We visited the regional chain that Southerners say is better than In-N-Out and Shake Shack — here’s the verdict

The shockingly low prices make Cook Out a destination unto itself, and the quality of the food is solid.

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The shockingly low prices make Cook Out a destination unto itself, and the quality of the food is solid.
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Hollis Johnson

  • Cook Out is the fast-food king of North Carolina.
  • The chain only has locations in 10 states but has developed a cult following in the South.
  • We visited a Richmond, Virginia, location and saw why customers adore Cook Out.

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 is in, 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.


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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Hollis Johnson

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

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Hollis Johnson

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 with 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?

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Hollis Johnson

And then … there are the milkshakes.

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Hollis Johnson

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.

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Hollis Johnson

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

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Hollis Johnson

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

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Hollis Johnson

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

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Hollis Johnson

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.

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Hollis Johnson

It’s a shame 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.

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Hollis Johnson

The choice of sides is astounding in its breadth. You can get a corn dog 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.

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Hollis Johnson

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.

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Hollis Johnson

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 OK, but that’s it.

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Hollis Johnson

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.

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Hollis Johnson

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.

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Hollis Johnson

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, providing a rich counterbalance to the mint. The biggest issue (if you can call it that) with Cook Out’s shakes is how filling they are. Finishing one <em>and</em> the hearty tray of food is probably more calories than we should ingest in a day, much less in a meal. But the shakes are so tasty, it’s hard not to just keep going.

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Hollis Johnson

The shockingly low prices make 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.

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Hollis Johnson

But a question lingers: Is it better than Shake Shack or In-N-Out? For 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.

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Hollis Johnson