A dear friend and colleague showed up at work looking green around the gills. She’d contracted food poisoning, poor doll, and was learning from experience just how many times one person can vomit within 24 hours. There’s no way to absolutely pinpoint exactly what gave her the screaming heaves, but she’d last dined at an enormous fast food chain.

An eyebrow-raising amount of news space recently has been devoted to the troubles old Ronald McDonald is facing. The staff is surly and unhygienic; the stock value is plummeting; and the customers don’t seem to be lining up the way they used to. Theories on potential causes for our disenchantment with the Hamburglar and his saucy partners in culinary crime are swung wild and wide like a pillow at a slumber party: employees are paid less than minimum wage and consequently not dedicated to the company; mad cow will rot your brain; and people are being swept up by what CNN refers to as “the health food craze,” as if not eating toxins were some amusing fad sure to pass.

That’s possible, of course, and there’s a chance that the winds will change and next year we’ll all be gnawing on McRiblets and exclaiming “Rubenesque” as the newest hot compliment. There’s scads of online chat in support of the clown: “What will I do if McDonald’s closes–my kids love it so!” Hand over a Lucky and a fifth of Beam, that should shut them up and will be just as nourishing.”McDonald’s is American!” Kind of makes one want to hop the next steamer to Madagascar. But keep going. There are also plenty of comments about McDonald’s being quite horrid and deserving of extinction. We’re reading Fast Food Nation, and passing it on, regarding Big Macs a bit differently, with the knowledge that along with the special sauce, there might be some poop under that bun. It’s finally sinking that we are what we eat, and who would want to identify themselves as a trace amount of bovine feces?

In a perfect world, we would only consume meals prepared for us with love, composed of only the freshest and highest quality ingredients, eaten at our leisure while we page through a smutty tell-all biography of Marlene Dietrich, served by a young Samoan boy who speaks no English and makes no demands but only wants to please, then disappear. But a peek at the film listings reveals that Tom Green is still making movies, so it seems that the world is flawed after all. We don’t have the luxury of unhurried, relaxed meals much of the time. We eat in our cars, at our desks, during meetings, and we don’t have the timeor the money for fine meals with table service. So, for the sake of dollars and minutes, we turn to drive-thru’s and lunch counters, Krispy Kreme and KFC and that wretched fucking clown.

It doesn’t have to be that way. All over the world fast food is undergoing a transformation. It’s getting diverse. It’s getting healthy. And many of the Triangle restaurants that offer speedy service also deliver mouthwatering food–delicious, wholesome, and easy on the wallet–over their counters.

Middle Eastern or Mediterranean influenced food is one of your best bets should you be trying to marry convenience with goodness. Taza Grill in Raleigh has the finest tabouli around, a super clean establishment, and friendly service by people who seem genuinely concerned that you enjoy your meal– not only Mediterranean, but heroes, chicken, pasta salad, and even reubens–which will be ready before you can blink. Mediterranean Deli and Catering in Chapel Hill focuses on straight up Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine, with a few glorious variations–roasted red pepper hummus, for one; a vast menu of salads and deli items for eat-in or take-out, and some grocery items; and the best damn feta cheese in town, which is amazingly cheap and puts that plastic wrapped Food Lion nonsense to shame. It would not be in any way unwarranted to buy a pound tub for home use.

The owner of International Delights in Durham is so sure of the caliber of his food that he has essentially forbidden ketchup, claiming that it’s used primarily to mask the faults of ingredients not up to snuff. Should you not take the signs proclaiming this edict seriously and ask for a bottle of Heinz anyway, he will not think twice about scolding you loudly. You also may be chastised for not cleaning your plate, or for dashing next door to swap your laundry as your food becomes ready. It’s all part of the charm, and the chances of not savoring every last speck of chickpea are slim. Should you wish to negate the effects of your healthy choice post-meal with some fine tobacco, he’ll rent you a gorgeous hookah which you can employ on the sidewalk so all your friends can see.

Maybe you’re not a fan of the piquant and vibrant flavors that hail from the above-mentioned region. “What can I do?” you may be asking, “I love Mexican! Must I go to the Taco Bell? I’m frightened in there, the meat tastes funny and I haven’t seen that little dog lately. Coincidence?” Never fear. Your possibilities are legion, with Mexican food stands and trailers sparkling across the Triangle landscape. No matter where you are, one is usually within spitting distance, and while quality may vary all are a gargantuan step up from the chihuahua and his pals. A few in particular pay extra care to their ingredients, bringing you nothing but the best–Cosmic Cantina has something for everybody, no matter how persnickety their eating habits may be. Best of all, they’re open late, so when it’s 2 a.m. and you simply can’t go home until you’ve had a burrito, you don’t have to resort to the frozen pap found at the gas station, which is a place to get food for your car, not your body.

Carrburritos in Carrboro has extra-spicy salsa guaranteed to give a pleasant slow burn, plus has great atmosphere.

All of the above include meat on their menus to satisfy the carnivorous appetite. If health is truly a priority, though, you’ve probably eliminated flesh from your diet completely. A few months ago, the pinnacle of healthy eating opened in the YMCA in downtown Durham. Non-members are welcome as well at the Soul Good Juice Cafe. They proffer the obligatory smoothies and juice concoctions, but go much further. Beef stew, chicken and rice, steak and cheese hoagies, and rib sandwiches are all made so succulently with soy, tempeh, and tofu that you’ll never miss the meat. Saturday brunch is an tasteful extravaganza worth getting out of bed for.

The choice to give the clown and his ilk the gate shouldn’t be a hard one to make. Narrowing down where to go instead might be difficult. You’ve got a bevy of enticing choices–breakfast, lunch and dinner. l

Carrburritos, 711 W. Rosemary St., Carrboro. 933-8226.

Cosmic Cantina, 128 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 960-3955; 1920 Perry St., Durham, 286-1875.

International Delights, 740 Ninth St., Durham. 286-2884.

Mediterranean Deli & Catering, 410 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. 967-2666.

Soul Good Juice Café, 215 Morgan St., YMCA Building, Durham. 680-4324.

Taza Grill, 116 N. West Street, Raleigh. 856-0222; 6325 Falls of Neuse Rd., Raleigh. 872-7161.