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Nothing makes one feel more like a local (or confers more bragging rights) than discovering a locally-beloved hole-in-the-wall while traveling -- but what if you're just passing through? Fear not; even those who barely have time to pull off the freeway can still eat like an insider.
Although none of the following restaurants carry quite the same street cred as a hip underground dive, they're all regional stalwarts, well-liked by locals and, more importantly, easy to access from any major freeway in the area. From west to east, here are five reasons why you should never have to resort to McDonald's on the road:
1. Burgerville (OR/WA)
For fast food in the Pacific Northwest, there's no better bet than Burgerville, with its locally sourced ingredients and seasonal menu items, which currently include Yukon Gold fries and a chocolate-hazelnut milkshake. Their standard menu isn't too shabby either, with offerings like sweet potato fries and a half-pound "colossal cheeseburger" with Oregon's own Tillamook cheddar.
2. In-N-Out Burger (CA/AZ/NV/UT)
Californians can be obsessive about In-N-Out, and with good reason. Unlike Burgerville's plethora of options, In-N-Out keeps its menu simple, but those in the know rely on the "secret menu" when ordering up double-doubles (double-meat, double-cheese), Neapolitan milkshakes, or "animal style" (extra sauce and grilled onions). Be sure to snag a free bumper sticker to really show off your Cali bona fides.
3. Rudy's "Country Store" and Bar-B-Q (NM/TX/OK/CO)
Part gas station, part convenience store, and completely delicious, Rudy's is a one-stop, full-service oasis for any road-weary traveler. Pull off for some gas and stay for the pulled pork or the brisket -- just give yourself a few minutes to eat inside, because wet, Texas-style barbecue this finger-lickin' good deserves your full attention.
4. Skyline Chili (OH/KY/IN/FL)
Skyline is a Cincinnati-born regional favorite, born of a simple concept: spaghetti noodles, chili, and copious amounts of cheese. It's also delicious, and a prime example of good, old-fashioned stick-to-your-ribs Midwestern fare.
5. Legal Sea Foods (FL/GA/VA/DC/MD/PA/NJ/NY/RI/MA)
Legal Sea Foods isn't just another seafood chain -- their restaurants, throughout the mid-Atlantic and New England, vary their menus according to the catch of the day. It's the fanciest restaurant on this list, but if you've got time to sit down, it's worth it; from clam chowder to blue crab and Maine lobster, you can savor the flavors of the East Coast, without straying too far from the asphalt.
Fuel efficiency matters!
Remember when Barack Obama said Americans should pay more attention to their tire pressure? Well, it's true. Check your tires before you start your trip and each time you stop for gas, and be sure to air 'em up if they're running low. (Be careful not to overpressurize your tires, though. Your car's owner's manual should contain information about the appropriate pressure range, and most tires are marked as well.)
Also, don't overload your car with heavy or bulky stuff that you're not likely to use -- extra weight, or odd-shaped things like surfboards stuck to the car roof, increases fuel costs.
Drive the speed limit.
It's a sad fact for us adrenaline junkies, but according to fueleconomy.gov, "Each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas." Gas is one of the biggest road trip expenses, so anything you can do to minimize it is worth considering. Plus, it'll keep you from snagging a speeding ticket, which is a definite road trip bummer.
Get to know your National Parks!
They're not just for Ken Burns documentaries -- the National Park system is there for people to use, and one thing that a price-conscious road-tripper can always use is a cheap place to sleep.