Friday, May 2, 2014

Finals food finder: A primer on pros and cons of area fast food

 Originally published in The Mac Weekly.

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As Macalester heads into finals week, it can be hard to make it to Café Mac. But just because you can’t make it to the cafeteria by 7:30 p.m. every weeknight doesn’t mean you have to spend outrageous sums of money at a restaurant on Grand Ave. Instead, partake in the great American tradition and buy some cheap and deliciously unhealthy fast food. Here are some of my local favorites:

Dairy Queen: The Dairy Queen on Snelling features smaller portions than other franchised Diary Queens. They sell moderately-sized barbeque sandwiches and hot dogs instead of the Grillburger found at other locations (like on Ford Parkway, for example). But excepting the new Jimmy John’s on Snelling, it is the closest fast food joint to Macalester. Plus, walking to Dairy Queen for ice cream with your friends is the perfect study break. My biggest qualm with this Dairy Queen is that it closes for half the academic year, but it is open for finals because it is supposedly spring.
 
Subway: Walking to Grandview (the corner of Grand and Fairview) is not that long of a trek for Mac students. Not only do you get cheap options if you order a straightforward vegetarian, ham or turkey sandwich, but you can also control how healthy or unhealthy it is through the topping selection process. The staff is friendly and may befriend you if you become a regular. You can get free refills on your drinks if you dine-in, which maximizes your savings. Like Dairy Queen, walking to Subway is a decent study break. Finally, it is open until 12:00 a.m. every night, which beats most of your Grand Ave options (Buffalo Wild Wings is open until 1:00 a.m., however). One last thing: at the beginning of every year, lots of coupons float around for free 6’’ sandwiches or buy one sandwich and get another free. Take advantage of this to really save money.

Arby’s: The only fast food joint south of Macalester, I honestly forget it exists. But you can take the bus down Snelling to it fairly easily. I guess if I want a sandwich I just go to Subway or Jimmy John’s, but the couple of times I ate here it was fine.

McDonald’s / Hardee’s: These place are fine and cheap if you want a burger. But two bus transfers away (on University Ave and Hamline Ave, respectively) puts them out of reach if you don’t have a car. Don’t expect your stomach to thank you for the resulting bloated feeling, even if the food tastes alright.

Jimmy John’s: The bastard step-child for Subway (or is that Quiznos?). Unlike Subway, you can’t buy hot sandwiches at Jimmy John’s. And it will cost you a little bit more than Subway. However, Jimmy John’s delivers until fairly late, depending on the location. They have sandwiches of various sizes, from a relatively inexpensive plain ham and cheese to the aptly named JJ Gargantuan. The Vito is pretty good, as is the Hunter’s Club. The bread Jimmy John’s uses is somewhat drier than other sandwich shops, so you have a dilemma: go plain and supplement with large sodas, or let them slather your sandwich with large amounts of mayo? I usually just tell them to go easy on the mayo, but it is not a perfect science.

Random fact: the Dr. Pepper at Jimmy John’s tastes better than most other places you can buy it, and 1000x better than Cafe Mac “sodas.” Delivery time is all over the map and can be rough on weekends, but they are very fast actually making the sandwiches. With a walkable location next to Macalester on Snelling, Jimmy John’s has become a very compelling option.

New Asia Express: You get a lot of food for insanely cheap. For comparison, a two-entree plate at Panda Express will cost about $9. At New Asia Express a similar order will boast larger portions and a free eggroll thrown in. They deliver late, especially on weekends. Dining in will be out of reach if you can’t drive, but with how cheap it is you will save money even with a delivery tip. I recommend the orange chicken and beef fried rice.

Taco Bell: Sometimes you will have a bad night at Taco Bell, but the food is generally solid. Try the new XXL tacos, which I actually think rival those at the Rusty Taco by Trader Joe’s. The XXL Grilled Stuffed Burrito is also solid, but they have cut down on portion sizes for it since it was introduced to the menu. If nothing else, buying a few Bean Burritos and Crunchy Tacos can be done for less than $5. Talk about a steal.

But the problem with Taco Bell isn’t the prize but the journey. Our local Taco Bell is a little past University Ave on Snelling, which means you will need to drive your car or ride the bus (I have heard some intrepid Mac students occasionally take the Hour Car to Taco Bell). Yes, it is open until 4:00 a.m. However, the inside closes earlier in the night, and I can confirm from personal experience that they will not let you walk through the drive-through.

Topper’s / Domino’s / Pizza Luce: I am not sure if pizza falls under fast food, but realistically you will consider it alongside these options if you are looking for cheap and/or greasy food. Pizza places always stay open late (unless you are Italian Pie Shoppe or Davanni’s), so they rank up there with Taco Bell and Most people at Mac rank these places like this: Pizza Luce > Topper’s > Domino’s. I want to throw some cold water on that notion. Pizza Luce is fine to me if I order something simple (like basic pepperoni or cheese), but it often tastes too dry. I know some people like to go crazy ordering specialty pizzas, but if I want a baked potato or mac & cheese I’ll eat the damn potato or cheesy noodles separate, thank you very much. Plus, it happens to one of the more expensive local pizza places. Topper’s isn’t much better on price, and you want to be aware of deals when you order there. However, a hot Topper’s pizza is a solid balance of greasiness and sauciness, and it is a great place when you want that kind of thing. Finally, Domino’s is highly underrated. They have a great deal for two medium pizzas for $5.99 each. If you get five people together, that’s incredibly cheap. Sure, it’s a massive chain, but part of what makes America great is the ability to go from one coast to the other and feel the comfortable embrace of consumer largesse embracing us from cradle to grave.
Map with local coffee shops and nearby fast food options highlighted. Map made using Google.

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