Welcome to Sounding Off, where writers have the chance to express their, ahem, unique thoughts on the food & drink world. These opinions belong to the writer, not Tasting Table.
When it comes to regional fast-food chains, there are two notable rivals that stand true to time: In-N-Out on the West Coast and Shake Shack to the east. Folks who live anywhere in between have their own opinions as to which is the best—and fans of these two chains are loyal 'til the end.
North Carolinians, though, can attest that Cook Out is the only option when it comes to burgers in the South. The famous chain started out in Greensboro in 1989, offering typical cookout fare of burgers and hot dogs, milkshakes, and Southern-style BBQ. With more than 200 locations that span across North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, it's safe to assume that Cook Out is clear competition to In-N-Out and Shake Shack.
For those who haven't witnessed Cook Out firsthand, it's a real treat. With a focus on fresh ingredients, it's basically like eating a burger off the grill in your backyard—always fresh and never frozen. For those with a location in their hometown, they can speak on the fact that it's impossible to drive by without stopping. The fresh, chargrilled burger smell alone is enough to make you do a U-turn.
Quality aside, it's the best bang for your buck by a long shot. Just $5 scores you a wildly popular Cook Out Tray, which includes the main attraction (choose from a variety of burgers and chicken sandwiches, BBQ, hot dogs, chicken strips, and so on), two sides and a drink. The real prize, though, is the sides. Where else can you get a corn dog, hush puppies or—wait for it—a quesadilla as a side? If you're truly in it to win it, Cook Out's Huge Tea (sweetened, of course) is the way to go—or splurge and get a milkshake for $1 more. Combos come neatly organized in Styrofoam trays, and burgers and sandwiches are wrapped in aluminum foil to keep in the heat.
The creamy, hand-spun milkshakes are a huge draw. Forty+ flavors bring everything from classic chocolate chip mint to orange push-up to Southern-style peach cobbler—and exclusive to summer—fresh watermelon, which is out of this world. That's right: Washing down a burger with a side of hush puppies and a quesadilla with a milk shake is completely acceptable down south.
There's no denying the joy of In-N-Out's Animal Style burger with mustard-grilled patty, pickles and Thousand Island spread, or a ShackBurger with tangy, mayo-based ShackSauce, but Cook Out has its own claim to fame. Ordering a burger Cook Out Style will bring a patty to life with an award-winning combo of the spot's homemade chili, slaw, onions and mustard. As a native North Carolinian, Cook Out still remains a must-stop when visiting family in Laurinburg—not to mention, the best late-night college pit stop for food. Fresh burgers in foil, sweet tea and whacky Cook Out Tray sides keep me going back after all these years.
Jenn Rice is a food and travel writer constantly traveling for cheese, tacos and kouign-amann pastries. Follow her on Instagram at @jennricewrites.
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