Wednesday, September 10, 2008

HFF On The Road: I-5

I drive a lot. I drive a whole helluva lot. Primarily for work, though for a few other reasons too. Sometimes when I'm out on the road I don't have time to sit down and eat in a restaurant. I try to make sandwiches and bring snack bars with me but inevitably some days I need to get food quickly and cheaply on the road. And it usually needs to be portable enough to eat one-handed while I drive.

In short, I'm rediscovering fast food.

First thing's first though. Trader Joe's has some excellent inexpensive on-the-road food. For instance the little prepackaged containers of celery and peanut butter. Classy Handi-Snaks. Trader Joe's bread, particularly the California-Style Complete Protein Bread and the Whole Wheat with Soy & Flax make sandwiches with excellent structural integrity. Add dill sandwich pickles, organic mayo and yellow mustard, and a hefty handful of baby spinach or arugula, slice on the diagonal and you've got yourself a freakin' great sandwich.

In the world of snack bars, Odwalla Bars are tops for balanced nutrition (Berries GoMega and Chocolate Chip Peanut are both excellent) while Clif Builder's Bars are great for caloric density. Odwalla Bars have the added bonus of remaining relatively intact in a hot car. The primarily palm oil based chocolate on the Builder's Bars starts melting into a soup once your car hits 75 degrees.

On to fast food.

Fries and a grilled cheese. Add a milkshake and I actually have enough food to get me through the day. Only problems? Usually very long lines at peak lunch hours and you can't eat an animal style sandwich in the car.

Del Taco:
What can I say about Del Taco? Del Taco's simply the best fast food value out there. Cheap, portable, and much of their ingredients made from scratch daily. I think of Del Taco as the In-n-Out of Cal-Mex fast food. The best thing at Del Taco are their Tacos al Carbon, a reasonable approximation of Mexican "street" tacos with meat, cilantro, and onions. These aren't too portable for the drive so I'll usually opt for a Chicken Mole Burrito or the old Bean & Cheese standby.

Taco Bell:
Mediocre even by mediocre standards, Taco Bell nevertheless can provide quick and portable nutrition. Stick to bean & cheese or chicken & rice burritos. Remarkably good for you if you forget about the sodium content.

Carl's Jr.:
Tried these guys out for the first time in a long time on my last I-5 drive. The chicken sandwich was bland and not very portable, but I do appreciate their "natural cut" (i.e. skin-on) french fries and the excellent fried zucchini.

Long John Silver's:
Great if you can ever find one. Perfect road trip food as much of it is offered in "popcorn" size.

Another good bet if you stick with either the snack wraps or the popcorn chicken option. Potato wedges are a nicely greasy alternative to french fries. Don't try to eat a bucket of chicken wings on the highway though. Your upholstery and your colon will thank you.

Jack in the Box:
Jalapeno poppers. That's it.

McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's:

I would include smoothie places in the mix here but I can't find many Jamba Juices in LA and I don't trust anything named "Robek's." I'm curious to try the protein smoothies that Starbuck's is offering now. Seem to be pretty good for you and pretty cheap.

When it comes to road food it's all about nutritional density. A burger or chicken sandwich on a bun with a bunch of nutrient void lettuce and tomato isn't all that great (or easy to eat). But a chicken, bean, and rice burrito offers a pretty well balanced meal that's pretty good for you. Always skip the soft drink, even if you opt for iced tea or Diet Coke, both are shitty. Bring a reusable bottle of water with you, or swing by the drive-thru Starbucks for a real iced tea or coffee. Also, skip fries unless you really need the simple carbs. Better to get two burritos then to waste your calories on monotonous and (mostly) bland french fries.

And of course, when in doubt skip the fast food altogether, plan ahead, and bring a couple sandwiches and some trail mix. You'll be better off.

Plus if you bring a couple empty milk jugs and you won't have any reason to stop until you run out of gas.

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