Fast Foodie: An existential rumination on what qualifies as fast food

What, exactly, qualifies as fast food?

Hello, fellow fast-food enthusiasts. I must take this time to address issues with the previous column on my excitement about a new Popeye's opening down the street from my house. Several readers took exception with my characterization of the city's fast-food scene. In the column, I lamented the lack of choices—outside of McDonald's—and said one must go to the county for the exotic offerings of Sonic. For one, a reader noted there is a Sonic in South Baltimore within the city limits. Another pointed out that there is a Wendy's at the intersection of North Broadway and Harford Road. It later occurred to me there is another Popeye's not far from Johns Hopkins Hospital, and of course there's that Chick-fil-a at the Inner Harbor everyone is excited about. These are just a few examples.

Those mistakes were a failure on my part, and I, as a columnist on the cuisine of convenience, promise to do better going forward. As I said in the piece, I don't have a car, and that limits the places I can go, and it also informs my perspective of the city in a way that's not as complete as it could be.

While we're getting all existential here, now seems as good a time as any to define, well, what exactly is fast food? Here's a rubric my City Paper colleagues and I came up with:

• You have to be a chain. The city is of course full of many carry-outs, small delis, and other eateries outside the fine-dining mold. But a key tenet of fast food is easy access. If your restaurant only has one location, that's convenient for the neighborhood you serve, but everyone else has to drive across town to eat there.

• A majority of your establishments must have a drive-thru or easy car access. Again, convenience is the key. Not everybody has the time to sit there as the cooks, you know, make the food. Fries need to be at the ready, burgers need to be cooked and kept in those heating trays (or whatever it is they keep them in at McDonald's), and toppings must be handy for the line cooks. The "fast" is in there for a reason, people.

• There must be a combo available that does not exceed $7 (before taxes). Affordability is super important. The whole concept of fast-casual—places such as Chipotle and Panera Bread—is really a ruse to, A, make you feel like you're eating healthier than you truly are and, B, provide a "dining experience" that feels chic. Fuck that, fast food is about eating good and hearty without breaking the bank.

• There is no assembly-line construction of your meal. Looking at you again, Chipotle. But this also rules out Subway, most pizza chains (with the exception of Little Caesars and its hot-and-ready pizza rack), Wawa subs, and Royal Farms chicken. Going step by step, either with multiple employees at different stations or on a touchscreen menu, and customizing each part of your meal takes a lot of time. But it also kinda goes against the point of eating mass-produced fast food. You don't pick your own ingredients for a Big Mac; those are scientifically determined by an expert at McDonald's HQ.

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