We visited the regional Southern chain that loyal fans say is better than In-N-Out and Shake Shack - here's what it's like

Cook Out 17Hollis Johnson

New Yorkers love Shake Shack. The West Coast swears by In-N-Out.

But North Carolinians say that there's one burger chain that trumps them all.

Cook Out is a North Carolina-based fast-food chain serving up burgers, barbecue, and milkshakes, and it's renowned in the South for its low prices and high quality.

But if you don't live in one of the 10 states the chain calls home, you might have never heard of this cult restaurant and its fervent following.

So, we went to Richmond, Virginia, to sample the much-hyped chain and see how it measured up to the coastal titans of the burger business.

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But a question lingers: Is it better than Shake Shack or In-N-Out? In terms of burger quality, probably not. But, if you're looking for a chain that serves a corn dog as a side and a burger covered in coleslaw and chili, Cook Out will beat the coastal elite competitors any day of the week.

But a question lingers: Is it better than Shake Shack or In-N-Out? In terms of burger quality, probably not. But, if you're looking for a chain that serves a corn dog as a side and a burger covered in coleslaw and chili, Cook Out will beat the coastal elite competitors any day of the week.

The shockingly low pricing makes Cook Out a destination unto itself, and the quality of the food is solid. The barbecue pork is tender and juicy, and the burger is stalwart in its simplicity. Cook Out has a leg up on the competition thanks to the inclusion of Southern fast-food classics on the menu — and, of course, the more than 40 flavors of milkshakes.

The shockingly low pricing makes Cook Out a destination unto itself, and the quality of the food is solid. The barbecue pork is tender and juicy, and the burger is stalwart in its simplicity. Cook Out has a leg up on the competition thanks to the inclusion of Southern fast-food classics on the menu — and, of course, the more than 40 flavors of milkshakes.

The mint chocolate chip is another crowd pleaser. Again, Cook Out doesn't skimp on add-ins — the chain has packed it with chocolate chips, which provide a rich counterbalance to the mint. The biggest issue (if you can call it that) with Cook Out's shakes is simply how filling they are. Finishing one in addition to the hearty tray of food is probably more calories than we should ingest in a day, much less a meal. But the shakes are so tasty, it's hard not to just keep going.

The mint chocolate chip is another crowd pleaser. Again, Cook Out doesn't skimp on add-ins — the chain has packed it with chocolate chips, which provide a rich counterbalance to the mint. The biggest issue (if you can call it that) with Cook Out's shakes is simply how filling they are. Finishing one in addition to the hearty tray of food is probably more calories than we should ingest in a day, much less a meal. But the shakes are so tasty, it's hard not to just keep going.

The milkshakes are perhaps the thickest ever made — they're practically ice cream in a cup. And this is no complaint; while difficult to drink at first, waiting a few minutes helps. Or, you can take the quickest route and just use a spoon. There's a wealth of Reese's chunks throughout — no skimping here.

The milkshakes are perhaps the thickest ever made — they're practically ice cream in a cup. And this is no complaint; while difficult to drink at first, waiting a few minutes helps. Or, you can take the quickest route and just use a spoon. There's a wealth of Reese's chunks throughout — no skimping here.

As we picked up our milkshakes, we noticed something else that isn't present at most fast-food joints: a Bible verse printed on the cup, plus, a patriotic "God Bless America" next to it.

As we picked up our milkshakes, we noticed something else that isn't present at most fast-food joints: a Bible verse printed on the cup, plus, a patriotic "God Bless America" next to it.

Less inspiring are the onion rings, which attempt to overcompensate for a lack of flavor with an oversized structure that often ends up unwieldy and limp. They're okay, but that's it.

Less inspiring are the onion rings, which attempt to overcompensate for a lack of flavor with an oversized structure that often ends up unwieldy and limp. They're okay, but that's it.

The hush puppies, another traditional Southern addition, pack a punch. The taste of cornmeal is robust and flavor-forward in these crispy fried nuggets of Southern hospitality.

The hush puppies, another traditional Southern addition, pack a punch. The taste of cornmeal is robust and flavor-forward in these crispy fried nuggets of Southern hospitality.

The choice of sides is astounding in its breadth. You can get a corn dog as a side with your burger — what a time to be alive. This corn dog won't change your life, but the mere fact that it can be ordered is reason to celebrate.

The choice of sides is astounding in its breadth. You can get a corn dog as a side with your burger — what a time to be alive. This corn dog won't change your life, but the mere fact that it can be ordered is reason to celebrate.

It's a shame that a lot of fast-food chains don't have barbecue pork on the menu, but it makes Cook Out's all the better. The pork is incredibly tender and rich — just fatty enough to satisfy the brain's primal taste receptors. The slaw plays a bright and crisp foil to the meat, and the bun is noble in its simplicity and strength.

It's a shame that a lot of fast-food chains don't have barbecue pork on the menu, but it makes Cook Out's all the better. The pork is incredibly tender and rich — just fatty enough to satisfy the brain's primal taste receptors. The slaw plays a bright and crisp foil to the meat, and the bun is noble in its simplicity and strength.

Cook Out's real star shines with another item not found at most fast-food joints: the barbecue sandwich. It's the right size — filling, but not overwrought. It's unique without being flashy.

Cook Out's real star shines with another item not found at most fast-food joints: the barbecue sandwich. It's the right size — filling, but not overwrought. It's unique without being flashy.

The beef and the hearty chili add a satisfying heft despite the burger's standard size. The cole slaw and mustard add a vinegary kick that cuts through the savory chili, and the cole slaw also adds a unique crunch to the textural tapestry of the burger. This is a burger inspired by unique Carolinian culinary traditions — you can't get that at any old In-N-Out.

The beef and the hearty chili add a satisfying heft despite the burger's standard size. The cole slaw and mustard add a vinegary kick that cuts through the savory chili, and the cole slaw also adds a unique crunch to the textural tapestry of the burger. This is a burger inspired by unique Carolinian culinary traditions — you can't get that at any old In-N-Out.

The Double Burger is far from a classic fast-food burger, especially when ordered Cook Out style. The burger is topped with chili, cole slaw, mustard, and onion, which makes for a surprisingly balanced palate.

The Double Burger is far from a classic fast-food burger, especially when ordered Cook Out style. The burger is topped with chili, cole slaw, mustard, and onion, which makes for a surprisingly balanced palate.

Our food order consisted of two combo trays — a lot of food for less than $15.

Our food order consisted of two combo trays — a lot of food for less than $15.

There are more than 40 flavors to choose from — picking just one is a Sisyphean task. So, we ordered two: mint chocolate chip and Reese's Cup.

There are more than 40 flavors to choose from — picking just one is a Sisyphean task. So, we ordered two: mint chocolate chip and Reese's Cup.

And then ... there are the milkshakes.

And then ... there are the milkshakes.

The menu is wide-ranging, and the best way to sample it is by ordering a Cook Out Tray. The food is outrageously inexpensive when compared to what we typically see in New York City, and where else can you get a quesadilla and a corn dog as sides in addition to your entree?

The menu is wide-ranging, and the best way to sample it is by ordering a Cook Out Tray. The food is outrageously inexpensive when compared to what we typically see in New York City, and where else can you get a quesadilla and a corn dog as sides in addition to your entree?

As we walked into the rustic-themed restaurant, gentle strains of Christian rock piped endlessly over the speakers — the kind of songs where you can't quite tell if the lyrics are describing a romantic love or a more spiritual suitor.

As we walked into the rustic-themed restaurant, gentle strains of Christian rock piped endlessly over the speakers — the kind of songs where you can't quite tell if the lyrics are describing a romantic love or a more spiritual suitor.

While Cook Out is known for its classic drive-thru locations with outdoor seating, the chain has recently been opening more sit-down restaurants.

While Cook Out is known for its classic drive-thru locations with outdoor seating, the chain has recently been opening more sit-down restaurants.
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