A regional phenomenon is on an expansion tear—this time, however, you'll be getting a lot more for your money
Credit: Courtesy of Cook Out

The first thing you will probably notice at Cook Out, a rather spartan burger, barbecue and chicken chain that began life in Greensboro, North Carolina, back in 1989, are the prices. They're ridiculous.

They'll fluctuate a little, depending on which of the 200+ (and counting) Cook Out locations you're visiting, but uniformly, they are among the most reasonable in the business. How reasonable? Let's talk about the generously sized, hand-spun milkshakes in 40 different, very interesting flavors, for $2.99. Or the barbecue plate (chopped pork, you're on Carolina turf here), for $3.99—just $2.99 if you want the sandwich. Hush puppies, very tasty ones, a pile of them, for just 99 cents. Oh and burgers, and chicken—sandwiches, strips, and nuggets—and Cheerwine on draft, and corn dogs, which again, cost just 99 cents.

There's more, quite a bit more, actually, but you get the idea: Cook Out likes to please a crowd. A crowd without a lot of money to throw around. But we're still not getting to the heart of the Cook Out experience, which is the tray. The Tray. The Cook Out Tray. For only $4.99, you get a main, two sides, and a beverage. That main could be a double burger with all the fixin's, a barbecue sandwich, two hot dogs, spicy chicken, or any number of other options. For sides, you can pick from pretty much everything they've got—chili, hushpuppies, a quesadilla, chicken nuggets, a corndog; if you don't want to pick two different sides, just ask to double up. Drinks-wise, it's not just the usual soda and iced tea—you can also opt for a generously-sized float, made with Coke or Cheerwine, that bright-red Carolina favorite, into which they'll dispense a rather healthy portion of vanilla soft-serve ice cream.

The Tray is, quite simply, one of the most appealing combos in the business, a choose-your-own-adventure, never-boring sort of combo, where you feel like you get a lot for your money. It doesn't get much more American than that. Going to Cook Out always feels like winning, even if you've never won anything in your life.

For a long time a Carolina phenomenon and still privately-held (and, apparently, not shy about sharing its faith, judging by the Bible verses we've seen printed on the packaging, or the Christian music you'll often hear played softly in its stores), it would appear that the time has now come for the rest of America—well, for now, America's Southeast—to come into the Cook Out tent.

It's easy to make comparisons between Cook Out and that other East Coast phenomenon, Five Guys, which started life just one state away from North Carolina, up in Virginia—Cook Out's storefronts will never win any design awards, and they're equally passionate about their burgers (fresh, never frozen, they'll tell you), which you can customize to your tastes.

But that's about where the similarities end—at Cook Out, a basic burger, which you can top with all the usuals, along with grilled onions, for no extra charge, begins at $1.69. It's small, sure, but it's also miles cheaper than Five Guys' Little Hamburger, which can run you almost $5. In fact, for what people pay for a basic burger, fries and a drink at Five Guys, you could, if you're smart about how you order, feed a family of four. This, apparently, is working for a lot of Americans—Cook Out is now making a serious dent in markets all the way from Maryland to Mississippi, with plans for further expansion.

But, you're probably wondering—how's the food? Not bad, actually! After numerous visits, sampling from every section of the menu, some clear winners emerged, however. If there's one thing that can be wholeheartedly recommended, it's the milkshakes. From peanut butter banana to cherry cobbler to walnut to your choice of cheesecake flavors, the list is long—again, 40 flavors long—and it is delightful; simple options like a chocolate malt are actually surprisingly tasty, as well. If you stop in for nothing else, grab a shake.

The barbecue sandwiches are good too, that might be the next stop on your list—like the rest of Cook Out's food, there's a charming lack of pretense to them, stuffed with pork, slaw and sauce and wrapped tightly in foil. (The other preferred packaging method—a Styrofoam clamshell. It's all very retro.)

There's a charming, throwback simplicity to the burgers, too, which you should top with grilled onions; they won't win any beauty prizes, but they're smoky (Cook Out isn't just a name for a restaurant, they're actually grilling back there) and the meat is pretty good, and it's got a real throwback feel to it, and you can't argue with prices starting under $2. Fries are good or bad, depending on the quality control, but they do not stand out, other than the fact that you can get a pile of them with cheese sauce and chili on top for about $2.

Where you go from here is a matter of taste—you can fancy it up with the chicken sandwiches, which stand out mostly for their price, because paying nearly $4 for any one item at Cook Out seems, well, a little strange; a much better deal are the nuggets, five pieces for 99 cents. (If you're craving McDonald's 20 McNugget deal—hey, it happens—and can get to a Cook Out instead, you'll probably never bother with McDonald's again. These nuggets are tasty.) Truthfully, at Cook Out, 99 cents seems to be the magic number—there's a whole section of the menu filled good stuff at that price. You wouldn't want to live off the stuff—a hot dog, a simple BLT sandwich, a Bacon Ranch Wrap, the aforementioned corndog, which is actually very good—but it's all a great deal of fun to try, and you cannot beat the prices.

Perhaps the star of the menu, at least for non-Southerners without strong opinions on the matter, opinions no doubt formed after years of taste testing, would be those hushpuppies. When properly fried, those salty little oblong cornmeal nuggets, sweetened with just a hint of maple syrup, are one of the best bargains on the menu. There's no way you should be getting as many as they always seem to give you for 99 cents, but paired with a $2.99 chocolate malt shake you probably shouldn't finish because it's so big, well, that's pretty much fast food heaven. (Can we get an amen?)