Grub Scout: Cook Out may find an in with cost-conscious college kids

Cook Out

UT/Fort Sanders - Knoxville

American, Barbecue, Sandwiches

2135 Cumberland Ave.


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Critic's star breakdown

  • Food: 3
  • Service: 3.5
  • Atmosphere: 3.5
  • Overall: 3

— Until its arrival in Knoxville, I had not heard of the North Carolina-based Cook Out chain of restaurants. After noticing that we now have two locations in town — on the Cumberland Strip and in Bearden — I figured it was time to give 'em a taste. The Grub Spouse and I dropped in recently at the UT site, where there's a fair amount of parking.

Inside, I found the layout of the restaurant to be poorly conceived. A single queue runs customers up through the middle of the floor plan and to the counter. However, patrons crossing back and forth between the larger seating area and the condiment station have to cut through the line of people waiting to place their orders. I found that annoying at both ends of the equation.

The menu signboard behind the counter lays out a selection of burgers, hot dogs, barbecue, grilled chicken breast sandwiches and deep-fried chicken strips. The menu is also poorly laid out, utilizing a color-coding system that makes it challenging for a first-timer to easily sort out the different food groupings.

We decided that I would try a burger and The Spouse would sample a chicken breast. Burgers come in four sizes, ranging from an eighth-pound (small) to a half-pound (huge). My original plan was to get a huge burger, but then I decided to get a burger combo, which comes with two sides and a drink. It wasn't until after I ordered that I figured out that combos only come with the quarter-pound (regular) burger. Again, the signage wasn't clear about this.

You can custom-order a burger, getting basic condiments for free and paying extra for tomato, bacon, cheese, chili or slaw. Or you can choose one of four pre-arranged burger styles, including Cook Out, Out West or Cheddar. I went with Steak style, which meant my burger would come with A1 sauce, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato and mayo.

As for the grilled chicken sandwich, The Spouse picked the Barbecue style with sliced pickles and mayo over Original, Cajun, Club or Cheddar styles. We also noticed that Cook Out offers some 40 different flavors of milkshakes, including blueberry, caramel fudge, walnut, Oreo and Heath toffee. I got a basic chocolate, while The Spouse got a banana fudge. To their credit, Cook Out counts a shake as your drink for the combo meals, which I again did not figure out until after the fact.

I have to say that overall, I was disappointed in the food. My burger patty was substantially smaller than its quarter-pound pre-cooked weight and was on the dry side. It seemed dwarfed by the bun, like it had come straight from the 1980s Wendy's "Where's the beef?" ads. The Spouse's chicken sandwich was fair but not remarkable. We were most disappointed in the two sides I got with my combo. The onion rings smacked of frozen-from-the-bag, while the hush puppies were about the sorriest excuse for such I've ever come across.

The Spouse was very pleased with the banana fudge shake, and I thought the chocolate flavor of mine was respectable. But I found both shakes to be way too thick. If a shake is so thick you can't suck it up through a straw, then what you have there is called soft-serve ice cream, my friend.

Cook Out's biggest assets are its late-night hours and its pricing, both of which should appeal to all the nearby college students. The most expensive burger is $2.79, the barbecue plate is $3.99, and dogs are in the $1 to $2 range. Shakes are only $2.19. Even at those price points, however, I didn't find Cook Out to be such a bargain.

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