Is Cook Out All It's Cracked Up To Be?

Touted as "The In-N-Out of the Southeast," this regional champ struggles to impress.

One of the best things about relocating is the chance to try new food. So, after a recent move to North Carolina, I was eager to visit a particular regional fast food chain that seems to dominates the area's low cost/high calorie scene. And no, I'm not talking about Waffle House. I'm talking about my first ever visit to Cook Out.

I first laid eyes on the brand's distinctive billboards during a ten-month stint in Tennessee, but never got around to sampling its fare. This was something I regretted after the move back north, especially after learning of Cook Out's reputation as the In-N-Out Burger of the Southeast. Now back in the region once more, I decided to rectify this oversight immediately.

What is Cook Out, and what makes it so popular?

Cook Out's model is deceptively simple: two drive-thru lanes, one walk-up window, and no indoor seating. Locations are open late (2:30 a.m. Sunday-Thursday and 3:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday), the food is affordably priced, and the large menu offers a wealth of customization with Cook Out Trays, the chain's signature combo meal. While there are a few outlets that offer patrons a dining room for the chance to enjoy their burgers and shakes inside, the locations I've seen stick with outdoor picnic tables.


All of these factors make for a broadly accessible experience. Second shift workers, college kids stumbling home from the bar, and insomniacs with a case of the munchies can look for the bright sign and plume of grill smoke for an inexpensive late night meal.

My visit was a bit earlier than that, just before 11 on a Sunday morning. After perusing the massive menu board, I settled on what I felt represented a wide sampling of the Cook Out experience.

The hits and misses on Cook Out’s menu

Let's start with an unexpected highlight, the Cook Out BBQ Sandwich. Now, my home state of Wisconsin isn't exactly known for its rampant barbecue scene, so while I enjoy slow-smoked and shredded meat, I'm by no means an expert. Indeed, one North Carolina local specifically mentioned that Cook Out's barbecue is unimpressive. But I have to say, I kind of enjoyed it.


The sandwich consists of finely chopped pork, topped with Cook Out's "Homemade Slaw & Hot Sauce." The texture of the meat was appealing (if a touch dry), and the smokiness balanced nicely with the toppings. It's a simple offering, for sure, but the price and flavors were on point. BBQ aficionados might be disappointed, but it set my hopes high as I reached back into the bag.

Next came the Crispy Spicy Chicken Breast Filet, served Regular Spicy Style with lettuce, tomato, and onion. The vegetables were freshly sliced and crisp, and that's where my positive comments end. It's not so much that the sandwich tasted bad, but that it barely tasted of anything. There was a bit of black pepper heat on the back end, and the vague, meaty texture that lets you know you're consuming some form of salted protein. But well-salted nothing is still nothing, and such was the unfortunate case with this sandwich. The Spicy Chicken at Wendy's and Popeyes have nothing to fear from Cook Out.


Now we come to the item I was most looking forward to—the "Cook Out Style" burger, topped with homemade chili, slaw, mustard, and onion.

When I was a kid, my dad would grill two types of hamburgers: regular, unadulterated ground beef patties for the family, and a batch of patties mixed with breadcrumbs and egg for himself. This later method produced a meatloaf-like texture, of which I was decidedly not a fan. And with my very first bite of the "Cook Out Style" burger, my tastebuds were catapulted back through time. Sitting there in my car, I was suddenly ten years old again, realizing that I'd plucked a patty from the wrong plate.

Based on its appearance and toppings, I should have loved this burger. The seasoning was adequate, the size was just right, and I was hungry as hell. But the crumbly, dry meatloaf texture of the Cook Out hamburger did not sit well with my palate. As a kid, I would have saved the experience by piling on the ketchup. But I'm a big boy now, so after one more bite of the patty on its own for confirmation, I stopped eating.

Rounding out the meal were the hushpuppies, Cajun fries, and a chocolate chip cheesecake shake. The hushpuppies came crispy, hot, and dense, with the slightly sweet flavor of the cornmeal. If you're into this kind of side, Cook Out does them right. The fries, too, were on point, though in a different way than you might expect. These are the soft, bendy type of fries that I sometimes crave, with a kiss of zesty seasoning on the exterior and a creamy, pillow-like texture to the potatoes. Without question, these were the high point of my visit.


The shake, unfortunately, was a bit of a nonstarter. Not only was the interior undrinkably dense, but the outer layer managed to melt and drip all over my clothes as I struggled to extract the drink from the straw. That's a "me" problem, though, not a knock on Cook Out. I got enough of a taste to know that, given some time to melt, this could have been a fine if unexceptional dessert. Next time, I'll go for the "Double Chocolate" option.

Is Cook Out worth seeking out?

As someone who's never eaten at an In-N-Out, I don't feel equipped to judge Cook Out by that standard. But I've eaten my share of Culver's and Five Guys, and I vastly prefer those offerings to Cook Out. If you're a fan of the fare at Rally's or Checkers, or if you find yourself pining for the glory days of Hot 'n Now, then a visit to Cook Out will probably scratch the itch.


But for me, there seems to be something missing, both from the burgers and the experience itself. Yes, Cook Out succeeds in conjuring that "backyard barbecue" feel, but unfortunately, it's the kind of awkward work or school function type of barbecue where ten people show up with the same potato salad, only one person is manning the grill, and the food is something you consume pro forma, trying not to fill up and hoping for a better meal later in the day. I was genuinely hoping for that "Local Burger Dive" charm, but I'm sad to report it just wasn't there.

All that being said, I can see myself giving Cook Out another shot. Have you seen that menu? It's a big one, and the combo system offers some intriguing possibilities. I'd be curious to get my hands on one of the chain's chili dogs or quesadillas. And for all my misgivings, the entire cost of my visit—three sandwiches, two generous sides, and a large shake—was just under $26. There's something to be said for the sheer volume of possibilities here, especially given the late hours and the variety of the Cook Out Trays. Or maybe it's just the memory of those Cajun fries drawing me back in for another bite.