Friends in my social network already know of my lament for the demise of Danver’s in Midtown Memphis: the only place on Union Avenue where one could buy a decent biscuit sandwich for breakfast.
The family-owned burger chain from Greensboro, North Carolina called The Cook Out restaurant re-opened in the same building around the first of the year. Their first Memphis location opened to great fanfare and disrupted traffic on Highland Avenue with a line of cars waiting to turn into their lot just south of the University of Memphis. The Cook Out Tray menu offers a hamburger, chicken, BBQ sandwich or other sandwiches with TWO sides (I’ve heard French fries and a quesadilla are commonly ordered) and a large soft drink for $4.99! A lot of food for the money.
I never made it to the Highland location but finally braved the new place on Union for lunch this week. Cynicism usually serves me well when faced with such tasks. I keep my expectations low to make the joy of surprise a possibility. But my low expectations still proved too high.
I found a parking space in the lot without difficulty just before noon on a Wednesday. Around twelve people formed a line at the front counter to place their orders at two registers. The line moved quickly.
As I waited in line I took in the decor and ambience. The new owners of the space replaced the hardwood booths, tables and chairs and faded carpet of Danver’s with hard plastic booths, metal chairs and hard faux wood paneled floors that felt noisy. A new wall covers the once open kitchen of Danver’s to obscure where your food is prepared.
In the dining room, cookie cutter “art” and red, white and blue Americana like you might purchase at Walmart and find hung in suburban homes ten years ago adorns the walls. This kind of insipid “LIVE – LAUGH – LOVE” bullshit which belongs in a trash heap of disposable decor has no place in Midtown (or anywhere really). I thought this sort of trite kitsch had fallen out of favor.
When I reached the register, a nice young lady rang me up for a Cook Out Tray with a burger, French fries, a chicken quesadilla, and a large Diet Coke. When she asked what I wanted on my burger, I asked for “cheese, lettuce, onion ….. everything if that makes it easier.”
“Everything with tomato?” she asked.
“Yes, with tomato.” Is tomato separate from everything, I wondered? She charged me ten cents more for the slice of tomato.
I also ordered a BBQ sandwich with sauce and slaw like you do in the South so I could sample more of the menu.
After finding a sunny table to wait for my order to be called, the ambience of the room began to close in on me. I found a cross on the wall at the same time I realized that the restaurant piped gentle music overhead from XM Radio’s The Message. The hair on the back of my neck stiffened.
“30056, you’re order is ready!”
I ordered from the Cook Out Tray menu, but there was no tray in sight. I received my burger, fries and quesadilla in a bent-up styrofoam box and my BBQ sandwich in a paper sack with “Thank You God for America” and “Psalm 119:165” printed on the side.
The inspired music playing overhead urged me to “get down on my knees and pray ” as I walked back to my table, but it was too late. I was already in hell.
I was eating at a chain restaurant owned by a family and loved by customers who probably voted for Donald Trump for President. I felt complicit in “Making America Great Again.”
I opened my styrofoam box to find my foil-wrapped burger mashed into a bed of fries and my foil-wrapped “chicken” quesadilla. Honestly, the crispy, golden fries tasted better than I’ve tried at other fast food chains. And the cheeseburger had a nice chargrilled taste, but the kitchen forgot my ten cent tomato.
I peeled back the foil from my thinly pressed quesadilla and struggled to find any trace of chicken. I tasted chicken flavor, but the lifeless cardboard tortilla held no joy inside.
Cook Out’s BBQ sandwich should embarrass a restaurant with origins in the South. BBQ must be smoked. The pork in this sandwich never touched smoke. Memphians hold their head high in the BBQ world for good reason: we live in a city and region with grand expressions of smoked pulled pork and ribs. North Carolina also shares a strong BBQ heritage. Shame on Cook Out for being a poor ambassador for their home state.
The Cook Out may attract and please bargain hunters. In the end, Cook Out is just another restaurant serving cheap fast food, but here you can buy a burger with two sides of not-so-subtle proselytization and jingoistic nationalism. I found my meal hard to stomach with these extras.