Junk food becomes gourmet

This thread is inspired by the long running Grilled Cheese thread.

When I was a kid there were certain foods we just expected to be trashy. We got hamburgers from McDonalds, pizza from Pizza Hut, and Tacos from Taco Bell. Even into my early work career pizza was something we ate either because we were having a poker night, or because the boss wanted us to work late. These foods were fast to order, easy to make, and usually produced by teenagers. Nobody would ever consider them gourmet.

But a few years ago I started noticing a shift in food tastes. I work in Dallas (but live nearby) and noticed that there were a number of gourmet burger places opening up. One of my favorites is a place called Village Burger Bar. Real chefs, fresh ground meat, and unique toppings made for a great burger experience. But that’s nothing compared to a restaurant on Lower Greenville called “The Grape”. They make a customized burger that they only sell on Sundays and Mondays. At one point it was ranked by Texas Monthly as the best burger in Texas. Custom baked buns, homemade sauces, a bacon made only for this burger, and locally grown toppings. I sense a visit is imminent.

Soon after I noticed the gourmet burgers I noticed that there were some new gourmet pizza places opening up. The first one I discovered was one called Fireside Pies. They used exclusively local ingredients and had toppings that were unique without going too far outside of a pizza lovers comfort zone. Last week we had a client in our office from Alabama and he specifically requested that we go to Fireside. He told us that he brags about it every time he goes home and claims that he’s never tasted anything like it. It’s amazing. I know of some other places we’ll take him to next that I’m dying to compare.

A couple of years ago Dallas got its first Torchy’s Tacos. This restaurant started out as a food truck in Austin but has been expanding since then. I’ve never had a bad taco, but the best one is a breakfast taco called “The Dirty Sanchez”. Eggs, fried poblano, escebeche carrots, cheese, and a poblano sauce. Amazing. I hated ordering it the first time because of the name, but now I order it with pride!

What amazes me about each of the places I’ve listed above is how busy they are. They’ve really tapped into something primal in our local tastebuds. That old comfort food, prepared to adult tastes, is such a powerful experience. It’s how these foods were meant to be.

What foods did you enjoy as a kid that has since appealed to your grown up tastes? Have you improved on any of these foods at home that your friends rave about?

Chili. Homemade chili with my own signature seasoning is pure ambrosia.

Hot dogs. Especially all-beef kosher hotdogs done Chicago style.

Chili dogs. All-beef jumbo franks smothered in thick Cincinnati-style chili and cheese are heavenly!

Chili size. A ground sirloin patty served on a toasted Kaiser roll and smothered in chili.

Bratwurst and Polish sausage, served with sauerkraut and sweet or sharp mustard.

Deep-dish pizza. The best I’ve ever had in a restaurant was at the Green Mill in St Paul, MN, and I’ve improved on the recipe. It helps if you make your own Italian sausage.

Anything Cajun or Creole: Shrimp etouffee, gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, etc.

Homemade pea soup and seafood chowder. Vastly superior to anything canned or from a restaurant. Really, any kind of homemade soup.

Real Hungarian goulash (not the macaroni-based stuff my mother made). I like experimenting with different meats, sauerkraut, and other ingredients.

Great point on Chili. I know there is a lot of debate on what can actually be called Chili but so what, it’s all delicious. I learned how to make Chili from Alton Brown and the best thing I learned from him was how to make homemade Chili Powder. That makes all the difference and it’s so easy.

As for cajun, I just recently learned how to make gumbo. Aside from time it’s pretty easy to make and a perfect weekend meal. One of my favorite Sunday dishes.

I’ve always had a bit of an obsession with mozzarella sticks. They’re pretty hard to make at home - I’ve tried both frying and baking them, but that perfectly crunchy exterior needs something more. They’re pretty much my ultimate comfort food, though, along with Shepherd’s Pie and Pot Pie.

Macaroni and cheese.
The blue box is OK if you’re a kid, but making it from scratch is just a whole 'nother level.
I’ve served mac & cheese to dinner guests who raved about it.

Try making it with goat’s milk and goat’s cheese sometime, maybe with some chives stirred in. Oh … my … God! :o

Sheep’s milk and sheep’s cheese work too. Roquefort or Gorgonzola … mmmmmmmmmmmmm! :o :o :o

Frazzled, don’t get me started on how a lot of my friends now rant and rave about burgers from In-N-Out now that Dallas got some franchises. I’m more than willing to give credit where it is due, but the traffic at Caruth Haven & 75, due to the one that opened up off of the access road is a little over the top.

Additionally, I’m not sure which VBB you go to, but I’m a big fan of the Mushroom and Swiss burger from the West Village location. I used to love the Uptown Pub blue cheese burger that was on the same block, but poor service & potential food poisoning later, I am really hard pressed to give it another shot.

I don’t know much about Dallas, but the “gourmet burger” thing has been happening for several decades, in my experience. Personally I think it’s kind of bogus.

Sushi started out as street food, so it embodies the spirit of this thread nicely.

Gourmet water is a less appetizing trend.

Also, Beer has turned quite gourmet in the past 2 decades or so.

I don’t know that I’d call it gourmet - a burger meal is well under $10 - but Five Guys Burgers is a-ma-zing. I’ve heard great things about In-and-Out but I’m on the East Coast.

There’s a restaurant here in town that specializes in gourmet poutine. For real. It’s really good too. Made with vegetarian gravy so everyone can enjoy it.

In New York, there’s a restaurant specializing in PB&J sandwiches. There is, or was, a chain of restaurants specializing in cereal. Another one specializing in grilled cheese sandwiches. In San Francisco, people are paying four bucks for a slice of toast. (Although I don’t think toast is junk food.)

I think, just in general, the idea of comfort/fast food as semi-upscale to upscale food has been going on for a couple of decades, but I’m sure that varies depending on what part of the country you’re in. I mean, we’ve had gourmet burgers, hot dogs, donuts, cupcakes, paninis, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, freaking cereal (the place is now closed), poutine, and so on, and so forth find upmarket versions. Some of these are just mid-to-upmarket food, and some are truly cutting-edge cuisine, like Alinea’s take on PB&J. And much of food history is filled with examples of simple peasant foods becoming “gourmet.”

Anyhow, personally, I like my comfort food fairly unfancified. I want good quality versions of it, but I like it to stay fairly true to the originals they’re based on. For example, I like plain ol’ poutine, but it seems like every gastropub type place here needs to screw with it, so it’s like pulled pork poutine and roasted duck breast poutine and crap like that. I just want a simple, well-done, poutine with a flavorful homemade gravy, exquisitely made fries, and fresh Wisconsin cheese curds that still have the squeak. Just keep it simple, but make the base ingredients high quality. Now, this is not to say that in Montreal they don’t have all varieties of poutine with a bunch of different stuff on them, but at least have an option for the basic version, and make it the best damned version you can.

Soylent Juicy, I live in SoCal & I’m dying to try poutine. Where might “here in town” be?

Anybody else have suggestions for good poutine (as if there could be any other kind when it’s just fries, cheese curds & gravy) in Southern California / Orange County?

Not from the area but I read an article that a meatball restaurant was fast becoming a trendy thing in NYC

See, this is kind of what surprises me. Around here, we have “cheese fries” (as I’m sure most of the US has), and “gravy fries” are not uncommon. AND we have access to decent cheese curds via Wisconsin. (Some folks might not care so much, but even if you’re particular about cheese curds and the “squeak,” as I am, they can be sourced. Yet, somehow, this brilliant junk-food marriage of foods is not more widely known. I mean, I really don’t understand why poutine hasn’t made more inroads into US junk food/pub food culture. I could see the availability of good cheese curds being an excuse, but even in cheese curd states, it’s not particularly popular, from what I’ve noted. I mean, when you’re half drunk off your ass, what’s not to like about fries, gravy, and cheese? And why do you need to doctor it up with pork or duck or whatever?

My office has a number of California transplants and for years they lamented about how great In-N-Out was and how nothing in this area even comes close! They talked up a good game and when I first learned In-N-Out was coming I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about!

I swung by the one in Frisco around midnight one night during the first week they opened (Note, this was the first and only location in Texas for a couple of weeks while other locations were getting ready to open). There were at least 100 cars waiting to go through the drive thru. They had contracted off duty cops who were directing traffic into a big corral in the shopping center behind them and then would take a row at a time to wait in the actual drive thru line. After all the hype I’d been hearing I expected it to be one of the best burgers I’ve ever had and was sorely disappointed that it was just a good fast food burger. I’ve come to terms with it since then, it’s good, but I prefer Whataburger for fast food burgers.

To those who added Mac and Cheese - YES! I have a recipe for a 5 cheese mac and cheese which includes Goat Cheese, Fontina, Parmesan, and a couple of others. Just to add insult the base is heavy cream, not milk. When I made it over the holidays it was an enormous hit. I took it to a party and the hostess had 2 servings before she learned about what went in it. I don’t think she was happy about having to run some extra laps on the treadmill the next day!

See, when it comes to In N Out, I do think it has something to do with expectations. I mean, it’s just a fast food burger. How much do you really expect? Don’t set your heights too high, as if it is some transcendent orgasmic experience (although, to me, as far as fast food goes, it’s as close as you get). Whataburger is pretty damned solid, too. In N Out is on that general level, although I personally prefer it. Five Guys is in the same ballpark.

Exactly. It’s good, but not “sit in your car and wait 15 minutes” good. The Monterrey Melt from Whataburger is my favorite item on their menu. I was excited when they made it a “regular” item, instead of only having it for a limited time. It’s funny, b/c I have friends out east who say they experienced hype like we did for In-N-Out, but it was when their area was getting a Sonic.

Also, I took a trip to Minnesota a few years ago, and since then had had a hankering for cheese curds. A friend told me about a Culver’s up north of the metroplex, and when I was driving in that area, I stopped and got some. Was very underwhelmed. Not even worth going the few miles off of 75, if one is driving to Oklahoma.