Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Fast Food Burgers of Summer 2015!

A heartfelt tribute to all of the big chain burgers that filled our summer with so much wonder and whimsy. That, and cholesterol. A whole lot of cholesterol. 

About a year or so ago, I gave up on being a vegetarian. This, after a good seven-year stint as a tofu-chewing, black-bean-burger-chomping, protein-deficient abstainer of steaks, hot dogs, nuggets and tenders of all varieties. Like a wayfaring sailor who just got shore leave after years of cruising the world's oceans, I immediately transformed into an omnivorous whirlwind, putting down virtually every ham sandwich and pork taco people offered me. Of course, I was never one of those animal rights, moralistic vegetarians; I was simply doing it for the health benefits, which I've come to find out, really aren't that beneficial at all.

To be fair, it took me some time to readjust to beef, chicken and pig. At first, the flavors and textures kind of weirded me out, but before long, my taste buds reverted back to food-hetero, and I was once again enjoying the sizable platter of no-longer-off-limits foodstuffs before me. And this summer? It was no doubt a good couple of months to be a meat-eatin' glutton.

From Memorial Day onward, we've just been inundated with limited-time-only, special-edition fast-food burgers. Probably the biggest one of the summer -- and I mean that both figuratively and literally -- was the "Most American Thickburger" from Hardee's. While that monstrosity of a foodstuff remains the undisputed seasonal champion of excess, there were still plenty of other summer-only burgers out there that warrant a fond memorium. Here's a look back at three of the season's most noteworthy, big-chain, limited-time-only offerings -- i.e., the burgers that made our hearts flutter (likely, from too much grease) all summer-long.

Wendy's Fresco Jalapeno Chicken Sandwich 
(with Ghost Pepper Fries) 

I've never really been a big fan of Wendy's, although I would immensely enjoy making out with that one red-headed chick in the contemporary commercials. Alas, the brainchild of Dave Thomas has never really attracted me the way other fast food establishments have -- I think it may be some sort of subconscious vendetta I have for the discontinuation of the SuperBar, but I'm not certain.

This meal consisted of two offerings: the Fresco Jalapeno Chicken Sandwich main event and the Ghost Pepper Fries undercarder. As the names would imply, the appeal of the items is that they -- unlike those puny, paltry offerings at other burger chains -- are actually hot as hell. As in, actually spicy, and not that safe "white person" spicy that Taco Bell has been giving us for years, up until the recent release of the "Diablo" sauce.

The sandwich itself felt pretty heavy. I think it was on a toasted sourdough bun, which definitely gave it an advantage from the get-go. Nor was the burger that greasy, which, traditionally, has been a big problem with sauce-soaked sandwiches of the sort.

Content-wise, we get a pretty good amount of stuff to work with here. The fried chicken patty is topped with Mexi-Cheese, which is topped by red onions, jalapeno shavings and drenched in the house "spicy sauce," which was ALMOST like Taco Bell's proprietary chipotle dressing, but not quite. 

Overall, I'd say this was a pretty good little burger. I tend to prefer beef patties to chicken patties, but all of the ingredients gelled together quite well. Unfortunately, despite the promise of a super-spicy burger, this sandwich was a little bit too lukewarm for my liking. It had a certain zesty kick, no doubt, but I was hoping for a bigger bite. Sigh ... when will these multi-million-a-year chains FINALLY give us something truly spicy to nom on?

I had the same problem with the ghost pepper fries. The "ghost pepper sauce" and jalapeno coated potato slices were tasty, but spicy? Only a little, I am afraid. Of course, you can always douse the stuff in Tapatio, but doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of buying a stand-alone burger that promises it can do "hot" all by itself? 

McDonald's Steakhouse Sirloin Third Pound Burger
(with Mozzarella Sticks) 

Apparently, McDonalds -- pretty much the 800 pound gorilla of the American fast food industrial complex -- is sweating bullets over the Gen Y demographic, as the number of Millennials devouring their deep-fried gunk and slop continues to decline. To combat their less than sterling reputation with the iPad Generation, Mickie D's has tried a number of publicity stunts as of late, including customizable burger booths in select markets. Their other big response has been the release of a new line of "gourmet" burgers, which are supposed to be of a much higher quality than your run-of-the-mill fast food burger ... which isn't self-defeating as a marketing ploy, whatsoever.

Over the summer, McDonalds launched a trifecta of "Sirloin Third Pound Burgers." The advertising reminded me quite a bit of the old "Arch Deluxe" marketing bonanza from the late 1990s, complete with the co-option of kids-branded mascots as adult spokescharacters. Whether or not the food was any good is really an aside here; the advertising blitzkrieg for the product actually had women across America debating whether or not they would fuck the Hamburglar, which makes it all worthwhile to me.

At $4.99 a burger, the products were much higher in cost than your typical McDonalds menu item. Since only a fat-ass beyond words would actually plunk down $15 USD to try all three, I decided to use the "Steakhouse" permutation as my representative product.

Right off the bat, the thing was heavy -- as in, noticeably heavier than a Big Mac. If anything, I would hypothesize that the "third-pounder" burgers may weigh even more than that, potentially reaching the coveted half-pound cut-off pound. I've had many half-pound cheesy-bean-and-rice burritos in my day, and I can tell you point-blank this thing is just as heavy -- if not even heavier -- than that beloved Taco Bell offering.

I couldn't really complain about the toppings, either. You got a big, melted hunk of Swiss cheese on top of your patty, and on top of that you got a metric ton of grilled onions and mushrooms. The aroma was very delectable, although the aesthetic in and of itself is somewhat unappetizing; if you look at that photo long enough, I assure you it begins resembling a giant mound of mangled Redman chewing tobacco. Alas, the burger itself was pretty tasty, although for all of the hubbub about the "gourmet" beef, the patty itself tasted pretty much the same thing as your standard McDonalds burger, just a little bit bigger and slightly juicier

The thing that really piqued my interest on my last Mickie D's run, however, was a new appetizer item -- goddamn breaded mozzarella cheese sticks. The fact that they came in a cardboard box clearly intended for chicken nuggets -- with a coffee sticker slapped on top of it to obscure the fact -- makes it a million times better.

Now, I'm no sociologist, but I noticed two interesting cultural themes at the local McDonalds restaurant (I will get back to the second point at the end of the article.) First off, the calories are all over the place -- plastered on the signage, the little video boards, on the wrappings of the products themselves, etc -- which seems to indicate that even fast food lardasses at least want to superficially care about what they are putting in their bodies. My favorite thing about this is how the company practically invented their own hieroglyphic language to describe what "fat" and "carbohydrates" are to laypeople (my personal favorite? It has to be the little emblem for "sodium," which if I am not mistaken, is a doughnut with a chunk taken out of it.) Also, notice the mysterious absence of any nutritional information regarding sugar content -- surely, that has to be a lone typographical error, right?

As far as the cheese sticks themselves, there's really not a whole lot to say. You get three fairly-well-sized appetizers for just a dollar. Fundamentally, they are no better in taste or texture than most of your frozen food sticks, but once again -- guys, you can buy mozzarella sticks at McDonald's now. What's next, Burger King offering tacos?

Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn't touch upon the chain's in-house marinara sauce. If there's precious little to say about their cheese sticks, there's even less words I can say about this. It's a nice sauce, overall, I suppose, but nothing really all that special. That, and it appears to include beet juice, for "color." Affirmative vegetable action, I take it? 

Burger King's Spicy Whopper
(with Chicken Fries) 

And lastly, we come to Burger King, which is we all know by now, is the TNA Wrestling equivalent of the American fast food burger industry. They try REAL hard to imitate the top dog in the field, and when they strike out on their own and try to execute a somewhat original idea? Yeah, most of the time, the results are the mot spectacular kind of failure you can imagine.

That said, how can you possibly fuck up a Whopper? It's the one consistently good thing the chain has had going for it over the last few decades. You know, sort of like how Sebastian Janikowski has been the one shining spot on an abysmal Oakland Raiders squad since before George W. Bush invaded Iraq. You just relish the one thing you get right, and try to avoid sitting the rest of the house on fire in the process.

Which brings us to the "Spicy Whopper." What makes it a "Spicy Whopper," you may be wondering? Jalapeno slices? Seasoned beef? Maybe some Monterrey Jack Cheese?

The correct answer? None of the above, as the chain simply decided to squeeze a shit load of buffalo ranch sauce over a standard Whopper and called it "good." You know, I try not piss all over the restaurant, but when they are constantly spitting out lazy, half-hearted products like this, it is awfully hard to not give them a fine lambasting.

Alas, there is at least one positive from Camp BK to discuss. Earlier this year, the chain decided to make the seasonal favorite Chicken Fries a full-fledged, year-round item. This news excited me a great deal, up until the moment I realized "holy shit, I've never actually tried those things before. What exactly am I celebrating for, exactly?"

The packaging itself is probably the best thing about the product. Not only does the front box artwork give you one of the best psychedelic, post-Warholian pieces of pop art ever mass commercialized, the interior of the package includes one of the most oblique pop cultural nods I have ever seen from a multi-million-dollar-a-year business. There's a lot of things you expect from your local fast food provider, but lyrical odes to the poetic genius of Freak Nasty isn't really one of them. 

So, uh, what are chicken fries, exactly? Well, they are basically really, really thin chicken tenders, roughly the same size as your average fast food fry. Right off the bat, I have to warn you folks that these things are sublimely salty -- if you have any inclination towards dry mouth, be sure to order an extra large Slurpee to accompany your appetizer.

Also, these things are extremely phallic. At times, I didn't know whether I was chowing down on an anorexic nugget or ingesting E.T.'s finger ... and we ALL know Spielberg REALLY meant by that, don't we? (Fun Fact: Did you know that Slipknot once sued Burger King over a chicken fries ad featuring a very, very familiar looking shock rock ensemble? It's perhaps worth noting that same ad campaign drew some  additional controversy, as its website included photographs of women stating they "loved the coq.")

What a whirlwind of grub experiences this summer, eh kids? We tried what McDonalds thought gourmet tasted like (salty), what BK considered "spicy" (something that completely wasn't) and what Wendy's considered "fresco" (something battered in grease and doused in oily dressing.)

So, earlier, I said something about McDonalds providing a weird sociocultural experience for me. Well, to roll back to that, have you ever noticed how fast food restaurants seem to draw specific ethnic groups? For example, at the local McDonalds, nearly 90 percent of the restaurant -- diners and employees included -- were Hispanic, while at Burger King, the ratio was about 90 percent black. Wendy's had a more multicultural blend, but at the same time, it seemed to me that patrons that day tended to skew towards a much older crowd ... like, in their 60s and shit. It never really dawned on me before, but in my neck of the woods, the fast food establishments seem to almost be self-segregated. The local Chick-Fil-A is almost entirely middle-to-upper class white, while Hardee's is frequented almost entirely by white folks who look like they were lifted out of an episode of "Cops," circa 1991. And for reasons I still can't wrap my head around, there are a TON of Asian kids hanging out at the nearest Dairy Queen. That, and Bruster's ... is there some sort of newfangled stereotype out there nobody told me about, involving the Asiatic peoples and milk products?

Anyhoo, that's a story for a different day, I suppose. Probably my favorite thing about this stupid little exercise in consumer excess was that during the Burger King trip, some dude behind me got tired of waiting in line and said "you motherfuckers don't deserve $15 an hour!" and left. I don't know why, but I still find myself laughing about that. It's usually at the most inappropriate times, too -- like whenever I'm fucking standing in line at ANY fast food restaurant now.


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