I am the man who will eat Lincoln Rd, one fried chicken at a time, from now until Christmas. It has 55 food joints and I'm going to fill my fat face at every single one of them and take notes, and medication, possibly. I want to write about what we've become. Lincoln Rd, out west in Auckland, three kilometres in length, is the way we eat now. Fast food, drive-through, American and Asian, one strip mall after another - you know Lincoln Rd even if you haven't been there.
You could be anywhere in Auckland on Lincoln Rd, just about anywhere in the world. It's the global economy at work. It's got KFC and Texas Chicken, it's got St Pierre Presents Sushi of Japan and the amazingly spelled Hut BBQ Nood Les, it's got Dunkin Donuts and The Cheesecake Shop - yes, of course it's got fries with that. I'll eat the lot and report back. I feel compelled to write about this odyssey, this journey into the belly of the beast.
One of my consuming pastimes and lofty, pretentious ambitions is to document Auckland life. Well, Lincoln Rd gives life to Auckland. It nourishes, it provides. An estimated 45,000 cars gun up and down Lincoln Rd every day, the occupants spilling out to buy stuff at the crystal palaces of Mitre 10, The Warehouse, and Pak'nSave, and to eat on the run. I'll sit in wait. I want to break bread a while with these Aucklanders, chew the fat while we chew the fat.
I love Lincoln Rd. Our family goes there all the time and we sing in the car for the sheer joy of travelling through it - Lincoln Rd is a magical kingdom of food and services. It's sort of in Henderson and kind of in Massey as well. It's elevated, flat and straight, beneath the blue mountains of the Waitakere Ranges. It used to be a paradise of fruit orchards and vineyards from end to end, the immensity of apple blossom in spring one of the prettiest sights in Auckland. But matters of history and geography fall away when you enter the portal of Lincoln Rd. It exists unto itself, a special place.
It gets very bad press. An imaginative story in the
last year zeroed in on Lincoln Rd as everything that is rotten in modern civilisation. It wheeled in a nutritionist who scorned it as "heart attack alley". I hate nutritionists. They hover over your plate and pull faces and they don't pass the salt.
That nutritionist, David Hill, in full: "I don't think it would be going too far to call it heart attack alley - call it what it is. If it's going to be contributing to people's blood pressure, size and cholesterol going up then it's going to cause heart attacks and strokes."
It used to be a paradise of fruit orchards and vineyards from end to end, the immensity of apple blossom in spring one of the prettiest sights in Auckland.
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Whatever, dude. Life! It'll kill you in the end. Two blogs linked to the story, and I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Whaleoil and Kiwiblog. Yes, I know. Speaketh the Whale: "A health trougher has decided to demonise an evil stretch of road because it dares to have 30 fast-food outlets on it." David Farrar at Kiwiblog satirised the loathsome nutritionist: "We must ban drive-throughs! The workers do not have the intelligence to decide for themselves."
The comments were likewise appalled that the "trougher" was so appalled.
One reader sneered: "Yes, it is totally disgraceful - we must force the takeaway outlets to stop their staff outside herding people in and forcing them to buy their wares." Another wrote: "I live out west and can only say bring it on, the more choice the better." Also: "I am betting these people shut their eyes when they drive through Levin. There are about 30 places to buy takeaway food on a trip through town on SH1."
Kebabs, fried chicken, buns, salt and fat and gluten - more, please. It tastes good.
How good? Are the fries of a decent size and served hot? Where is the gourmet guide to potato with gravy, and "nood les"? Incredibly, restaurant critics only ever write about places with tablecloths. I hate restaurant critics, too.
The man who will eat Lincoln Rd is the new gourmand in town. Junk food deserves to be taken seriously, and reviewed properly. It's what most of us eat. It's the people's food.
The meal at new American franchise Texas Chicken didn't barely make a lick of sense. It was one of the strangest meals I've eaten anywhere, stranger than a snake steak one time in Chiang Mai or the things pulled screaming from the sea in England and called fish.
Incredibly, restaurant critics only ever write about places with tablecloths. I hate restaurant critics, too.
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There was a poignancy to the Texas Chicken shack on Lincoln Rd. It looked like the little chookhouse on the prairie. It's the latest addition to the Lincoln Rd outdoor food hall, the 55th joint, and the first to open in the new North West shopping development strip mall - all around were heavy machinery, workmen in hard hats, and rubble.
And so there was an air of anticipation and excitement inside. You could tell that many of the passengers were taking their maiden voyage on the Texas Chicken ship. That glazed ambience of getting what you've had a million times before at KFC or McDonald's was entirely absent; there was an alertness to the faces of the diners, a feeling of hope and good-natured New Zealand optimism.
Texas Chicken opened its first New Zealand store in Manukau last year. Its unstated but plainly understood mission is to stick it to the Colonel and take a chunk of the fried chicken market. Its Lincoln Rd premises mark the second pin in the map of its invasion. "These [two stores] are the first of what will eventually be a total of 20 Texas Chicken restaurants," declares a press statement issued from its headquarters in Atlanta. Twenty. Good luck with that.
I got the two-piece chicken pack, which comes with fries, potato and gravy, a honey-buttered bun and a cold drink for $10.90. It was a land of contrasts. The fries, to use a phrase I haven't heard since last year's series of MasterChef New Zealand, were the hero of the dish. They were golden and large, with just the right bite. They may be the best fries in Auckland.
But you're going there for the chicken, not the fries. It was interesting, a game of two halves. I ordered one piece spicy and the other piece standard. Both pieces were large. Both were crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. Only one had any real taste, agreed the waitress. She said, "God's honest truth? I only eat the spicy one myself. The standard one's too bland, isn't it? But we're working on it and thanks for your feedback. It does make a difference."
What a great waitress. I'd gone over and sat with a couple from Massey, Warren and Cheryll Clark, and she brought their meals to them, as well as packets of ketchup. They were delighted with the service and pretty impressed with the food, too. Cheryll said: "Our daughter phoned last night, and said, 'Mum, Dad, you've got to go. It's awesome.' Well, she's right. We'll definitely be coming again." They rated it eight out of 10.
"Six," judged Michael Huntley, a bus driver from Te Atatu. "A hard-earned six." He wore blue overalls and shook his head. "My first time here," he said. "I don't think I'll be back."
We'd ordered the exact same meal, and had the exact same reservations, although his critique was far more nuanced. I simply didn't understand the honey-buttered bun or the potato with gravy, which tasted like a kind of dessert. What was it with all the sweet when what you wanted was the savoury? Michael put it this way: "Where does it fit in?" Neither of us had more than two or three exploratory nibbles of the sticky bun.
As for the curious potato and gravy, Michael put his finger on it. "It had that nice mushroomy taste," he said. "It reminded me of a place. Over in Avondale at the Great North Rd roundabout they used to have a Chicken Spot. I always used to get a punnet of baked mushrooms with gravy, and that's exactly what it tasted like." I asked how long ago he'd eaten at Chicken Spot. He thought about it: "Must have been 14 years ago."
Warren Clark thought he detected more of a pepper flavour in the potato and gravy, and was specific about it: it was in the gravy, not the potato. I liked Warren. He spoke in funny accents, had a deep laugh, knew his food. He said, "Chicken's a funny thing; it has to be moist, and tender, or it's no good. They've got it just right."
And then he said, "Look at this." He held out his fingers. I looked at his fingers. I said, "Why am I looking at your fingers?" He said, "Because they're a tell-tale sign. Hardly any grease! Not like at KFC. No, we're definitely coming back."
I looked out the window. "Used to be orchards, all along here," I said. Warren and Cheryll remembered those days. It made them smile to think of all that prettiness. I asked them what they thought of Lincoln Rd now, and Warren said, "Well, there's a lot to eat."
•All views expressed are the author's.