Tag Archives: fast food

The International House of Pancakes

A post for Pancake Day.

Pretty soon after I first arrived in the States my sister asked ‘So have you been to the IHOP yet?’. I was mystified, but it turned out she was referring to the ‘International House of Pancakes – the IHOP’. Apparently this often features in American TV shows, but for some reason I’d never heard of it.

In fact, it took me a while to even locate a branch in DC (though, as I wrote about a while ago, DC doesn’t have many great examples of old-style fast food places). In the same way as my local McDonalds and Burger King don’t exactly invite you in, it was apparent from Yelp reviews that my local IHOP (in Columbia Heights) was similarly unappealing – if I see the word ‘cockroaches’ in a review it’s a fair bet I’m going to be steering clear of that restaurant.

So I was really pleased when I discovered that the branch of IHOP opposite my doctor’s office in Arlington was both clean and well-reviewed. Finally, I would experience this mecca for pancake lovers – the myriad selection of flavoured syrups, those appetizing looking stacks of fluffy goodness, topped with an ice-cream scoop of whipped butter (take a look at their website and you’ll see what I mean).

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I don’t really know what I was expecting. The ‘international house of’ part of the name reminded me of the warm and friendly experiences I’d had in Center Parcs in the UK and in Holland. These European holiday parks offer relaxed, comfortable stays in forests, with activities for kids and spa-experiences for adults – and the famous Pancake House.

However, the sterile, cubicled space I entered in Arlington was a far cry from the clean lines and bright colours of the European diner I’d enjoyed. True, I was dining alone, which is often a depressing experience, but I think a certain amount of my disappointment was caused by the decor. It was the kind of design that you could imagine repeated across America, always the same, these 4-people booths with low cubicle walls so they could adapt to fit two sets of separate couples. The best I could say for this place was that they had used the space efficiently.

Good features of the IHOP are the size of their menu and their prices. The menu appears to be huge, partly because they offer nearly every ‘combo’ you can think of to suit your needs and your wallet. I got the 2x2x2 – 2 fried eggs, 2 pieces of bacon and 2 pancakes. It was cheap and it was fast. It’s basically the fast-food version of breakfast. And, as so often happens with fast food, it’s a bit underwhelming. It was all fine and tasty enough, and the service was prompt, and the place was clean – it was fine. The flavoured syrups on the table were fun for a little, but are a bit gimmicky, and I enjoyed the full flask of coffee that was brought for just me, but the whole thing felt a bit sad. Not at all what I’d been hoping for or what that smile on the website had hinted at.

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So today I won’t be celebrating Pancake Day at the IHOP. I’m glad I got to experience it, but I’ll be marking the day at home.

I have flour, milk and eggs and will make the traditional British (thin) pancakes of my youth (which I didn’t much enjoy back then, strange child that I was). In the past I have experimented by spreading them with nutella and adding banana, but I think the flavoured syrups at IHOP taught me a lesson. Lemon and sugar is all you need.

 

 

Getting Chinese take-out in DC

Growing up, takeaways (as we call take-out in the UK) were always a special treat. They would only be bought on special occasions, or on the way home from the beach if we had stayed too late to think about cooking. Sometimes on these evenings it was fish and chips, but my favourite was always Chinese. We would come home, call to order our usual dishes (chicken and cashew, chicken chow mein, prawn chop suey, egg fried rice), and then about 15 minutes later my parents would head out to collect it, leaving my sister and me in a frenzy of excitement, listening for the car in the driveway and the sound of the back gate to announce that dinner had arrived. My parents would dish everything out fairly, piling food on top of the rice (except in my sister’s case – she had her rice separately, in a bowl), and we would sit, in front of a film, enjoying that post-beach feeling of sun-baked skin and sleepiness along with the salty goodness of gravy-soaked noodles and rice. Sometimes, when the takeaway was in honor of guests, we’d add another dish, like sweet and sour chicken balls. Later on I remember they started adding free prawn crackers to our order. As I moved away from home, to university and then to London, I discovered the wide range of Chinese dishes available – and that they could be delivered straight to your door. But however different they might have been, they still retained that special quality of a rare and happy occasion.

In the States it’s so much more usual to get take-out than it was when I was young in the UK. The other day the boy I tutor said that he had picked up a Subway sandwich for his dinner; a couple of weeks before his mother picked him up a Chipotle burrito when she dropped me back at the metro. But so far it’s been difficult to get hold of the same sort of Chinese takeaways as we got in the UK. Perhaps it’s because so much of the Chinese food in the UK is specifically Cantonese food, whereas here it’s more likely to be Szechuan or some other variety. There also seems to have been a turn to healthy Chinese in some DC restaurants and you’re more likely to find steamed rice and broccoli than fried noodles and chicken balls. I also heard that much of the DC Chinese population moved out to Virginia and Maryland, and that you’re therefore more likely to find good Chinese a bit further out of the city.

As I have mentioned here before, prawn crackers do not seem to be an American thing. A neighbour of mine, hearing of how traumatic I was finding this withdrawal recently made them for me – which was completely amazing. Sadly, she was not converted and described them as prawn flavoured cardboard. I find the deep-fried noodle crisp things DC takeaways serve instead of prawn crackers far more tasteless, but I guess it’s what you’re used to.

One thing I had expected here – and had been somewhat looking forward to – was Chinese food in cardboard cartons, like they get in the West Wing.

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But so far I’ve not found this – I wonder if anywhere still does it or if they’ve all gone over to microwaveable plastic containers…

What DC takeaways have in their favour is value. Many of the restaurants do incredible meal deals, where you can get a double serving of soup, a spring roll and a large main course with rice for under $10 (£7). All main dishes come with complimentary rice, which you can substitute with fried rice for about a dollar. And once you realise that you can ask for dishes to be made ‘extra spicy’, they’re really very tasty.

Finally, at the end of the year, with R’s family, we followed a friend’s advice and found a pretty good restaurant. And I found myself ringing in 2015 with that communal Chinese takeaway I remembered.

Fast Food Nation?

The founder of Chipotle has reportedly predicted the end of traditional fast food restaurants as a result of the premium fast food phenomenon. Premium fast food chains are certainly well represented in DC. Five Guys and Shake Shack have a number of outlets as do Chipotle and District Taco. Recently I read that a DC chef is hoping his new concept of vegetable-focused fast food will take off.

There are advantages to premium fast food, especially if it lives up to its premium billing. However I have to admit that I think there’s still a place for McDonalds and Burger King – and I’d be sad if I never had the chance to experience those chains I heard about before I came to the States, like Wendy’s and Taco Bell.

Surpringly it was six months before I experienced McDonalds in the states, and nearly seven before I got to a Burger King. The closest I got was in Toronto when it seemed I couldn’t help but go to a Tim Hortons. I actually loved this chain; when you say you want to make your sandwich a meal, rather than handing you a cardboard cup and throwing some cardboard fries at you, they assume you want to add a coffee and your choice of doughnut – my kind of place.

To be honest, the McDonalds and Burger King in my area of DC, Adams Morgan, are not the most attractive destinations. They are cheap certainly but look old and rather grubby and their doorways are usually dogged by panhandlers. It makes sense – if anyone actually gives the local guy the 20 dollars he demands from passers by, he could buy two burgers and still have 15 dollars left to spend on wine. You can get a cheeseburger for a dollar – that’s 62 British pence.

When I finally got to a Burger King I was disappointed by the fries, but amazed by the portion size. In McDonalds I was pretty much happy with everything but baffled by the idea that anyone would ever need to order 50 chicken nuggets – one of the choices I was given. When I opted for a portion of six, I was given a happy meal.

But it’s getting hard to find these traditional fast food chains in city centers. When I was in Charlotte for a conference all I wanted my first night there was to avoid costly room service with a cheap burger. I was on my own, it was already 8.30pm and I just wanted something quick and cheap before heading back to the hotel to watch tv in bed. Unfortunately for me though, Uptown Charlotte (apparently they thought that sounded more positive than downtown) is a cosmopolitan playground for young professionals, full of expensive restaurants, cool sports bars and premium fast food joints. The only uptown McDonalds was in a mall that closed at 7pm and the only Burger King was on the wrong side of the tracks down a quiet, badly-lit road. The only place I could find where I could avoid a service charge and not look weird eating alone was a Five Guys.

Now everyone seems to like Five Guys – they plaster the walls with positive reviews telling you this. Their gimmick of free peanuts makes them popular with everyone – except of course mothers of kids with peanut allergies who steer well clear (I think they also cook their fries in peanut oil). However, I’ve tried them twice now and been thoroughly disappointed both times. The burgers have been thin and pretty tasteless, unable to stand up to the artificial tasting cheese slice. Also, if you take advantage of their free toppings and get the burger ‘with everything’ the resultant sandwich lacks integrity to such an extent that it threatens to fall to pieces in your hands. The only plus I can find is that if you like your ‘chips’ a little soggier than the usual American fries, this is the place for you. For me though, this doesn’t justify the hype or premium price tag, and I probably won’t be going back.

Shake Shack and Chipotle though, I love. I’ll happily spend that little extra for freshness and taste. Chipotle is a quick and healthy feeling lunch/dinner: you can get the burrito with veggies, a choice of beans and rice, and you can get it as a traditional burrito or as a salad bowl. Meanwhile Shake Shack has become one of those places we just have to take our UK friends when they visit. Here they experience the tasty secret sauce, proper medium-rare burgers and the perfect American milkshakes – and all in sensible portion sizes. They can also pair the food with a beer if they want, and enjoy the game on the big screen.

So, all in all, I’m not surprised that these premium chains are replacing McDonalds but I wouldn’t want to call time on the old favourites just yet.