter when you have it. Cook Out is always a good idea.
The thing about Cook Out, though, is that it requires a tremendous amount of decision-making. If you order a tray at Cook Out, and God bless you if you do, but damn you if you don’t, you’re faced with more decisions than a trip to the State Fair. 54,000 different possible combinations, in fact. First things first: you must pick your main dish. Then, you must pick two sides. Then, you must pick your soda. And then, the “add on.” In perhaps the most critical decision of them all, you must pick from over 40 different milkshake options. For a person who hates logistics, choosing where to eat, and picking what movie to watch from a sea of on-demand options, this means Cook Out is painfully challenging.
As such, I’ve assembled a list of the six stages of Cook Out, which can serve as a comprehensive guide of what to expect on your journey and how to deal with it. Like any meaningful relationship, you need to learn what your baseline is for happy, but you must be willing to take risks and try new things. Good luck, my friends. Good luck.
Most Cook Outs have a walk-up window and two drive-thru lanes —one for the passenger and one for the driver. Feeling fancy? Newer Cook Outs even have dine-in areas. If you’re going to Cook Out, you’re probably f-a-m-i-s-h-e-d and your choice boils down to an assessment of hangryness and time. Let it be known: there is no shame in going through the passenger side drive through if you're riding solo. Sometimes it’s just faster and every bit worth the semi-embarrassing lunge over the center console and passenger chair. If you’re like me, 9 times out of 10 you’ll choose the drive-thru, and when “Welcome to Cook Out” crackles from its speaker, the heat is on.
Take a breath. You’ve picked your approach and now it’s time to choose your destiny. Cook Out tray all the way. Its construction: daunting and life changing. For a time, I was a grilled chicken sandwich purist, but I gave that up for culinary hedonism years ago. Will it be a classic regular hamburger? Two hot dogs? A BBQ sandwich? Or for heaven's sake, the trademarked Big Double Burger? Yes, trademarked with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Onward to the sides. Perhaps you’ll want to stick with general gluttony. If that’s the case, you’re going to want a bacon wrap and a corn dog, because, at Cook Out, why wouldn’t you have meat with two sides of meat? A chicken lover? I suggest the chicken tenders with a side of chicken nuggets and, yes, a chicken wrap. It’s a combination straight out of Chick-fil-A’s worst nightmare. Is the choice of two different sides just too overwhelming? Doubling up on a quesadilla never hurt anyone. Of late, I’ve taken what some might consider a more sensical route and enjoyed a classic BBQ sandwich, hushpuppies and slaw. (Stretch those hushpuppies out though; those babies are essential for the end of your Cook Out journey.)
Next up, your beverage of choice, poured over a bed of the most satisfyingly delightful crushed ice into in an insulation conscious, not so environmentally conscious, styrofoam cup. Feeling state-riotic? Carolina classics like Cheerwine and sweet tea are yours for the picking.
And then, comes the moment. The moment where the sky opens up and sunlight beams down: it’s time to order your milkshake.* Peanut butter fudge. Mint oreo. Hi-C Punch. Fresh banana. Seasonal favorites like watermelon or eggnog. And the list continues. Your possibilities are seemingly endless.
The hardest part is over. You’ve ordered and waited for a most reasonable amount of time. Now your moment of bliss has arrived. A word to the wise — pace yourself. Resist that urge to sprint, shug. This is a marathon. There’s no point in rushing it — savor every bite. No matter how you go about it, an imminent food coma is right around the corner, so take it easy. You’re looking down the barrel of a gun at some pretty intense feelings.
If you’ve paced yourself as instructed, about 10 minutes into your meal comes “the pause.” You’re sweating. You’re wishing you ordered slaw instead of chicken tenders. But after all, it’s easy to overlook the single green item on the combo menu. Why, oh why, didn’t you upgrade your large Cheerwine to size huge? If only you’d diversified your two hotdog combo with a Mexi-Style and a Cook Out Style. A mistake of amateurs.
You may loathe yourself. But, trust me, it’s fine. Cut yourself some slack. Like Duke in the NCAA tournament, you know you’ll be back.
THE SECOND WIND
In a scenario as unlikely as Donald Trump going gray, there will come a time when you convince yourself you’re ready to join the clean plate club. Like clockwork, every time I reach the point of no return where I’m convinced I can’t force another bite, my stomach and higher consciousness opens up and says, “NO! I can take more and I want more. Give me MORE!”
My friends, the moment of reckoning has come. It’s time to assess what’s left on your plate. Might you have a hushpuppy or two left? What’s the status of that milkshake? Perhaps you can kill two birds with one stone and dip that crispy deep fried hushpuppy into the creamy, frosty miracle that is your milkshake (don’t knock it until you try it). Just make sure to save your milkshake for last and really give yourself time to cherish it. If you’ve got a peanut butter whatever milkshake, there will be a special treat of thick peanut butter remnants smeared at the bottom of your cup. Don’t forget it. It’s Cook Out’s very own godsend, a way to cleanse your palette of all the glorious fried food you’ve just consumed.
You. Have. Arrived. You’ve had your fill. You’re beaming on the inside. You’re ready to hit the road for the next leg of your journey. You’re most certainly equipped with a set of new information to file away for your next visit. Perhaps you’ll order the same thing next time. Or perhaps you’ll try a different combo. Whatever you choose, you know your options are unlimited and that the price is right.