Thursday, December 04, 2008

How Not to Eat Right

For many years I ate very little fast food, mainly out of -- well, out of good taste, I guess. Which is not to say that I ate healthily, just that I got my junk food from places besides big fast food chains -- which is how I'm defining fast food here.

Lately, though, I frequently find myself requiring a quick, cheap meal from a place where I don't have to get out of my car. For many years after I first judged myself to be a burger connoisseur, I savagely hated McDonald's. For I time, I even preferred Burger King, based on the fact that they at least offered tomatoes in their flagship burger.

I started to be lured back to McDonald's by their cheap and enormous iced coffees, which turned out to be surprisingly decent. And after laughing at the commercials where people gushed over the juicy new Southern Style Chicken sandwich, I felt the urge to try it just to see how short it fell.

Then, something unexpected: the sandwich turned out to be good! It's the simplest thing, a piece of fried chicken on a bun with a couple of paltry slices of pickle. Not even any sauce. But the chicken was juicy, and the spices were tasty, and the pickle set things off just right.

It was a revelation. For the first time, the genius of McDonald's snapped into focus, and I started to admire it. Their food scientists have calculated the bare minimum number of elements required to come together and form a satisfying taste. There's a certain elegance to the minimalism. Of course, this is all providing that the materials themselves are fresh enough not to disgust you the moment they meet your mouth, but McDonald's has made an effort to clean up and revamp their restaurants in the past couple of years, and more often than not these days, the food is up to the task.

I've even become more susceptible to advertisements. A billboard dangled a picture of a Big Mac before me, and I thought, maybe I should give the Big Mac another try, and I got one, and it was inexplicably delicious. Not a great burger, but somehow it was exactly what it was supposed to be -- no more, no less, and completely distinctive.

I'm always intrigued when fast-food chains introduce premium level burgers (the first of which was Carl's Jr.'s vaunted Six Dollar Burger). You know they'll never live up to a fancy burger at a nice restaurant, but like lottery tickets, the lure of possibility is so strong that I always want to try them at least once.

Jack in the Box - Sirloin Cheeseburger

I go to Jack in the Box a lot because they have a pretty rich selection and it is the closest fast food chain to my workplace. There are lot of good chicken options, including the Fajita Pita sandwich if you're trying to not be too unhealthy, and the Sourdough Club or the Ciabatta sandwich if you're willing to compromise a bit (though you have to specially request grilled chicken on the Ciabatta sandwich these days).

I'd seen Jack boasting about his Sirloin burgers as his staff jeered childishly at competitors Angus meat, but I had never bought one before. One day I was feeling glum and decided to treat myself. For some people that means piling on to their credit card debt with something that is actually nice, but for me it apparently means allowing myself to buy a big burger at a fast-food chain.

The Sirloin Cheeseburger was great! JITB offers you a choice of onions (red or white) and cheese (American, swiss or cheddar). You get a good solid burger on a fresh bun with produce that is not at all depressing to look at or taste. The meat is tender and has flavor that doesn't feel completely grafted on with condiments after the fact. For fast food, I could ask for nothing more.

McDonald's - Angus Chipotle BBQ Cheeseburger

My first experience with McDonald's Angus burger was with the mushroom swiss option, and it was very disappointing. The mushroom and swiss was lackluster, it precluded the inclusion of any other produce, and the meat patty was large but flavorless except for the salt and pepper liberally sprinkled over it.

With the release of the Angus Chipotle BBQ option, I decided to give McDonald's another chance. I've now had this burger on two occasions. The first was consumed in a parking lot, sitting in my darkened car. There's a lot more going on in this burger, enough that judging the beef itself is more difficult. This time, though, it seemed passable, and the BBQ sauce, cheese, bacon and other stuff carried the day. The burger was surprisingly good. The second time I had one, I sat in the restaurant where I could clearly see the burger on my tray. It still tasted good, but the way the beef patty failed to fill out the bun made a poor visual impression.

Burger King - Steakhouse Mushroom Swiss Burger

I don't know what the hell is going on at Burger King these days. McDonald's is raising their game like crazy, and the King is apparently pouring his money into second rate marketing guys who slave away to create cute little quips to print on their packaging. Jack in the Box does a bit of this, but Jack has been effectively established as a character with a distinctive attitude, and so any smartass labeling comes from a recognizable brand identity. The creepy smiling King is a non-sequitur enigma, and so, too, are Burger King's attempts at cleverness, which are all over the map.

The French fry sleeve is hence labeled a "Frypod," and includes a notice near the bottom that "If you can read this, I'm not in your cupholder." Pre-checked boxes along the side imply that the food within has been confirmed to be Fresh, Hot, and Delicious. This touch comes off as a cruel slap in the face when the food itself is unmistakably hours-old, cold and mediocre. In the midst of filthy, dilapidated restaurants bearing the pink and turquoise decor of 1993 gone to ruin, soda machines bear cutesy recipes for mixing different sodas together. The burger wrapper urges you to take a moment to contemplate your burger before eating it, because it's better that way. Unfortunately, that is the worst advice you could possibly give someone who is about to consume a fast food burger. On the contrary, you should start eating immediately -- don't take even a moment to process the chasm between the delicious picture on the menu and the embarrassment on your tray. Even the perfectly decent Angus Chipotle BBQ burger suffers if you look at too long. Substitute a sandwich from Burger King, and that moment of anticipatory contemplation threatens to hurl you headlong into a depressive spiral, leaving you desperately wondering just how your life has come to this.

For their Steakhouse Burger, Burger King has chosen not to emulate its competitors thicker patties, but rather, to spread the meat around. It aims to impress not with thickness but diameter. To be sure, the patty more than fills out the bun. Unfortunately, it's rubbery and tastes only vaguely of beef. Chewing it is not unlike chewing some tofu-based meat substitute, and the flavor is equally authentic. The fried onion bits, which were what had intrigued me most about the sandwich, were soggy and lifeless. Also, I should know better than to get the mushroom-swiss option at a fast food chain, because that is apparently something no one can do right.

I left feeling thoroughly disgusted with myself. My previous encounter with Burger King, a disastrous encounter with a value-priced chicken sandwich, had kept me away for a good long while, but apparently had not taught me a clear enough lesson.


Kelley said...

If you are to continue your newly found interest in fast food, you owe it to yourself to go down to the South Bay Galleria and sample a Chick-fil-a sandwich. Watch out though, or you'll be buying one of the $5 Cow coupon calendars and making the visits at least a monthly ritual. Split a milkshake with someone, and try at least a small lemonade - diet if you insist. Leave no sauce un-dipped!

Steve said...

the King is apparently pouring his money into second rate marketing guys who slave away to create cute little quips to print on their packaging.

Naw, they're pouring their money into a second rate web department that slaves away to create the least functional website imaginable.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try out Burger King, and went to their website to find the nearest store. After 15 minutes of first trying to find the store locater and then trying to get it to work, I still had no idea where the nearest BK was. Instead, I got to wait 90 seconds for their animation to load, endure auto-playing audio, completely pointless spinning graphics, and relentless pop-ups demanding I play the stupid games they had wasted their money on.

I don't go into Gamestop looking for a burger. Why the hell would I go to Burger King looking for a game?

Anyway, I still have no clue where there's a Burger King close to me, and I can't remember the last time I went to one. I probably went to the one across the street from USC at some point, which means my last visit to a BK was at least two and a half years ago. They can thank their terrible website for keeping me away. (Although their crappy food helps too.)

What are your thoughts on Carl's $6 burgers?