They are waiting for me out there in the hinterland, those greasy outposts along interstates 75 and 10. While speeding along the freeway, far away from my favorite restaurants, I hear their siren song, "Hash browns... Chili... Cheesy eggs... Waffle House." I recently adopted a new indulgence at this Southern chain of diners: Hash browns "all the way."
When I'm on a road trip, Waffle House is among my favorite stops for a quick meal and a fleeting glimpse at the locals. During a good visit, I can get in and out in 15 or 20 minutes. Each one serves the same food, but they all have their own feel, depending on the crew and locale.
While taking a long drive recently, I kept thinking about Waffle House's kitchen-sink list of hash brown toppings and the menu's phraseology. By default, their hash browns are fried on a griddle contained into a patty shape by a metal ring. Those who prefer their potatoes well-browned order them "scattered" on the griddle, without the ring. An order of hash browns "all the way" is "scattered," "smothered" with onions, "capped" with mushrooms, "peppered" with jalapeno, "covered" with cheese, "chunked" with ham, "diced" with tomatoes and chili-"topped," and crowned with "country" white gravy. Be still, my heart.
Founded in 1955, Waffle House came of age and expanded with the U.S. interstate system. The company added hash browns to the menu in the 1980s. Back then, the only toppings listed were onions and cheese. The company has since added seven additional toppings to its official roster. In 2005, the chain operated 1,500 units along the interstate highways of the southeast.
In a fit of morbid curiosity, I resolved to taste the "all the way" monstrosity for myself. The value menu offers hash browns all the way with a drink for $4.99. I expected a freakish dish like a Double Down or the Baconator, but it was surprisingly easy to eat.
Half of the toppings are vegetables, probably making it Waffle House's most vegetable-rich dish, and the veggies and ham are seared nicely on the griddle. To some extent, the potatoes themselves disappear into the morass, doused in chili and melted cheese. You're not really eating hash browns any more — more like shit on a shingle, even if it is tasty. The look and taste of the dish is not helped by the latest topping to be added to the pantheon, "country" white gravy. It adds fat and salt without heightening the flavors of the dish at all. When the gravy is properly thick, however, it does add a certain creaminess.
On the other hand, I respect the fact that Waffle House has so far resisted the temptation to raise the cholesterol bar and add bacon, sausage or steak, though they are available by request. It is probably only a matter of time before Waffle House ups the ante to keep up with America's extreme menu items. There's a Cold Stone Creamery chocolate and peanut butter milkshake out there with over 2,000 calories. Hash browns "all the way" seem quaint, almost sensible, in comparison.
Nutritionally, an order all the way delivers what you might expect: more than 550 calories, with half a day's allotment of fat and salt. But consider this: A plain order of hash browns has over 400 calories. Next time I hit the interstate, I may add a few eggs and a waffle.