Baldrige Award Winner Pal's Sudden Service has cornered the fast food market — in one very small corner of the United States.
The first time you drop by Pal's Sudden Service for a burger, you might, as I did, find yourself driving all the way around the restaurant, looking for the entrance. Don't bother, because there is none. Get in the fast-moving line, behind everyone else, and roll up to the window, where someone — typically very patient, congenial, even — will be glad to take your order. (No talking into a microphone, here.)
You don't pay now; that happens later, after you've driven around the building, typically a rectangular stack of a thing, painted robin's egg blue and appearing to be swallowing a giant hamburger, while also providing a place for a giant hot dog, French fries, and a soda to sit and relax. Pal's is nothing like a normal fast food joint. The whole look screams retro-fabulousness, the kind you see all over Southern California, except that you're thousands of miles away, in East Tennessee.
Founded in the 1950s by Fred "Pal" Barger, Pal's fast food is regarded by its industry peers as one of the best-run burger chains in a country that's spoiled for burger options; so well-oiled a machine is Pal's, it even managed to snag the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award one year — it's an honor that typically goes to hospitals, educational institutions, even luxury hotels. It was the first time the award went to a fast food chain.
After your first Pal's experience, you'll get it. Essentially, this is an In 'N' Out Burger, just for a very different market — well-trained, eager employees, a highly-focused menu, great prices, and good quality. Like In 'N' Out, Pal's isn't looking to dominate the world, but rather to just be the best burger in their chosen corner of the world, which happens to be the Tri-Cities region, a loose collection of growing communities straddling the Tennessee and Virginia line. Bristol, Johnson City, Kingsport — they're not places most Americans have been unless they're road-tripping down I-81 from the Northeast into the South. It makes sense, then, that Pal's has gone all but unnoticed by the wider world, even a half-century after its story began.
Burgers comprise the bulk of Pal's menu — the refreshingly simple SauceBurger is the most basic option, an all-beef patty with Pal's own sauce, a ketchup-based affair with just a little bit of heat behind it. There's a chili burger, too, and a Big Pal, with a 1/3-pound patty, or the Double Big Pal, which is the baller option; with cheese. There's a very popular hot dog, topped with mustard, diced onions, and chili. They also do sandwiches on hamburger buns — ham and chicken. (A lot of locals get very nostalgic about those, but these are probably not where you want to start.)
The fries, however, referred to as Frenchie Fries, are a must — they come sprinkled with a really good seasoning salt blend. You wouldn't want to eat these every day, or if you did, you'd want to ask your friendly Pal's representative at the first window if they might cool it on the salt but don't be surprised if you scarf these down faster than you'd expect, no matter how they come out.
The drink menu contains a number of surprises — we'll start with the fact that you can get a Dr. Enuf. Never heard of it? Again, this is a brand that never traveled far from its East Tennessee home; the classic, lemon-lime soda with added vitamins and nutrients is bottled locally in Johnson City. Mello Yello and Mr. Pibb are also offered, along with the less obscure Coke brands. There are vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry shakes, but they aren't necessarily as craveable as the potent iced teas, which you can zip up with peach or raspberry flavoring. (You can actually put peach or raspberry in any of your soda choices as well if you're feeling experimental.)
The real magic of Pal's, perhaps, is revealed the first time you stop by for breakfast. (Yes, they have breakfast. It is very good.)
The menu is, once again, extremely straightforward, they don't even bother trying to do anything with eggs — your choices are, well, biscuits. You can do a few things with your biscuit, but in this part of the world, you're best off opting for the country ham or sausage options — both are a massive cut above the usual fast-food breakfast meats. You also might like to get the sausage gravy biscuit, as long as you're not going to be eating the thing while you're driving.
Do not, under any circumstances, ignore the Cheddar Rounds. Essentially a mash-up of a fried cheese curd and a hashbrown, they are the thing you never knew breakfast needed. Just do as in-the-know Pal's fans do, and ask for "extra heat." That means they'll come out perfectly crispy, every single time.