Road Trip

Chow down on these easy-to-eat road trip-friendly foods

Fast food and fast casual restaurants offer many options for road trip diners, who could also opt to BYO food from home.

Photo by Getty Images

Summer has come to a close, but road trip season is still in full swing as people journey to see their football teams take on rivals in towns near and far before then setting off to visit relatives for the holidays. Where to eat while you're on the road? AutomotiveMap has you covered.

Whataburger

Whataburger's honey butter chicken biscuit, fondly abbreviated "HBCB", is a perennial classic in the state of Texas. The fried chicken, flaky biscuit, and honey melt in your mouth. Enjoy a side of tater tots and wash it all down with coffee or orange juice.

For a car full of passengers, a tray of cinnamon rolls can make for an easy breakfast option. Heck, make it a tradition!

Note that the breakfast is only available from 11:00 pm-11:00 am though many Whataburgers are open 24/7.

If you're at Whataburger during non-breakfast hours we recommend the #14 combo – fried chicken, Texas toast, fries, and a drink.

Whataburger is currently only in southern states, but BDT Capital Partners (based in Chicago), recently bought a majority stake in the company. Might this mean expansion north? We can hope.

Houston hero J.J. Watt has another idea: "I say we all chip in and buy Whataburger back. Make honey butter chicken biscuits available all day, add kolaches to the menu and change nothing else. Especially not the ketchup."

Sonic

Located across the United States, Sonic offers a wide variety of menu items with a free side of nostalgic appeal. We recommend popcorn chicken, tater tots, and a limeade or strawberry slush. With its roller skating waitstaff and option to drive-in (vs. just drive through), Sonic is a unique on-the-go dining choice.

Buc-ee's

Buc-ee's is a modern-day general store. You can fill your vehicle with gas, use a very clean restroom (certainly not to be taken for granted when on a road trip), buy home dΓ©cor and clothing (some Bucee's-branded, some not), and choose from a plethora of food options.

Our picks? Kolaches and fudge (perhaps not together). Kolaches, a flavorful combination of meat, cheese, or other fillings wrapped in warm, puffy dough, are both delicious and a nod to Texas's past. Popularized by the Czech settlers in Texas in the 1800's, kolaches are still popular in the state today. Buc-ee's also has a wide variety of fudge flavors, ranging from classic chocolate, to peanut butter and chocolate, to nut-filled.

McDonald's

Many McDonald's restaurants (even in airports) allow you to order via their app. Get your family's order of nuggets (add dipping sauce at your own risk), milkshakes, and fries queued up so when you pull in, it's easy grab and go. Remember, kids can opt for apple slices instead of fries, but then you're trading greasy hands for sticky fingers. For a snack, grab an apple pie.

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Starbucks

Whether you opt for coffee or tea, you can enjoy a bite with your drink that will fill you up through lunch. Instead of opting for their hot sandwiches or eggs, try a piece of loaf or a small vanilla scone, both of which are easy to eat while behind the wheel. A meat and cheese tray from their prepared food section is also a good option.

In-N-Out

The glowing yellow arrow of the In-N-Out sign is iconic. Travelers often make this California-born chain their first and last stop when arriving in the state. Roadtrippers can find In-N-Outs scattered throughout California, from San Diego in the south to Redding in the north. In-N-Out continues to expand north and east with locations in Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Texas.

For drivers, we recommend a cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake. Passengers can order similarly but should get their fries "animal style" – smothered with a delicious secret sauce that's a little messy so make sure extra napkins are handy.

Taco Bell

There aren't many things on the Taco Bell menu that are easy to eat while behind the wheel. The quesadilla is one of them. You could choose be a hero and attempt a burrito, but you might want to spend some time constructing a napkin bid and thigh covering before you dig in.

Chick-fil-A

This bastion of fast food, which was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, has spread throughout much of the United States. Chick-fil-a is best known for its chicken sandwich, nuggets, waffles fries, and lemonade. On an especially hot day, the frosted lemonade makes for a very refreshing treat. If you prefer some spice in your life, Chick-fil-a's spicy chicken sandwich is a palate pleaser. Kid-sized cones of Ice Dream are a good choice for kids who deserve to be rewarded for their in-car behavior.

For quick service in the restaurant or when going through the drive thru, order via the company's app ahead of arriving at the restaurant.

Gluten Free Choices

Need to be gluten free? Most fast food comes fried and breaded, but consumers can make their meal mostly gluten-free with a bit of savvy ordering. At burger places, ask for your burger to be wrapped in lettuce rather than placed in a bun. At Chick-fil-A, order the grilled nuggets over the grilled chicken sandwich on a crumbly gluten free bun.

Bring Food From Home

Another option is to bring food from home. Sandwiches wrapped in foil make eating with one hand simple, especially when cut into smaller portions. Bite-size food, such as cheese, crackers, sliced meats, and chopped vegetables, work well too.

If all else fails? Stop at the nearest gas station and load up on classic road trip fare – chips, candy, and sugary drinks.

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Nuts & Bolts

 
 

The Polaris Slingshot SL is a capable carver but its automatic transmission isn't ready for prime time.

Photo by Chris Tonn

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." I doubt Mike Tyson knew he was paraphrasing 19th century Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke the Elder when he said it, but still, it's a great sentiment that perfectly describes the trip I had behind the wheel of a 2020 Polaris Slingshot SL.

The plan was to enjoy the open-topped nature of the Slingshot while winding my way from my home in Ohio through the vibrant leaves and majestic mountain vistas of West Virginia. Due to the pandemic, I still refuse to eat in restaurants – so I planned on sampling the unique cuisine of the region while driving the two-lanes.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The two-seater Slingshot SL is currently on the market for around $26,000.Photo by Chris Tonn

My first day of driving was magnificent, with cool temperatures and great roads delivering smooth asphalt to eat up. My return trip punched me in the mouth with a steady, frigid rain, paired with accidents on the interstate that kept me at a standstill while rainwater pooled on my lap.

That's I found out the hard way that you can't nosh on a pepperoni roll while wearing a full-faced helmet.

For the uninitiated, the pepperoni roll is a West Virginia delicacy - somewhat reminiscent of a Hot Pocket - developed by migrant Italian miners looking for a hardy lunch that could be carried down into the shafts without need for refrigeration. It's exactly what it sounds like – pepperoni (either in stick form or sliced as one might find on pizza) baked into a pocketable bread roll. The oils from the cured meat ooze into the dough, creating a layer of soft, slick bun that glistens with the color of a setting sun.

Pepperoni rolls are ultimately filled with carbohydrates, a touch of protein, salt, and all of the essential spiced greases that I need to at least maintain my lingering obesity. Indeed, pepperoni rolls aren't the healthiest snack in the world – but they're marvelous in moderation. After all, you don't ever read clickbait-y stories shadow-written by chambers of commerce and placed on sites listing the twenty-five best salads, do you? Nope. You read about guilty indulgences.

West Virginia autumn field The Polaris Slingshot SL served as a chariot for an autumn drive.Photo by Chris Tonn

Like the pepperoni roll, the Polaris Slingshot isn't meant for daily consumption. It's an acquired taste, something that isn't seen everyday. Heck, depending on the jurisdiction, it isn't even considered a car.

To find the best rolls in the state, I reached out to Candace Nelson. She literally wrote the book on the pepperoni roll. She pointed me to a couple of towns southwest of Morgantown, Clarksburg and Fairmont. As one might expect from small family-run businesses peddling a regional niche product, there are arguments among the proprietors about who was "first." Partisan patrons will further argue about which is best. But, really, it's meat and bread. What's not to like?

In Clarksburg, I sampled D'Annunzio's and Tomaro's bakeries. It was a Sunday morning when I rolled up to D'Annunzio's, a small shop nestled in what feels like an old residential area on the western side of town. Cars parked on both sides of the one-way street as people picked up bags of rolls and loaves of bread. One gentleman rolled up in a beautifully restored 1952 Buick, which grabbed the attention of passersby.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The pepperoni roll has been a staple of West Virginia cuisine for decades.Photo by Chris Tonn

The proprietor of crosstown rival Tomaro's, when I told him that I'd driven from Ohio just to sample his wares, walked to the back of his shop and returned with two rolls that were straight from the oven. And warned me to grab napkins – which I heeded. Still, sizzling orange grease streamed down my right arm as I bit in.

I tried to continue munching as I pulled away, only to remember that I'd strapped on a helmet. All but two states classify the Slingshot as an autocycle - New York and Massachusetts call it a motorcycle, meaning a motorcycle license is required. One helpful gent, noticing me struggle with a helmeted bite, told me that I didn't need to wear a helmet in West Virginia (laws vary by state). Whether true, Polaris made me sign a number of documents before handing over the key fob requiring me to wear a helmet. I really don't want my insurance claim denied should a bird decide to fly into my face as I'm negotiating a mountain switchback at speed, so I dutifully tossed the remainder of my roll in the glove compartment and wiped the orange grease from my face shield.

I stopped for fuel and a soda, and encountered the pepperoni roll with which I'm most familiar. Home Industry Bakery of Clarksburg sells rolls throughout the state in gas stations and other convenience stores – I've even found them just across the river in Ohio when we visit the in-laws in Marietta. Home Industry sells a variety of rolls – some baked with cheese alongside the pepperoni. Yes, I bought a few of these for the glovebox, and pointed my three-wheeled chariot east. The next morning, I drove to Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, some twenty miles northeast of Clarksburg, to find a historical marker claiming they were the home of the original pepperoni roll.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The Slingshot is the perfect leaf-peeping-mobile, unless it rains.Photo by Chris Tonn

While the roads in the Clarksburg/Fairmont area are quite hilly, proceeding east on US 50 brings you into the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. Up and down, through the trees, the road invites you to push the limits of your vehicle and your nerve. The Slingshot was a mostly faithful companion on these twisties, gripping beautifully and turning in with verve. Further, Polaris has replaced the old Chevrolet Ecotec engine that had powered previous Slingshots with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder of their own design. Getting 178 horsepower at 8500 rpm in this SL trim is plenty to, yes, slingshot the three-wheeler out of switchbacks with alacrity. The upmarket Slingshot R delivers even more power, with 203 horses at the ready.

My gripe comes with the new AutoDrive automated manual five-speed transmission, which is standard on the SL trim. The more powerful Slingshot R offers a standard five-speed manual or buyers can upgrade to the AutoDrive transmission. In some ways, the AutoDrive is quite like a traditional manual – there's no torque converter, so releasing the brake while on a hill allows the car to roll. It doesn't creep forward at a light.

Unfortunately, those tendencies are overshadowed by the lack of refinement in the driving experience. It can be a challenge to pull away from a traffic light smoothly, as the transition from brake to throttle seemingly confuses the automated clutch and yields a chirp to the big rear tire that will surely grab the attention of passerby. Further, when trying to drive quickly in the mountains, I found the transmission painfully slow to shift. I'd send a size-12 request for a downshift via a stomp on the right pedal, only to be met with what seemed like an eternity while the transmission decided what to do. A downshift would then come with a clunk.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The Polaris Slingshot SL rides on two 17-inch front wheels and an 18-inch back wheel.Photo by Chris Tonn

Polaris tells me that the AutoDrive opens the Slingshot up to more drivers who don't want to (or can't) drive a manual – and I get that. It's mostly decent in the type of driving where I've typically seen the Slingshot – cruising the strip with music blasting, much as one might do on a warm summers' night. But when the rest of the car practically invites enthusiastic driving, the transmission really needs to play along, and the AutoDrive is not quite ready for prime time.

The interior is surprisingly roomy. I'm six feet, four inches tall, and I had leg room to spare. Head room, naturally, isn't an issue in a vehicle without a top. The seat looks quite basic, covered in a waterproof vinyl – but it's supportive and comfortable for two long days of driving. The 7.0-inch touchscreen is reasonably clear and bright, syncing easily to my phone via Bluetooth. I can't imagine trying to take a call at speed, however – but I played my Spotify playlists with ease.

The placement of the speakers is less than ideal, being placed in the footwells right where one might put a knee. The speakers pushed legs inboard, keeping my foot from reaching a frame tube that might be used as a dead pedal. GPS is available, but was not fitted to my tester. I'd have LOVED, considering the rain, the optional heated/cooled seats – those run $1199.00 each. As it sits, the Slingshot SL I tested with no options rings up at $26,499.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The interior of the Slingshot proved comfortable, even after hours on the road at a time.Photo by Chris Tonn

One of those lurching downshifts from the AutoDrive came as I encountered one of many slow crossovers meandering Route 50. Am I wrong in expecting people to attempt to maintain something close to the speed limit on rural two-lanes? A short passing zone opened where I did make my pass, but not without annoyance from the gearbox. But then another family, gawking at the magnificent leaves, appeared in my windscreen. And another.

I turned south, working my way toward the town of Davis. An old friend, a West Virginia native, had told me years ago of this town where he frequently vacationed with his family. Ski resorts certainly help bring visitors to the area in the colder months. Paired with Thomas, another town just a few miles north on WV 32, the two towns give a funky, bohemian coastal vibe that one doesn't expect if mining towns and Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty are all you know of Appalachia. Artisans and craftspeople dot the land, inspired by the spectacular scenery.

West Virginia countryside waterfall The scenery of West Virginia is underrated.Photo by Chris Tonn

I too was inspired. This is not a land that has remained untouched by human hands – after all, some of the wonder of these magnificent vistas is that they exist at all. The Appalachian Mountains have been scarred by energy extraction for over a century, and yet the land and the people thrive. From the laborers down in the mines to the painters selling their wares at a flea market to the families gawking at the leaves, the people of West Virginia are fiercely proud of their land and their traditions. The scars left by the mines simply show us where West Virginia once was – they don't define the future.

For most of my drive, the 2020 Polaris Slingshot SL was a great companion for exploring this little corner of West Virginia. I found myself closer to the road, to the scenery, and to the people as I drove along. I cracked open my face shield, and inhaled the clean autumn air that I recall from my youth – bonfires with piles of leaves burning. I could smell the yeast from the bakeries making their pepperoni rolls from a mile away. I spoke to pedestrians when stopped in towns. I wasn't walled off from the world with two tons of steel and glass. I was part of that world. I experienced it. I lived it.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The Polaris Slingshot SL comes well-equipped.Photo by Chris Tonn

And then it rained. And I experienced that a bit more intimately than I'd have preferred. I loved driving the Slingshot, but my next trip through the area will come in a car with a roof of some sorts.

And a trunk to bring home scores of rolls.

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Yosemite National Park is a vast space primed for social distancing.

Photo by Getty Images/Jordan Siemens

In the first scene of the first episode of Aaron Sorkin's terrific HBO drama "The Newsroom", news anchor Will McAvoy rants during a lecture to journalism students. In the midst of a recitation of literacy rates and educational stats, he throws a question back to a student during a Q&A: "So, when you ask 'what makes us the greatest country in the world?', I don't know what the f*** you're talking about. Yosemite?"

The man makes a point. I'll leave the op-ed page to debate whether America is the greatest country in the world, but we can all agree that Yosemite is a national treasure, along with the rest of the National Parks system.

Joshua Tree National Park A stop at Joshua Tree National Park was on the interary. Photo by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images

After four months of hunkering down at home, hiding from COVID, I'd had enough. I reached out to Kia to borrow a car, called a friend in San Diego who I thought might be interested in exploring a few of our National Parks and got cracking.

Our route would take us north of San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park, home to both extensive groves of the eponymous tree as well as some terrific stargazing. Then we'd head further north to spot some gigantic trees at the Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks, followed by Yosemite itself. After Yosemite, we'd head west to Monterey, and south down California 1 along Big Sur, stopping for the night at Ragged Point Inn at the south end, before dashing back to San Diego. Four nights, four parks.

If you're looking for a COVID-friendly trip, a road trip to a National Park is a solid way to go. There's plenty of space for social distancing, and they're quite cheap. Yosemite, for example, costs just $35 for a weeklong vehicle pass. Though it's worth considering the $80 Interagency Annual Pass which is good for entrance at all Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and Fish and Wildlife Service sites charging entrance or day use fees. Then there are countless people who qualify for free annual passes, including all U.S. 4th graders and active military members, plus heavily discounted senior annual and lifetime passes.

We picked up the $80 Annual Pass at the scorching Joshua Tree West Entrance, stopped by the public restrooms there (which have prominent posters showing what color your urine should be to avoid dehydration in the 110-degree heat β€” brown is bad, by the way), and headed into the park. I don't have nearly the space to review the full park, and anyway, you should just go yourself. Cameras, too, completely fail to do it justice. The bizarre and wonderful trees, along with the spectacular desert landscape, make for a spectacular visit.

Scenic view of landscape against star field at night Joshua Tree National Park comes alive at night. Photo by Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

But at night is when Joshua Tree really comes alive. City-living β€” or even being near a city β€” really puts a damper on what you can see in the night sky, and both the Park and local communities have invested significant time and money into helping keep Joshua Tree dark. We easily spotted the Milky Way, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as Comet NEOWISE in the dark sky, along with countless other celestial objects.

After picking up a Date Shake in nearby Palm Springs, we headed north to Sequoia. This was a bit of a National Parks Express Tour, so we didn't venture into the fantastic hiking and camping options that these parks offer, but the views were spectacular even from the main roads through the parks. The massive sequoia trees simply must be seen to believe, making for a rather humbling experience when one considers how old these living things are.

Yosemite is even more awe-inspiring. The glacier-carved Yosemite Valley, flanked by Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls, is jaw-dropping. Staring up at climbers on El Capitan and knowing that someone even climbed the imposing 3,200-foot wall without rope is bewildering.

Yosemite National Park AutomotiveMap road tripped to Yosemite National Park late last year. You can see our guide to the park here.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

From the first view of Yosemite Valley from the famous Tunnel View lookout through to the drive out of the park, the landscape never disappoints. We even spotted a very healthy-looking black bear eating in a field, which is always a treat.

After the soaring peaks of the Sierra Mountains, we headed west towards the ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway along Big Sur. The twisting coastal drive along California 1, with the cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains rising out of β€” or plunging into, depending on your perspective β€” the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.

Our final stop, at the Ragged Point Inn at the south end of Big Sur β€” where we watched the sunset from atop the cliffs β€” was the capstone to an amazing road trip.

Highway 1 big sur Highway 1 near Big Sur includes the Bixby Creek Bridge, a famous landmark. Photo by Getty Images

COVID has stressed us all, with anxiety over mental and physical health taking a real and significant toll. And, luckily, the best antidote might just be to get outside. Even if you don't have the majesty of Yosemite nearby, I encourage you to just get in the car and take a drive somewhere new.

You never know β€” you might find what makes America the greatest country in the world.

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