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Cheap Eats: Cook Out

Backyard grill goodness at the newly opened Cook Out in East Atlanta

About three weeks ago, Cook Out — a seemingly unremarkable fast-food restaurant to the untrained eye — opened near East Atlanta amid the sea of dime-a-dozen fast-food spots along Moreland Avenue. But the North Carolina-based chain is definitely not "just another burger joint." Founded in Greensboro, N.C., in the late 1980s, Cook Out is a fixture in college towns across the Tar Heel State. (Locations exist all over nearby Kentucky, Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, too.) For many college grads and transplants from the region, Cook Out triggers happy memories of late-night, Harold & Kumar-esque excursions to the drive-thru, road trips, and flashbacks to simpler, (drunker?), and freer times. As a result, the strip, which is home to a Checkers, Long John Silver's, Krystal, a recently remodeled Wendy's, McDonald's, and the flagship Delia's Chicken Sausage Stand, has been transformed into an unlikely Atlanta dining destination. People are packing into the place. If you want a bite, prepare for a wait.

BUDGET FRIENDLY: Five bucks. That's Cook Out's calling card. Maximize your dollars by ordering one main course, like a burger, spicy chicken sandwich, or two hot dogs, and then choose two sides such as the deceptively addictive hushpuppies, chili, onion rings, or even a spicy, melty chicken quesadilla. You've just created a "Cook Out Tray" and it will set you back $4.99. The rest of the menu is similar to a spread you might find at a friendly, backyard — you guessed it — cook out, including burgers, hot dogs, barbecue sandwiches, a section of char-grilled chicken sandwiches, densely breaded chicken strips reminiscent of those found in a high school cafeteria (in a good way), and wraps. Another draw is the restaurant's menu of more than 40 milk shakes ($2.79). Choose from existing combinations such as Snickers or cherry cobbler, or get creative and try this recent winner: a walnut, caramel, and cheesecake shake.

BUSY BEE: If you've driven past the restaurant at any hour in the past few weeks you will probably have noticed the hungry mobs spilling forth from the restaurant and a line of cars wrapped around the building. Cook Out has had to employ an intricate system of window-side order takers who manually run food orders to the kitchen because the drive-thru window simply can't handle the volume. To avoid crowds, it might be best to visit during off-hours. Cook Out is also open late: Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-3 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 a.m. Just remember: cash, Visa, and MasterCard only. Count on your Amex and you'll go hungry.

BELT LINE: In the words of Redditor "count_schemula": "Eat enough and yo belly be outside the belt line, #feelme?" It's true. All of the baseline menu items — the Cook Out-style burger and hot dog — come Carolina-style and slapped with a glob of chili and a scoop of slightly sweet creamy coleslaw on top. But Cook Out's "homemade char-grilled hamburgers" come several sizes, so you can choose your burger based on your appetite: small (1/8 pound, $1.39), regular (1/4 pound, $2.79), big double (two quarter-pound patties, $2.99), and huge (1/2 pound, $3.39). The food at Cook Out won't do your figure any favors, but the inherent pleasure of destroying a bag of cooked-to-order greasy goodness (made with fresh ingredients!) is enough to press pause on any diet for one night.

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