Sunday, November 8, 2009

Extra Helpings: Drive-In Titans, Skyway vs. Swensons

It doesn't matter if you work in a fast food joint or a high-end posh restaurant. The service should be respectful, the food should be cooked in a timely manner and to order and the overall experience should be positive. You just never know who will be stopping in wearing unassuming clothes and driving an unassuming car in order to sample the food. With the now ubiquitous nature of the Internet and search engines, a lot of people will read up about a place before making the decision whether to go or not. Such is the case with today's lunchtime destination.

Let it not be said that I am not open to other points of view. After my review of Swensons and the Galley Boy over the summer of 2009, I received mixed results from readers. Half of the comments I received were congratulatory and applauded me for gushing over a superior drive-in food experience. The other half exclaimed, "GAH! The meat is too sweet! For a real drive-in experience, you MUST go to SkyWay." Personally, having had both a regular double cheeseburger and a Galley Boy from Swensons, I know that the magical alchemy presented by the Galley Boy is somewhat missing from their regular old cheeseburger.

So it was with great anticipation that I decided for lunch today to go to the SkyWay Drive-In location in Green, OH. Located at 951 East Turkeyfoot Road (aka State Route 619), this particular location can be reached at 330-896-9350.

I pulled into the parking lot slightly after noon and discovered an almost empty restaurant. Granted, it was the beginning of November, but I figured there would be more cars than this at lunchtime. Here was a shot of the side of the building displaying the SkyWay logo:

I found a decent spot to park and shut the car off, leaving the headlights on. There were no instructions telling me to do so like at other drive-in restaurants, but I assumed the protocol was the same. Within a few minutes, a young man approached me to take my order. I had studied the on-line menu prior to my arrival and had decided to do a head-on comparison meal with Swensons.

"I'll take one SkyHi, an order of onion rings, and a California Fizz, medium size, please."

While the SkyHi is not identical to the Galley Boy, it is probably the most equivalent sandwich on the menu. Consisting of a double cheeseburger with a "special sauce", it was served on a grilled bun that was almost identical to the bun I had found at Swensons. SkyWay's website says that the sweet buns are a family recipe and still baked fresh every day. And I'm not disputing that fact. In reality, however, the buns were presented in an eerily similar fashion.

After about ten minutes or so, the service tray with my food arrived at my car. First up was a shot of the tray on my car window:

I removed my California Fizz and placed it into my cup holder for easier access:

Essentially combining the flavor of grape soda with lemon, this drink was on par with Swensons version. The Hamburger Station chain of restaurants also carries a "California" flavor soda, but both SkyWay and Swensons have the superior tasting product.

As with Swensons, I decided to employ the food-balanced-on-knee photography method. Here was a shot of my SkyHi sandwich, still wrapped:

And, of course, unwrapped:

Instead of two special sauces like on the Galley Boy, the SkyHi comes with only one: a mayonnaise based sauce that has been studded with chopped pickle and onion. It didn't quite have the briny, acidic flavor of a tartar sauce, so I hesitate to call it that even those are some of the primary ingredients. The two ingredients that were present on my SkyHi that aren't on a Galley boy are pickle slices and shredded lettuce.

So how was the burger? It was good. Would I order it again? Yes, I would. However, and I suppose here is where I'm going to lose all those gentle readers out there who are waiting with baited breath for me to seriously trounce the Galley Boy, it just wasn't as good as a Galley Boy. When I tried my first Galley Boy, I was amazed at how good it tasted. Amazed to the point where I actually uttered, "Wow!" under my breath. Everything about that sandwich just worked so well together. While the SkyHi was a tasty burger, it just didn't send my mind reeling like the Galley Boy had.

Finally, we need to talk about the onion rings. Here was a shot of the full bag sitting on my knee:

At first I didn't think there was a problem with my rings. The first two or three I took off the top of the bag seemed to be fried well enough, but then I reached in and pulled out this:

I can assure you that the "wetness" in the above photo was completely from the grease-ladened onion ring, not from any light tricks the sun was playing. In fact, by the time I had finished taking this photo, the grease had soaked through four layers of napkins. I then repositioned a few more of its brethren to discover, lo and behold, I have a small pool of fryer grease just sitting in the bottom of the bag:

To make matters worse, it wasn't the "pure as the driven snow" cooking oil. This was the "murky brown with little floaty bits" oil that looked like it needed to be changed about a week ago. For some reason I suddenly lost my appetite.

To be fair to the first couple I tried, I will say they were fair at best. The crispy coating had both positive and negative points. When the coating was even, it made a nice contrast to the onion on the inside. However, there were far too many bites where the coating had clumped and then fried into a tough little nugget that was a bit hard to chew. The other problem with the coating was that it kept falling off. In places where this had happened while frying, the onion basically turned into a tough and leathery onion jerky. These are advertised on the menu as being homemade, but while it is usually an indicator of quality, I've come across plenty of instances where homemade does not mean good. Even Swensons can occasionally overcook their onion rings, but even those are nowhere near as poorly fried as the ones I had today at SkyWay.

Of course, I cannot judge an entire restaurant by eating three items off their menu. And perhaps, on another day, with a different fryer cook, I would've had a much better version of their onion rings. However, all things being equal, I gave each restaurant the exact same chance and ordered similar meals from both, so I think my assessment is fair.

Which burger is better? Galley Boy.
Whose onion rings are better? Swensons, by far.
Which has the better California? It's a tie.

I will concede that my meal at SkyWay was slightly cheaper than a similar meal at Swensons, but given the small price difference, I don't feel it is a major point of contention. While I am glad I was finally about to taste the burger that helped to make SkyWay an institution since they first opened up on Market Street in Fairlawn in 1952, I have to wonder if there is room in Akronites' hearts for both burgers. Sadly, for me, only one of these drive-in burgers rears its head as an occasional craving.

Sky-Way Drive-in on Urbanspoon  Swenson's (Akron) on Urbanspoon


Todd said...

Dude, check out the original Sky-Way in Fairlawn before closing the book on this one. There isn't the same crowd at the Green location, and I think the food suffers a little because of it. Although I still agree, the Galley Boy is by far the best drive-in sandwich in the Akron area.

Tino said...

@Todd: I understand what you are trying to say about not trying the "original" location. However, I think in this case, the comparison was even more fair because the original write-up of Swensons that I did was based on food I was served at the North Canton location, not the original one near West Market and South Hawkins, nor the one in North Akron where the headquarters is located. Thus, both meals were eaten at non-original locations. Unfortunately, the Fates were smiling on my Swensons visit and not so much on my Skyway visit.

That being said, I will file away a visit to the Fairlawn location on my "To Eat" list and visit them at some point in the future.

Anonymous said...

Sky-Way - both locations = YUCK.

Anonymous said...

Skyway destroys Swensons in taste. Anyone reading this should know that this guy is way off in his review. The onion rings are award winning for a reason as they are the best you will find in NEOhio. The SkyHi as well is a superior burger to the (no doubt still very tasty) Galley Boy.

Go try yourself, you'll see. s

Tino said...

@Anonymous (#2): I would've liked you maybe to tell me WHY SkyWay destroys Swenson's instead of just making a blanket statement, but hey, I'm sure your method is far more convincing.

That being said, @Anonymous (#2) and I definitely agree on one thing: Go try them both and you WILL see.

River Pirates said...

The Galley Boy is one of the nastiest things I ever put in my mouth. I cannot imagine how they taste good to anybody but ther are those in my household who disagree.
SkyHi is far better. Other burgers are OK at Swenson's, but the service is slow, the food often cold, and my order wrong probably 1 out of 4 times. I dislike having to go there- have for 37 years.

Haven't been to the Green Skyway but the "real" one is great. Food hot, correct, quick, reasonable (except that that the new Gourmet Burgers, while tasty, will drive you to a heart attack). Service is great as well. They rarely turn over curb boys. The onion rings were better when the "old lady", whoever she was, made them, but they are still fresh and good. Swenson't are made by a company in Cleveland and are delivered frozen.

Tino said...

@River Pirates: Imagine that, a dissenting opinion on a food blog. Color me SHOCKED.

I'm not sure which Swensons locations you are visiting, but of the four or five I've tried, I've not once had an order come out incorrect or cold. That's not to say that the kitchen or the runners don't make mistakes, but I would think that if you point the problem out to them, they would make it right.

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