Tacos and Tommy Burgers: The Chain Restaurants We Crave

Once upon a time, there was a man called Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. He was a lawyer and a politician, a judge, an outlaw, a violin teacher and a gastronome--a man who gained posthumous fame partly for his great work, Physiologie du goût (also know as Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l'ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs sociétés littéraires et savantes, which is a beautiful, unwieldy title, and too long to fit on the cover of most trade paperbacks), but mostly because one particular line that he once wrote used to appear at the head of every broadcast of the original Japanese version of Iron Chef.

"Tell me what you eat," he once wrote, "and I will tell you what you are."

I would argue that no truer words about gastronomy have ever been written, and they were what came to mind while going through the responses to last week's post about what chain restaurants the people of Seattle actually wanted in their neighborhoods.

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," said Brillat-Savarin and, apparently, what the people of Seattle are is hungry for fried chicken, tacos and some goddamn cheeseburgers.

Which is weird because it's not like those are things we're really lacking in these parts, but taste is a funny thing. When we crave a burger, for example, it is rarely just "a burger" that we're after. Mostly it's some highly specific burger that we have in mind--not just a type or a particular arrangement of ingredients, but one certain burger that we're remembering having had somewhere, at some point in our pasts. When I want a burger, for example, I'm thinking of three different burgers: The In-n-Out Double-Double I had in Las Vegas on the night I was married, the double cheeseburger served at Bud's Bar in Sedalia, Colorado and the cheeseburger with hot sauce from Schaller's, my neighborhood burger joint, in Rochester, New York. This doesn't take into account specialty burgers (like the green chile cheeseburger from the Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico) or fancy-pantsy restaurant burgers (I have no particular favorite in this category), but just a plain cheeseburger. When I am hungry for one, these are the burgers I'm imagining in my head.

So when Amy talked about Burgerville and Five Guys and MaryMc name-checked the Original Tommy's in L.A. (which would be high up on my wife's list of favorite burgers, too), they weren't just saying that they were hungry for any burger, but these burgers in particular. The Tommy's craving I completely understand (and I'll take mine with chili--lots of chili). Five Guys? Not so much...

But then, it's not my tastes here that matter. Amy obviously loves the terrible, thin and cardboard-tasting burgers at Five Guys in some completely inexplicable way and wants one built across the street from her house immediately, the same way that Julien wants a Dairy Queen so she can score a Blizzard (without having to drive all the way to Burien), and also gives a second vote to Burgerville.

Sonic got quite a few votes in my unofficial poll of the loved and the lost--mostly for their drinks (the cherry limeade). As did Chick-fil-A, most earnestly recalled by JD who wrote: "Chick-Fil-A, hands down, drop the mic on the stage, say "Sexual Chocolate!" I went from Denver where there were ample locations in the burbs to Chicago and now Seattle where is a disturbing lack of them. Chicken minis for breakfast? Yes please and a party platter of chicken strips for lunch."

As for tacos, we had cries in the dark for Taco Time (in Capitol Hill) and Taco Bueno. Tournant admitted to a weakness for Arby's (we all have our guilty pleasures), and PurrlGurrl came through with a Chicagoland double feature (Portillo's and Maggiano's) before giving a DQ shout-out and dropping the one restaurant chain that I can't believe I missed: Dunkin' Donuts.

I would kill to have a DD within reasonable driving distance of my house (say 500 miles), and would pretty much live there if one went up in my neighborhood. There's just something about the smell of hot sugar and the feel of those plastic chairs that really takes me back.

So what can we take all these terrible, terrible chain cravings to mean? That it is not the corporate structure that makes a place evil, but the food that it produces. Conspicuously absent from the list of Seattleites' darkest desires were the Olive Garden, Applebee's, Outback Steakhouse and McDonald's. No one was dying for a Burger King or a Macaroni Factory. There wasn't a single call for T.G.I. Friday's to open in anyone's neighborhood. What people wanted were individual tastes from days gone by or long-lived operations that had somehow transcended the basic list of fast food restaurants and become something...different. Not independent restaurants, obviously, and not always quality suppliers of our daily meals, but something better than the average swill passed off as food by so many multi-unit empires. Something worth craving.

If anyone else has any guilty pleasures they want to admit to, or chain/fast food outlets they'd like to see in their 'hood, drop a line in the comments section below. Otherwise, I think it's time for me to get on the blower and see if I can convince anyone to bring a Sonic or a Dunkin' Donuts to town. Because now I'm just friggin' hungry.

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