This past weekend I was driving through Knoxville on my way to Pigeon Forge and had the opportunity to eat a couple of meals along the way. Cardin’s was recommended, it was reasonably close to I-40, and being that it’s a drive-in, it seemed like the perfect place to stop with a puppy in the car.
Cardin’s is on the Old Asheville Highway, a fitting location for an old drive-in. I’ve been to several “drive-ins” before where you actually order from a drive-thru window or have to get out of your car and order at a walk-up window, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cardin’s. When we arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were in fact carhops who came out to your car to take your order and then returned with your food later (there were no roller-skates though). The set-up wasn’t like a sonic, but more like an old school Dairy Queen- a square building with a large awning in front. Cars pulled up all around, almost like spokes surrounding the hub of the wheel. When we arrived, there were no open spots on the “hub,” so we parked next door and walked over to the picnic tables under the awning. This was actually preferable, as it gave us a chance to stretch our legs and let the dog out of the car.
I was thinking that maybe we would order at the window since we’d gotten out of the car, but I was wrong. One of the carhops immediately greeted us and asked if we knew what we wanted- we didn’t yet. We took a seat at the picnic table and checked out the menu which was posted on several menu boards attached to the underside of the awning. The menu was reasonably expansive and the prices were right.
I decided to go with a chili burger, onion rings and a butterscotch shake for dessert. The wife decided on a cheeseburger (standard toppings), fries, and a dipped cone. The food came out in 5 to 10 minutes, and I enjoyed the chance to observe the carhops at work and the other customers. It was really refreshing to enjoy this throwback to an earlier time.
The food came out on a tray (which could have attached to a car window) and we got down to business. The portions were fairly small, and I immediately started debating adding a slaw dog to the mix. The first bite of the chili burger was both familiar and new at the same time. The flavors of chili and mustard, key components of a standard chili burger were at the forefront, but I was surprised to find high concentration of beans in the chili. In my experience, hot dog and hamburger chili usually has less beans than regular chili, but not this recipe. The beans gave the chili a bit of a unique flavor, and I think i would have preferred a lower bean concentration, but the chili was rich and tasty and complemented the burger and other toppings nicely. This was a really good drive-in chili burger. Better than fast food, not as flavorful as a sit down place, but really good flavors that complimented each other well. The patty itself was good, but not super thick or flavorful- it was exactly what I expected from a drive-in, and thoroughly enjoyable.
My wife was even more impressed with the cheeseburger, claiming that it could have held its own against almost any of the burgers in the Burger Beat-Down (although she hasn’t had ALL of those burgers). I was too focused on my chili burger to snag a bite of the cheeseburger, and by the time I finished mine, there were no bites to be had- it MUST have been good. The fries and onion rings were good but not great, they were reliable compliments to the burgers, though they were likely frozen. I decided against (or maybe I was talked out of) getting a slaw dog for the second course, but in my imagination, it was delicious (slaw would have been a great addition to the chili burger, a realization I came to a half way through my meal).
I only discovered the joys of butterscotch milkshakes this past fall, so when I saw butterscotch on the menu I was immediately excited about the prospects of a butterscotch shake for dessert. I snuck a few sips before digging into my burger, and those only made me look forward to the after dinner treat even more. The shake was thick and creamy, and by the time I finished my food, it had softened just enough for me to drink it with the straw. The shake was the perfect end to the meal, but I do wish they had used more butterscotch. I could taste the butterscotch flavor, but it was more subtle than I had hoped. I didn’t want to be overwhelmed, but I think there is a perfect medium between subtle and overwhelming, and this one was just a little on the subtle side. The dipped cone (vanilla in chocolate) looked fantastic, but again I was too focused on my own shake to partake. My wife noted that the chocolate was thicker than a typical dipped cone (I thought this was a compliment), and that made it a little sweeter (and probable richer) than normal. She enjoyed it but wasn’t able to finish the whole thing.
We drove up to Cardin’s not knowing what to expect, and we left with our hunger satisfied and smiles on our faces. Cardin’s Drive-in was a great stop, I really enjoyed the atmosphere, the old school tradition, and of course the food. While the burgers and shakes weren’t the best I’ve ever had, they were better than average, and far better than anything from a fast-food window, and for similar prices. The food was simply prepared and somewhat predictable, but this is exactly what I was looking for in a drive-in. I would definitely recommend Cardin’s to anyone looking for a fun and casual meal in Knoxville. If you close your eyes, you can almost picture it as a crowded hotspot surrounded by 1950s era Chevy’s and Thunderbirds. Actually, it was pretty crowded on a Friday afternoon in 2013 too, some things are too good to change.