Why People Are Obsessed With This Bizarre-Looking Burger Joint Near the Smoky Mountains

the exterior of pals and a meal featuring frenchie fries, a hamburger and a hot dog

Pal's Sudden Service is an award-winning hidden gem burger joint located about 45 minutes from the Smoky Mountains (photos by Shawn Kalord and Greg Akens/TheSmokies.com)

Pal’s Sudden Service is unlike any fast food restaurant you’ve ever seen

There is a clamor for a famous burger chain or two to set up shop in the Smokies. Some want Whataburger. Some crave Fatburger. While others want an In-and-Out. But what if I told you they don’t need these West Coasters to come to the mountains?

What if I told you the best burger chain in America sits just a few miles up the road from Sevierville and Pigeon Forge and it’s located in a building that looks a lot like a Lego block?

Pal’s Sudden Service is a burger chain slowly working its way over from Upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Founded in the 1950s with 31 locations, Pal’s has built a cult-like following with its relatively small menu, efficient service model and tasty treats. 

Pal's Sudden Service Aerial View Jefferson City TN
Pal’s is an iconic drive-through known for its bright teal building complete with a giant-sized hot dog, burger, drink and the Frenchie Fry that adorn the roof (photo of the Pal’s Jefferson City, TN location by Shawn Kalord/TheSmokies.com)

Pal’s & Their Secret Menu

Pal’s Sudden Service is a bit of a throwback in the fast-food industry. There’s no indoor seating in most of them, and you can find outdoor tables at the original location in Kingsport, TN.

Pal’s is a drive-through without a speaker box. That’s right, this restaurant relies on nothing but pure face-to-face human interaction.

The light blue/teal Lego buildings are instantly recognizable for the giant hamburger, hot dog, large drink and Frenchie Fry placed on each location’s stair-stepped façade. The staples are basic. The Big Pal. The Frenchie Fry. The hotdog with chili, mustard and onion. There’s nothing flashy or fancy. That said, Pal’s isn’t afraid to get a little weird with it either. You can order the Chilidog without the dog – aka the Chilibun – or the Sauceburger, a burger drenched in the slightly spicy ketchup-based Pal’s Famous Sauce. 

There’s even a “secret menu” for the locals. Aka off-menu items that you have to be “in the know” to order – like the Dipped Big Pal and a Peachy Sprite (we’ve already said too much!)

If you’ve ever seen “The Founder” – the Michael Keaton movie about how Ray Croc kinda stole McDonald’s from the McDonald’s brothers – Pal’s gives a vision of what might have happened if the brothers kept the chain. Pal’s is world-renowned – it won a prestigious international award for its quality service. How they get people to operate so efficiently in such a small space is nothing short of a miracle, frankly. 

The Original Pal's Sudden Service in Kingsport, TN
The original Pal’s in downtown Kingsport, TN is one of only three locations that deviate from the iconic teal building most of us associate with modern-day Pal’s locations. The second is also located in Kingsport. The third is located in Johnson City and is a tan version of the iconic teal brick building – as required by area building codes (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Why Are People So Obsessed?

I mean, it’s good and part of that is that it’s a franchise that hasn’t outgrown itself. If you go to a Pal’s in Johnson City your experience is going to be just like the Pal’s in Jefferson City or Morristown. And that goes to the ingredients as well.

Look, I’m going to talk here about anecdotal experience and some things I believe to be true. You know how Red Lobster just went bankrupt? Well, for years, I’ve thought Red Lobster just wasn’t hitting the way it did when I was a kid. Well, when the bankruptcy stuff came down, I found out that Reb Lobster had changed ownership at least once or twice and now a seafood company had a least a piece of the chain and was forcing it to buy its seafood in-house. It wasn’t as good as it had been when I was a kid. The same thing can happen when large corporations get in the way of management decisions. Corners get cut in quality and over the years, things can change.

With local leadership, Pal’s is thankfully, still Pal’s. Largely due, I suspect, to the founder Fred ‘Pal’ Barger’s original mission to never build a location farther than 60 miles from the flagship store in Kingsport. I reckon a Big Pal today is pretty much the same Big Pal it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Also, the burger is real. You know how they can take some fast-food burgers, leave them out and they’re so chock full of preservatives they don’t go bad? Pal’s ain’t like that. It’s a real burger with the grease to prove it. Real ingredients make for a better dining experience. 

Pal’s Sudden Service is most well known for its staple offerings including hamburgers, hot dogs and Frenchie Fries (photos by Greg Akens and Shawn Kalord/TheSmokies.com)

What’s On the Menu?

We talked about the Sauceburger and the Chilibun, but Pal’s also serves a Chipped Ham Sandwich and the Big Chicken, which is slices of deli-style chicken meat served like a hamburger on a bun with lettuce, tomato and a slice of American cheese. It just looks wrong to me. But it is a favorite amongst at least one of our staff.

But that’s not the wildest thing. Currently, Pal’s is offering the LiL Philly Chicken Melt. It looks a little like cooked chicken salad on a hotdog bun. It may violate the Geneva Convention – I’m sure it does. But I’m comforted by the fact that it’s there. Like most corporations run their menu items through 17 levels of committees. Pal’s apparently has a guy in the back of the Elizabethton location throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Every so often they’ll put something out of left field on the menu for a limited time. Sometimes it works – like the patty melt – and sometimes it’s like a science experiment broke out of the lab.

Two more menu items. The Cheddar Rounds – essentially tater tots injected with melty cheddar cheese – and the milkshakes are to die for. Fans have been begging Pal’s to offer Cheddar Rounds outside of breakfast for years. So far, without success. If you want the full Pal’s experience get the Frenchie Fry – they come with a hearty dusting of seasoning salt – and a Dr. Enuf, a Sprite-like beverage that is beloved in Upper East Tennessee and unknown most everywhere else. 

Finally, Pal’s wouldn’t be an East Tennessee institution without a proper sweet tea. Sure, you can get the regular tea but consider living on the edge with the Peachie Tea or the Razzie Tea. Do they have unsweetened tea? I’ve never thought to ask. I suspect if you did, they’d toss you out of line and ban you for life like “Seinfeld’s” Soup Nazi. 

You can see their full menu (minus their secret menu items) here.

food at pals
From left to right, a Frenchie Fry, a hamburger, and a chili cheese dog (photo by Greg Akens/TheSmokies.com)

Closest Location to the Smokies

Currently, the closest location to Sevier County is Jefferson City, located at 104 Mossy Creek Drive. There are also two Pal’s in Morristown and Greeneville. So, if you’re coming down to the Mountains along I-81 you shouldn’t have any problem finding a Pal’s. Currently, Jefferson City is as far down as the franchise comes but I have to think it will only be a matter of time until you’re buying Big Pals in the Smokies, Knoxville and Maryville. 

While Sevier County and the Smoky Mountains are pining for a classic hamburger chain to make its way East from California, there’s a better option just 30 miles up the road in Pal’s Sudden Service. The regional chain with the cult-like following is slowly marching towards Sevier County and the day it arrives – like a conquering hero – there will be much rejoicing.  

Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

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