The national obsession with speed and efficiency has given American cooking whatever international reputation it possesses. French food is rich, German is heavy, Chinese is unfulfilling... and American is fast. We have developed the cuisine of drive in and take out, of cardboard boxes, tin foil, paper cups, and paper bags. Of course, Southern California is the undisputed breeding ground of the drive-in—where else would you find not only drive-in movies, but drive-in Chinese restaurants, dry-cleaners, and churches? Here, the cult of the automobile and the national worship of speed have joined to produce our culture’s finest flowering...Jack-in-the-Box.
The talking clown is not only a home-grown fast-food chain, but locally, it is the most prolific. Foodmaker, Inc. is based right here in San Diego, and it is scarcely possible to travel three miles in any direction without sighting the familiar orange-and-yellow signs. (Be alert, though. The new shingle Jack-in-the-Boxes have a more subdued label.) There are at least 50 Jack-in-the-Box locations within the San Diego city limits. It was Jack-in-the-Box who realized the full potential of the drive-in restaurant, by making it not merely drive-in, but drive-through; not only can you be serviced in your car, you never even have to turn off the engine. Now, there’s efficiency.
As far as variety goes, Jack-in-the Box offers a wider selection than most of the standardized chains. The hamburgers come in five sizes — regular, with patty, pickle and sauce; deluxe, with lettuce, onion and tomato added; Bonus Jack; Jumbo Jack; and Double Jumbo Jack. But other items are also on the menu, such as the fish sandwich (Moby Jack), the Breakfast Jack (with an egg), the omelette (available from midnight to 6 a.m.), onion rings, french fries, shakes, and would-you-like-a-hot-apple-turnover. If the intercom voice doesn’t offer you something you had no idea of ordering, the staff isn’t doing its job. Jack-in-the-Box also provides some Mexican items on the menu —at least, there are two sizes of tacos (the big ones have tomatoes and extra sauce), and there’s the recent addition of the burrito (except that it’s deep-fried to a crackly crunch). The tacos periodically go on sale, three regular for 89 cents or two super-tacos for 99 cents, but for the most part, prices here and everywhere else remain fairly stable. The service is reasonably quick, and a number of locations are open 24 hours. There is one problem, though, with the changes creeping in through renovations of old stands. Why, in La Jolla, you can’t even talk to Jack. You have to get out of your car and go inside at the Pearl Street Jack-in-the-Box, just like at a McDonald’s. What’s happening to that old drive-through spirit?
Of course, you can no longer make such a crack about McDonald’s. At 40th and University there is now a drive-through McDonald’s, taking up the slack where Jack-in-the-Box is beginning to leave off.
McDonald’s is also a Southern California chain, having risen from humble beginnings in San Bernardino some 25 years ago. The McDonald brothers ran such an efficient operation there, that Ray Kroc (now famed as owner of the Padres), then a salesman for Multi-Mixer, the milkshake machine, was impressed, and convinced them to start a chain. When the brothers showed a marked lack of interest in further expansion, Kroc and his partners bought the name and franchise rights, making a real-life Horatio Alger story out of the fast-food industry. The McDonalds ran their San Bernardino branch for the company until 1960 or thereabouts.
There are now 27 McDonald’s establishments in San Diego, not counting those under construction, and they offer more or less the same kind of thing as Jack-in-the-Box — you can’t get tacos or onion rings at McDonald’s but you do get a greater choice for breakfast, as they make something of a specialty of hot breakfasts to go, from pancakes to the Egg McMuffin. The hamburgers come in approximately the same sizes as Jack’s, but the standardized menu is varied a little at the Central Federal Tower McDonald’s, with the addition of green salads, chili, sundaes, soup, and a McHoagie, designed to capture the downtown lunch crowd.
The third major hamburger purveyor in San Diego is Burger King, which again offers much the same basic menu, under the slogan, “Have it your way.” Their gimmick, which would seem to be at odds with the fast-food ethic, is to encourage special orders — no pickle, extra catsup, etc. — which means that the hamburgers are not necessarily prefabricated, and may be assembled after the order is placed. This is bound to slow them down a trifle, but personal service has a special attraction all its own. Burger King is a fairly recent addition to San Diego’s fast-food chain scene, with only 12 listings in the latest phone book.
Baseball and hotdogs are supposed to be American favorites, but I think that football and hamburgers have carried the day. In any case, the only major hot dog chain around is Der Wienerschnitzel. Until recently,'the chain didn’t offer any main dish but the classic sausage, smothered with various condiments to suit different tastes — chili, chili and cheese, sauerkraut, etc. The usual side dishes are available, from soft drinks to shakes, but the choices are limited. Now it appears that Der Wienerschnitzel has weakened and joined the ranks of the hamburger people. You can’t count on anything these days. It was not possible to determine the number of Der Wienerschnitzels in San Diego, but the drive-through A-frames are easily distinguished and not exactly scarce.
There is another option for hot dog partisans — Orange Julius, once an exclusively liquid-oriented establishment, now offers hot dogs and hamburgers both. For a long time it was the only chain in town to do so. The hot dogs come in pretty much the same flavorings as at
Der Wienerschnitzel, and there is also the basic hamburger/ cheeseburger, at much higher prices than any of the hamburger only chains. But Orange Julius is still primarily the purveyor of the special orange juice with secret ingredients, though nowadays it’s possible to get a strawberry Julius or grapefruit Julius as well. There are at least six Orange Julius stands, placed strategically in shopping centers or on main thoroughfares.
So close to the border, Mexican food is naturally a big draw, and Taco Bell provides the inevitable standardization. The authenticity is somewhat suspect, with the sloppy Joe hamburger and the newest menu item, the “encher-ito” (a combination enchilada/ burrito, so the commercials tell us); the taco shells are pre-formed and so crunchy that the filling tends to fall out after the first bite, and most other items swim in an anonymous red sauce. There are 27 Taco Bell restaurants (they claim the designation themselves)
in the San Diego area, but the question remains — why eat there when there are competitively priced small local taco shops like Azteca, El Indio, or Salazar’s to choose from? These local shops serve food that is infinitely better, and the only conceivable argument in favor of the large chain is proximity and hours of operation.
The final fast-food category is chicken-to-go. The major national chain, Kentucky Fried, is represented by 30 branches locally. The Kentucky Colonel, Harlan B. Sanders, is no longer running the operation, but his “secret blend of 11 herbs and spices” continues to draw customers. There are two choices now in fried, regular and extra-crispy, and there is barbequed as well. These entrees come in boxes or buckets, packed with rolls, cole slaw, or very depressing mashed potatoes — the combinations vary — but it is also permissible to have just chicken. The pieces are not always immediately recognizable as to chicken part, and the coating is extremely thick, making for very moist meat and a great deal of batter to peel off if you let the chicken get cold. But the service is fast, the prices reasonable, and the flavor good.
Picnic ’N Chicken gives Kentucky Fried the best run for its money in San Diego. There are 14 or so of these little drive-through barns scattered around town, and the product is highly competitive. There is no barbequed chicken here, but regular and extra-crispy are available, in the usual boxes and bucket sizes. The chicken is not so moist, making it a little tastier in case of left-overs, and Picnic ’N Chicken offers french fries instead of mashed potatoes. It seems like a good substitution.
Within any given food category there are a number of choices available to the starving cruiser, in a hurry to eat and not much caring what. Now the only question is: are you in that much of a hurry?