Hell on Wheels: The Story of Sonic
You’ll come for the show, but you won’t stay for the food.
By Mark Stenberg, University of Texas at Austin
As comedian Cody Hustak points out, you can drive to Sonic between 2:00 and 4:00 for half-price drinks, or you can rollerblade there anytime for free food and money.
And while my strict moral and professional code legally obligates me to discourage identity fraud, I find within Hustak’s criminal suggestion a salient point about Sonic’s business model.
More so than many other hamburger chains, America’s Drive Through relies on its non food-related kitsch to anchor its appeal. Rollerblading servers—the iconic Sonic calling card—offer no gastronomic incentive, only the appeal of schadenfreude reminiscent of the kind present at freak shows or comedy roasts.
The drive-in format, steeped in nostalgia and abundant in inefficiency, takes modern diners back to simpler times with its quaint charm.
The novel menu format, push-to-order button and outdoor seating arena all draw attention toward the experience and away from the food, which piqued my curiosity as to the quality of their fare.
An important nota bene: my qualifications for informed food-reviews include more than five years of professional cooking experience, most recently at Bon Appetit’s 2013 Best Restaurant of the Year. I also was a college student, and ate mostly terrible food.
My experience with both ends of the spectrum allows me to judge, with less bias than most, the objective tastiness of food. I understand restaurants, cooking and fine dining, but am also versed in junk food, being broke and having no time to cook.
As a result, I can be frank about the taste of shitty food, because while I recognize most food chain is empirically terrible, if it actually does taste good then I happily morph into a flotsam-loving bottom feeder at the drop of a dime.
During my visit, I found Sonic had a few hits and several misses. The service was fantastic, though unbladed. Our server helped reswipe our credit cards after the machine failed to work, and after I lied and told him it was my first time at Sonic (to explain all the food), he gave me five (5) free Medium Cherry Limeade coupons.
The waitstaff also, without prompting, paired our foods with appropriate sauces. Our waiter slid me two mints, and as if sharing a secret, told me the mints were actually really good, and that I should feel free to eat them at any point during the meal.
We began our meal with the Mozzarella Sticks ($2.49), which our server paired with marinara sauce, and the Ched ‘R’ Bites ($1.59), paired with Ranch. Eating the cheese-filled fried goods together allowed for interesting comparisons as they shared several features. The crunchy, hot crust was perfect on each—and honestly a highlight of the entire meal.
The innards, one a thick white rope, the other a nacho-cheese lava tinged with a spiciness that played soft sweet notes, took different paths. The Mozzarella was a misfire, but the hot cheese, crunchy coating, and subtle spice made the Bites a real treat—bear in mind, the Mini order only offered two, and many more may have counteracted their appeal.
I ordered the Classic Crispy Chicken Sandwich ($4.49) and the Footlong Quarter Pound Coney ($3.59), while my dining companion opted for the Sonic Cheeseburger ($3.79), New York Dog ($1.99), and Tater Tots ($1.19). Nothing in particular stood out.
The Chicken Sandwich was served on ciabatta bread—a touching gesture—but the bun, all the buns mind you, we’re on the cold side of town. The chicken had chew but no flavor and a surplus of mayo. The Coney looked attractive, but the chili was oddly sweet and dissolved in my mouth in a very suspect manner.
The cheeseburger held its own, and try as I might, I could not resist the charms of its smushed wheaty bun.
The tomatoes were the standard lifeless orbs, and the meat had thinned itself nearly into oblivion.
The New York Dog was a dim glow of flavor, mostly as a result of the bright Dijon and raw onion—perhaps the most flavorful of our entrées. The Tater Tots, a comforting classic, could do no wrong and I gladly would have welcomed more.
We each had Medium Cherry Limeade in lieu of a shake or slush, which may seem a glaring omission to Sonic drink-devotees, but I will personally vouch for any ice cream concoction Sonic serves. The week prior I enjoyed a Coconut Cream Pie Shake ($3.49), while my friend enjoyed the Peanut Butter Fudge Shake ($3.49).
Almost without exception I would say that a trip to Sonic is incomplete without one of their drinks. Overall, Sonic’s strengths lie in their unique atmosphere and drink concoctions—a fact its owners know well, and one that explains the diminutive spotlight the food receives: she’s not a go-to dinner option, but a wonderful haunt on a warm summer night.