No. 12: Sonic (Oak Street)
1890 E. Oak Street
7.8 percent done with Conway restaurants based on the current list
She Said: I needed a quick lunch between running errands in Little Rock and a conference call with clients, so Ruud came to pick me up and we rolled to our neighborhood Sonic to snag some fast food and bring it home. That way he could see our new puppy on his lunch hour. We had recently returned from a two-week trip to China and were in the mood for something easy and familiar.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll be clear: I love Sonic. I mean actual love. When I’m going to gut-bust on the calorie count with fast food, Sonic is my go-to. This is probably because when we moved here in 2003, you were in England, Ruud, and my sweet friend Sarah traveled the 1,000 miles with me to Arkansas from South Dakota and dog and cat wrangled with me as I closed on the house in Conway and managed the move. On move-in day, I was trapped with the animals in the guest room as the movers unloaded, and we were famished. Sarah went hunting and gathering and came back with bags of burgers and fries from Sonic, which I had never heard of before. Sitting on the floor in our guest room, starving, stressed and overwhelmed, that burger tasted better to me than any burger I had ever had.
There’s an idea in market research (my day job) that we all create a code around the first time we experience something, an emotional nut that forms in our minds that will almost always remain inviolate unless something catastrophic overrides it. Clearly, I was a blank slate on which that delicious Sonic burger wrote what was to be a very long love story. Every time I indulge in their food, I recall the feelings of that first taste, the satisfaction, the soothing flavors of quick calories and emotional eating to-go.
He Said: Well, the thing I like about Sonic is that it’s a flashback to an earlier time—as a kid, if my family wanted to go out to eat, what we could afford was essentially a drive-in restaurant, “Dog & Suds,” where I could get a hot dog and a root beer delivered by a carhop and eaten in the car. And in high school, “dinner and a movie” was often taking the girl to a drive in (most likely A&W) for a burger, and then to a drive-in movie, so you could have an entire date and never leave your car. Those were the days.
Both drive-in theaters and drive-in restaurants are pretty much a thing of the American-Graffiti past, but Sonic, almost single-handedly, continues that tradition. Of course, in late July in Arkansas you’d be out of your mind to sit in the car and eat, so we got the food and took it home. We aren’t completely crazy, after all.
She Said: Ah, now you’re making me want A&W, Ruud! But, you’re right: Sonic has a little more “mood” than other fast-food places because of the people who bring the food to your car in your parking spot, instead of the conveyor-belt feeling of drive-up windows. It’s also the kind of place, since you’re not going to get out of your car, where you can wear your $5, knee-length, elephant-print pants from the Mong Kok market in Hong Kong and your 30-year-old Violent Femmes concert t-shirt if you feel like it. Or so I am told. The ordering system also means you can take all the time you want with the menu because you push the button to order when you’re ready. We took a lot of time, because Ruud wasn’t as familiar with the goodness of Sonic as I was.
He Said: There is no question that I am the world’s slowest orderer, which is always a problem in the drive-through. But this isn’t a drive-through, it’s a drive-in. As for ambience, it basically depends on what the inside of your car looks like, because that’s the ambience here. The inside of mine looked fine, even with the Violent Femmes T-shirt.
She Said: Don’t forget the dog-hair that your car likes to accumulate. Sonic is the Starbucks of soda and cold drinks, with many drinks and multiple customizable options. I don’t like sweet drinks, so I’m not one of those people with a Sonic drink order as individual as my fingerprints. Even so, I’m pretty happy with Sonic because the unsweet ice tea I get there is really stellar. It’s not too strong (which hurts my stomach if I drink too much of it because I’m old), and is tasty and nicely iced.
He Said: Yes. I was intrigued by the plethora of “add ins” that were available for infusing your soft-drink (obviously, this contributed to my drawn-out ordering performance). What I chose was the root beer with a shot of vanilla. A brilliant choice, as it turns out.
She Said: I’ve explained how I feel about the food, now I’ll write about the actual order. For this Sonic visit, I chose my standard, plus dessert, because I was advised that Sonic has “great ice cream.” On the menu, I could not find a hamburger listed. They only list cheeseburgers in various iterations, so I always order a “cheeseburger with no cheese,” which makes me feel ridiculous, though apparently, this is a “Sonic Burger”—which is not listed on the menu poster that I could find—plus half the time it comes with cheese anyway. On this visit, I ordered a cheeseburger, no cheese and no tomato, with mayo, and French fries, an unsweet tea, along with a hot-fudge sundae. I got a cheeseburger with no tomato. If I had to pick an error, I’d rather have them leave the tomato on, as then I can reach in and take it off. The melted cheese is unfixable, and I am the one person you’ve met who doesn’t like cheddar cheese. So, this time I wasn’t that happy with the burger (though the emotional eating-my-feelings code was still discernable). The fries there are good, not great, and these were a little wilted. I love the iced tea, and the ice cream sundae was tasty, though I thought they were a little lean on the hot fudge. I love Sonic, but for all the calories I consumed in this meal, I wasn’t completely satisfied. So, I guess this was a low in our relationship.
He Said: You definitely got hosed on your order, Jones. It is pretty weird to have a fast food joint in which “hamburger” is not an option. As for me, it’s incredibly difficult to find a healthy option on the Sonic menu. It appears at first that every single item on the menu is fried. If your eyesight is really good, though (which mine is not—fortunately I had Jones with me to read the fine print), you may notice that it is possible to get a grilled chicken sandwich, rather than a breaded and fried one. And so that’s where I went. The chicken was lean and the sandwich tasty—at least as good as can be found at other fast-food places.
If you want to eat healthy and are planning to go to Sonic, here’s a tip: like many other large chains, Sonic has a nutritional chart available online at http://fastfoodnutrition.org/sonic/chart
This chart reveals some rather alarming facts: A bacon cheeseburger at Sonic, for example contains 59 grams of fat—which is more than the total amount of fat that I can comfortably eat in an entire day. A Super Sonic Double Cheeseburger with Mayo has 87(!) grams of fat. The Deluxe Ultimate Chicken Sandwich has 39 grams, but my Grilled Chicken Sandwich had only 20 grams of fat. Still a good amount for one item in my daily diet, but doable. Of course, I foolishly added Tater Tots to that amount. They were pretty crispy and delicious actually, but did add another 19 grams of fat to my lunch. Still, I escaped with less than 40 grams of fat for that meal. I just needed to be really careful the rest of the day. And you should be careful and take it easy when ordering at Sonic.
She Said: I usually have very friendly service at Sonic, though it can be hard to hear over the intercoms in the order bays if the staffer isn’t speaking clearly. Today, our waitress came to the car, checked every item with us (though I should have opened up the burger to make sure it had no cheese) and told us she had given us extra napkins, etc. I usually tip a few bucks, as the wait stuff have to deal with weather and wildly dressed customers, or so I hear.
He Said: The server was perky and the order came quickly, so nothing to complain about there, but to have your order ignored and to get a cheeseburger anyway is a definite problem.
What We Got and What We Paid: Cheeseburger (!), medium French fries, medium iced tea, hot fudge sundae, grilled chicken sandwich, medium tater tots and a medium root beer with a vanilla shot for $17.80.
She Said: I’ll give Sonic more chances because of how I felt about them all those years ago, but I wish they would stop making me eat cheeseburgers.
He Said: I probably won’t be going too often—the food tastes good, but it’s hard to eat healthy here. I might return just for the soda with the add-in, though.
So…He Said and She Said: Pretty good fast food at a reasonable price, with some tasty options for drinks but limited options