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Restaurant Reviews

Meals Behind the Wheel

In February, Restaurants & Institutions published a report about the growing popularity of drive-thru dining. "More than eighteen percent of all restaurant dining occasions (both quick- and full-service) involved a drive-thru window in 2000, up four percentage points from 1990, according to NPD Foodservice Information Group, Rosemont, Illinois," editor Deborah Silver notes in "Life in the Fast Lane." Reasons for the increase, the article speculates, include "Gen Xers [who have been] weaned on fast food in an ever-more-mobile society," plus a rise in the number of families in which both parents work full-time. In short, the piece concludes, "Today, eating on the run is as American as the hot rod, and drive-thru restaurants are the fuel that keeps the mobile dining experience going."

I beg to differ.

Oh, I realize that drive-thrus are too popular for our own good, what with 70 percent of R&I's polled respondents claiming they had visited a drive-thru in the past 30 days. You can see the result of drive-thru transactions for yourself: Cast a murderous glance at the number of folks munching on fast food while driving -- in addition to being the litigators of many lawsuits lodged against restaurants because of too-hot fare, they're probably the second-biggest cause of traffic accidents after cell phone abusers.

But while America may have more drive-thru lanes than any other country in the world, drive-thrus aren't quite all American. In Broward and Palm Beach counties alone, a driver can order sushi, lasagna, fried rice, hummus, jerk chicken, and black beans from the comfort of one's own car.

Yet while the opportunities have expanded ethnically, I wonder whether this world on wheels is actually worth a visit. Are the lanes clearly marked and easily traversed? Is the service fast enough? Is this food any healthier, tastier, or more edible than the prepackaged swill of Burger Singe or the Olden Arches?

Let's begin this four-restaurant mini tour with the best of the lot: Island Grill (4003 W. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-717-1858). This brand-new Jamaican eatery, yellow with green shutters and a faux corrugated-tin roof, features an extra-wide drive-thru lane and a clearly posted menu. The staff at the intercom is fast -- too fast, really, since I wasn't allowed more than ten seconds to read the menu and make up my mind (Arby's advises waiting exactly 70 seconds before asking a driver for an order).

Yet while I might have felt rushed into selecting the quarter chicken with not-very-hot hot sauce ($2.69) rather than the jerk chicken I had been anticipating, I was pleased to receive my fare within two minutes of placing my order. (And yes, I timed it with a stopwatch.) I was even happier to unpack the food and discover that every item had been packaged in a Styrofoam container, then wrapped separately in a paper bag before being assembled into one large plastic bag. This procedure kept the steaming pumpkin-flecked rice ($1.29) from heating up the key lime pie ($1.49) I'd ordered for dessert.

As far as the quality of the food goes, think a Jamaican Pollo Tropical. The quarter chicken was just a little slick with grease and a bit overcooked, but the pumpkin rice was delicious, with tender chunks of the squash throughout. Another selection, a chicken curry rice bowl ($2.99), was flavorful without being overwhelming. In general the portion sizes and prices are consumer friendly, and the food appears healthy enough for the harried mom to serve her kids without the added burden of nutritional guilt.

Beijing Express (2301 W. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-486-3669; 1175 S. Federal Hwy., Pompano Beach, 954-943-8898; and 1011 N. State Rd. 7, Margate, 954-969-0393) could take a lesson here. You can identify the number-one problem with this rather dilapidated joint just by its conflicting, oxymoronic slogans: "#1 Chinese fast food restaurant" and "All our food is cooked to order." For starters, while Chinese food by definition is cooked quickly over a high flame, this place is slow enough that I could have listened to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" on the classic-hits-that-have-been-played-one-too-many-times station while I was waiting.

On the other hand, I might have been better off waiting forever -- or at least for the length of a perfect album side. The garlic shrimp ($5.45), chicken-and-beef Szechuan ($3.85), and pork lo mein ($3.55) were served steaming in numbered Styrofoam containers, each partnered by two scoops of white rice. But they all suffered from an unpleasant, tinny flavor I attribute to poor-quality bamboo shoots. The shrimp and chicken-beef dishes also had the added detraction of being simply red pepper-hot rather than robustly round. In retrospect I probably should've heeded my instincts after zooming past the poorly marked drive-thru entrance three times. Somebody was trying to tell me something; perhaps it was Confucius, saying, "Hey, this ain't Beijing, and it ain't no express either."

Of course, if I had heeded those instincts, I might have also neglected to investigate Spanky's Cheesesteak Factory (1388 E. Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-630-8488, and 3204 E. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach, 954-781-2376). I wound up at the Oakland Park location after discovering that one of my target drive-thrus, Willie's Tropical Ice Cream and Roti, had moved from 500 E. Oakland Park Blvd. to 7748 W. Commercial Blvd. A quick phone call confirmed my worst fear: Willie's still served roti sandwiches but no longer had a drive-thru. Nor did Spanky's, from all appearances, have a drive-thru: no menu board, no marked lane. But this table-service restaurant simply looks as if it's housed in a former fast-food joint -- so I drove around the side and discovered a window.

Ostensibly for picking up orders that have been phoned in, the window also functions as a drive-thru. The drawback is the amount of time you'll wait for your order, because all the food here is cooked to order. The benefit is the food itself: massive cheesesteak sandwiches ($6.95), the beef scrambled with onions, mushrooms, and the perfect amount of hot peppers, stuffed into a hoagie roll, and topped with melted cheese. Spanky's packages these sandwiches, which it calls "sammiches," in Styrofoam containers with holes to let the steam escape, a practice that prevents the crisp crust of the bread from wilting. And just for the record, while the cheesesteak sammiches are served with a triple-handful of French fries, you should still compound your cholesterol-laden sins with an order of juicy, batter-dipped, deep-fried mushrooms ($3.95) or a bowl of succulent all-beef chili ($3.95) garnished with cheddar cheese and onions because they're just too good to pass up.

OK, so Spanky's dominant ethnicity is Philadelphian. (The city's blue-collar accent is spelled out phonetically on the menu.) But the fare is so far from healthy no mom in her right mind would pick it up for dinner. (I would, but no one ever considers me to be in my right mind.) Thus I headed over to Healthy Bites Grill (1538 E. Commercial Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-776-9985) to taste-test the hummus wrap ($4.75), the black bean burger ($4.50), or the tofu Reuben ($4.50). But after waiting behind another car that didn't even roll down its window in the 15 minutes I lingered in second place, I came to the conclusion that the most important part of the drive-thru experience is convenience rather than the conservation of either health or wealth. Although you can locate a drive-thru, ethnic or otherwise, just about anywhere in America, as one local business on Oakland Park Boulevard notes, "Lost time is never found again."

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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