Here's how I feel about fast food: if I wanted to eat something prepared more for speed than taste, I'd eat my own lousy cooking.
I admit it, when I'm home and excessively lazy, I can justify a meal of microwave popcorn (one buttery kernel for me, two for the dog, one for me . . .). There've been times when I've been so unmotivated and busy that dinner has meant a chunk of deli turkey wrapped in lettuce like a burrito, gulped as I drove way over the speed limit down the freeway.
Yes, there are times when I crave a deep-fried chicken sandwich from Burger King so badly my head tingles. I've gone to In-N-Out Burger a lot more than I'd like to admit. And I've been known to drive through KFC just so I can suck back a cup of gravy. Sick, but true.
Despite what snooty foodies may say, I'm not alone, either. Even our best chefs admit a hankering for the no-frills stuff. It's been written that Stacey McDevitt of Restaurant Hapa loves McDonald's French fries. Natascha Ovando of Coup Des Tartes get the joneses for Filiberto's. Mary Elaine's chef James Boyce has a favorite quick bite of canned tuna fish and kidney beans.
So it's not a nose-in-the-air attitude that turns me off about most fast-food choices. It's just that so much of it is so awful. Greasy burgers, limp tacos, stale sandwiches and watery rice bowls just don't cut it.
Which is why I'm so thrilled to have found two new haunts offering fast service, cheap prices, casual ambiance and terrific eats. There's no tipping required, another bonus on days when I hate the world and can't imagine rewarding anyone for any kind of behavior. The fact that my cranky self won't be thrown out for showing up in ratty shorts and a tee shirt makes things even better.
Flat Wok sits in a strip mall at 64th Street and Greenway. Its concept is familiar thanks to the popularity of Mongolian barbecue joints across the Valley. You know the drill. Weave through a buffet laden with raw meats, vegetables, noodles and sauces. Load your bowl as high as you can, and create a dish so confused that in any other restaurant, you'd send it back. Hand the bowl to a wok master, ogle as he flash-sears your ingredients and scrapes them back into your vessel. Go stuff your piggy self. Be in and out in less than half an hour. Wonder what all the fuss is about.
At Flat Wok, omit the last step. Because the fuss here is in the fine food. Apparently the owners haven't realized that with fast food, buffets in particular, they can cut corners. Many other stir-fry concepts in town send out shaved, low-quality, previously frozen meats. They sneak in veggies that are a mix of crisp and limp, bright and brown. They figure the sugary sweet or salty sauces will mask the faults.
Not so Flat Wok, brought to us by the owners of Scottsdale's popular Goldie's Sports Cafe and Zipps Burgers. For $9 or less (including soft drinks), fresh fare looks good even in the raw. Long, pristine rows of chopped boneless, skinless chicken breast, turkey breast, pork and beef beckon. Trays glitter with a bounty of slippery Asian noodles, green peppers, onions, broccoli, carrots, and deep-fried tofu. Sauces gild the lily, with tureens of garlic, sesame, teriyaki, sweet-and-sour, peanut blends and such. Some tacky types go for meat-only bowls, pressing mounds down to get as much inventory as possible. Uncool, but allowed.
The woks, three patio table-size rounds, are flat. Ingredients are flung to sizzling doneness with a base of water instead of oil. Cook time? Barely a minute.
I'm a better chef here than at home. My selection is fabulous, tossing rice and flour noodles with chicken, beef, pork, snow peas, sprouts, water chestnuts, mushrooms, a splash of teriyaki and a jigger of sesame sauce. How proud I am.
If I hadn't gotten my recipe right, or decided to be an outright oinker, I could have gone back through the line as many times as I wanted (dinner only; at lunch, it's one trip unless diners pay $1 extra). Bowls are big; I'll betcha most of you can't eat more than one. Especially since included in the mix are unlimited cups of nutty brown rice, absolutely lovely crispy fried won tons with mustard sauce, fresh-roasted peanuts and sweet pineapple chunks.
Though the practice is discouraged by management, I legally could change lanes and supplement my Asian bowl with items from the Italian isle (fettuccine, penne, rotini, roasted red peppers, pesto, marinara, Alfredo, braised eggplant sauce, et al.). Or, I could throw in something from the salad bar (chicken, turkey, greens, lots of vegetables).
I would. I will. But today, I don't have the time.
Maxie's World Grill
The people at Maxie's World Grill don't seem to realize they're working in a fast-food joint. Really. Servers and line cooks actually smile. Show me another place pushing $4.75 hamburgers and $2.75 hot dogs staffed by people who act like they honestly enjoy spending time there.
I know I do. Show me another order-at-the-counter or drive-through operation with such an international menu. Everything's available -- barbecue, burritos, deli sandwiches, panini sandwiches, pitas and salads.
Here's the capper, though. Owner Jeff Lee isn't going for ordinary. Service is quick, but dishes are cooked strictly to order on a wood-burning charbroiler. All salsas, dressings, sauces and soups are made from scratch. Fries are hand-cut from Idaho potatoes. Ingredients boast top names, with meats from Boar's Head, bratwurst from top Valley sausage shop Schreiner's, gelato from Phoenix's renowned Berto's, and tortillas crafted by Phoenix's famous Carolina's. Burgers are hand-formed Angus beef, and flank steak is USDA choice.
Homemade empanadas are crafted with chicken or spicy beef. Clam chowder swims with actual clams. Cookies and brownies are homemade; lemonade is fresh-squeezed. There's even a fresh salsa bar, with a rainbow array of mild, hot and fiery styles.
All this, plus there's a drive-through, which means I don't have to surrender to a supper of sliced, salted cucumber and Parmesan Goldfish crackers.
Do call ahead for the drive-through, though. While it only takes 5 to 10 minutes from charbroiler to car, that's a long time to idle. Inside, a rack of magazines helps pass the time.
What's best is hard to pin down. Might be the burgers, six ounces or a half-pound of beef cradled on a buttered, grilled English muffin, topped with provolone, Cheddar, jack or Swiss cheeses (two slices of Boar's Head bacon are just 75 cents extra). Crisp fries come with the burgers.
It could be the Cuban sandwich, hoisted on seven inches of buttery French bread and finished on a panini press, which grills both sides at once. This is a masterpiece, layering gooey cheese, deli ham, salami and real roasted pork tenderloin with mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and pickles. It sounds like a mess of flavors, but it's really a miracle.
Maybe the best offerings are the burritos. A "fire" model is just that, bringing tears to my eyes with each bite of the potent peppery marinade, ample grilled beef, moist chicken and chiles. The highest price is $5.25, yet each comes stuffed with whole beans, homemade spicy pico de gallo, cheese, and a side of puffy crackled tortilla chips (think of those wonderful rich bits torn from a taco salad shell).
Or maybe the star of the show is the flank steak pita. I still have the leftovers from lunch stored in my refrigerator; love won't let me let go. What magical madness, this carpet-ride concoction of juicy beef chunks top-coated with hummus, roasted red pepper, roasted eggplant, kalamata olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and feta cheese.
Okay, I eat a hot dog, too, plump on a poppy seed bun and stuffed with extraordinary mild and juicy sauerkraut. How can I not, given the wafting temptation of a Hebrew National wiener passing by on someone else's tray? It comes with fries, but spring an extra $1.25 for an order of out-of-this world ranchero beans, bobbing in a perfect storm of rich salty broth stocked with pico de gallo.
Later, I return for the bargain barbecue basket, slathered with Maxie's own sauce and unbelievably priced at just $4.50 for a chicken breast with salad or fries, $6.50 for two chicken breasts, or $7.25 for a chicken breast/ribs combo.
The best part of Flat Wok and Maxie's? They'll save me from poisoning myself when time and cooking just don't line up -- succumbing to that takeout tin of God knows what that's been snarling in the back of my refrigerator for the last two months.