The Big three and other Underachievers

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The Big three and other Underachievers

No, I’m not talking about GM, Ford, and Chrysler, but McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s. I really don’t want to spend too much time talking about burgers I don’t like, but I feel compelled to talk about the state of fast food in America.

I do find it curious which burgers we’ve made popular in America, as if there was no concern for quality, only convenience, and perhaps marketing skills. In fact, “the McDonald’s argument” is a generic term for describing a condition where the product that sells the most is confused with the being the product that’s actually the best. As Frank Zappa used to say, “What stinks sells, and what sells stinks.”

If you talk to most people and ask them about their favorite burger, more often than not you’ll hear about Big Macs and Whoppers. In Los Angeles, it’s a comfort to hear the term “Double-Double” thrown in as well, but still, there’s a lot of schooling that needs to happen in the world of burgers.

McDonald’s: I’m not about to start bashing McDonald’s. That’s already been done a million times by others. Others, by the way, who have had their pants sued off.

Yes, apparently McDonald’s feels that they have a lot to protect, as if people would stop being addicted to their burgers if they found out a little soy or oatmeal was thrown into the mix.

I remember when Johnny Carson had to publicly apologize to McDonald’s for cracking a joke which suggested that “100% beef” was a dubious claim. I remember the mathematician who was sued for allegedly proving that not enough cattle have existed in the history of the world to make the “billions and billions” of hamburgers that McDonald’s has served over the years.

But the real reason why I’m not going to bash McDonald’s is because once in a while I get a Quarter Pounder with Cheese that’s come hot off the grill, and it’s a pretty decent burger. It ain’t The Apple Pan, but it’ll do in a pinch.

I’ll also admit that out of the Big Three, I probably go to McDonald’s the most, more than I care to admit. Like most people, I enjoy the convenience. I also enjoy the consistency, which is perhaps McDonald’s greatest strength. They may be consistently mediocre, but, like Holiday Inn, you always know what you’re going to get when you walk into a McDonald’s.

I’ve been in McDonald’s from San Ysidro to Salamanca, and I’ve pretty much gotten exactly what I expected, and that’s a rare thing in today’s world. Let’s face it, the standards are high. The restaurant is usually pretty clean. The person at the counter usually thanks you and asks you to come again. I know that sounds pretty basic, but compared to some other fast food places, it’s almost a miracle.

That said, I must say that the Big Mac is the worst hamburger I’ve ever eaten. It’s the only hamburger that I’ll actually turn down, although the Whopper is getting close, too. Hamburgers are a lot like pizza, and sex, that even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good. You can take some ground beef, throw it in a microwave oven and zap it until it’s hard, and put it between a couple of slices of Wonder Bread, and it’s still fairly edible. Not so with the Big Mac.

I’m not sure what disgusts me the most, the high bread-to-meat ratio, the copious amounts of shredded lettuce, the stale taste of the secret sauce (which is really just bad Thousand Island dressing). It’s just that when you eat a burger, the primary flavor should be beef, and everything else should complement that.

With the Big Mac, the flavor of the meat is buried under a host of different, less interesting flavors, which is amazing since they actually put two patties in this beast! I don’t know if putting in a couple of the quarter-pound patties would help, or removing the middle piece of bread. For me, it’s a lettuce-and-pickle sandwich, not a real burger.

Burger King: Burger King’s inclusion in the Big Three has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I think their menu is one of the most uninteresting around; I often stand there at the counter and think, is this all they have? The only reason I really ever go to Burger King is that for some reason my kids love it, and I think that has more to do with the toys in the kids’ meals than with the actual food.

For me, the fatal flaw in Burger King’s execution is the preponderance of microwaving. Let me illustrate. Once I was in the drive-thru, and I could clearly hear the guy ahead of me yelling his order into the little speaker. “I want a Whopper, hold the pickles…NOT MICROWAVED! I want a chicken sandwichNOT MICROWAVED! I want a large order of onion ringsNOT MICROWAVED!” Do you think they might have a small PR problem?

Burger King has relied so strongly on microwaving everything that they don’t even hide it anymore. Those microwave ovens are right up front, where everyone can see them. After you’ve ordered a burger, they brazenly throw it in, right in front of you. Frankly, I’m amazed at this.

Microwaving is not a good idea. A hamburger that has been microwaved loses even more of its flavor. Usually, a microwaved burger just tastes of heat and steam, and it usually burns your mouth. A fresh burger patty, seconds off the grill, usually isn’t hot enough to burn your mouth. But a microwaved burger, five minutes later, will.

I think this is abhorrent, considering that BK has made its reputation on their charbroiled burgers, and how they spent so many years saying that flame-broiling burgers was so much more tasty than frying them on the grill. Personally, I don’t think it matters once you throw it in a microwave.

It’s more than the incessant microwaving that has me concerned. I really think that the quality of Burger King has been slipping steadily over the last few years, to the point where I’ve told my children that I simply don’t want to take them there anymore.

For instance, they’ve introduced a series of more upscale burgers at least a couple of times, Back Porch Grillers, Angus burgers, whatever, and so far these have been uniformly awful. It doesn’t really matter if you’re using a superior ground beef if you flame-broil the crap out of it and then stick it in a microwave.

And, like I mentioned before, the Whopper has become my second-least favorite burger over the last few years. It tastes fatty and bland. Like the Big Mac, it is the fast food equivalent of a Greek Burger (see the chapter on the Greek Burger Syndrome coming up ahead).

For me, the only decent burger at Burger King is the little one, the so-called regular hamburger, the one you can get for under a buck. I almost think that this is Burger King’s one saving grace, because of all the regular burgers at all of the fast food joints, I actually think I like this one the best.

The famous little burger at McDonald’s, for instance, has a patty that’s way too small for the bun. And Wendy’s, for some reason, doesn’t seem to care about their 99 cent burgers as much as their bigger burgers; they’re dry and flavorless, surprisingly enough. But the little burger at Burger King, when not zapped in the microwave first, has a lot of flavor.

Once in a while they have specials where the regular little burger is 49 cents, the double is 99 cents, and the triple is a buck forty-nine. That’s usually the only time you’ll catch me at Burger King anymore, because it’s such an outstanding bargain at those prices.

I actually prefer the double, because three patties throws the whole burger a little out of balance. And I like putting bacon on it too, but apparently they use very special pigs for their bacon, because adding it to a double cheeseburger drives the price to almost three bucks, where it is no longer such a bargain.

But they even screwed up the little burger the last time I went, which indeed may be the last time, ever. When I unwrapped it, the outside of the bun was covered in ketchup, making a terrible mess before I even took the first bite. It looked as if they didn’t even care when they made it, they just slapped it together without consulting the BK training manual. It looked like some homeless guy wandered in off the street and made my burger. It was that bad.

Wendy’s: I’ve had a real love-hate relationship with Wendy’s over the years. I had even boycotted them for over five years back in the late eighties. I know that’s surprising, considering how instrumental Wendy’s was in developing my love for hamburgers. Then again, that’s part of the problem.

It’s not so much the burgers themselves that have me disgusted. They’re still pretty good, although I think they’re not as good as they used to be. For me, the infuriating thing about Wendy’s is their service. Compared to a standard-bearer like McDonald’s, Wendy’s is positively rude. They almost never say thank you, and for me, that’s downright foolish. McDonald’s, again, always thanks you. But the real reason I had to stop going to Wendy’s was because I simply got tired of them screwing up my order.

Do you remember Joe Pesci’s diatribe against fast food drive-thru windows in Lethal Weapon 2? He (or more accurately, the screenwriter) was obviously talking about Wendy’s. I’m a little finicky about what I put on my burgers. And that was one of the original things I liked about Wendy’s, that they made it really easy for you to make special orders.

But after a few years (really, after Wendy’s became a big international burger chain in the early eighties), they started to excel at getting my order wrong. In fact, it had gotten to the point where they got it wrong more often than they got it right. And I’m not talking about one particular location, but rather several locations in several different states.

I remember the day I decided to stop going to Wendy’s. Ordinarily, I order a double cheeseburger, no pickle or tomato. So I did thatyes, in the drive-thruand a few miles down the road I discovered that my burger had nothing on it exceptyes, you guessed itpickles and tomatoes. They had even forgotten the cheese.

So basically, after I took off the pickles and tomatoes, I had basically meat and a bun. I thought about going back and angrily heaving the burger back through that evil drive-thru window. (I actually did that once, at Carl’s Jr., but I was really tired and I felt really bad and apologized to everyone afterward.) Instead, I did what most people would do. I quietly ate the burger and vowed never to go back ever again.

So why did I go back eventually? I’m not sure why, but I think it had something to do with the fact that they started serving chicken sandwiches. Several people told me how good they were, and I finally gave in.

I reminded myself, too, about the fries, that they were by far the best of the Big Three, and that it was probably really difficult to screw up a chicken sandwich, fries and a soda. And I found out that their chicken sandwiches are excellent, easily the best of the Big Three. The chicken breasts that they use are large and nicely seasoned, with a little more black pepper in the breading than the other guys. And usually Wendy’s is a little imaginative with their variations on the chicken sandwich, such as the Monterey Jack version, which is very tasty.

So I went back to Wendy’s from time to time, and ordered the chicken sandwiches, never the burgers. And I thought about the irony, that here was a place that prided itself and built a reputation with “hot and juicy burgers,” and here was a guy who was totally addicted to burgers, and preferred getting the chicken sandwich. Even worse, this was a guy who finally realized he loved burgers the very first time he went to Wendy’s.

Yes, I’ll admit that I have had a few burgers from Wendy’s in the last few years. But like I said, they aren’t as good as they used to be, and like with the fries at McDonald’s, I’m not sure why. The meat is a little drier than before, and I don’t think that the condiments are the freshest in the biz.

And I really hate how they still insist on putting mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise on their burgers. In fact, I still, from time to time, order the Wendy’s burger kid-style, that is, mustard, ketchup and cheese. It’s not half-bad that way. I’d really like to order it normal, hold the pickle, tomato and ketchup, add some bacon, but I’m sure that’s too complicated for them, and they’d only mess it up, so I refrain.

The Others: Since we’re in Southern California, I guess when I mention the other big fast food burger joints, I’m talking mainly about Jack-In-The-Box and Carl’s Jr. I think they’re about equal in terms of quality, and I think Carl’s probably has a slight edge in taste. But I go to JITB much more often than Carl’s simply because I have more respect for them.

Why? It’s the advertising.

I know it sounds dumb to pick any product simply because the commercials are better, but then again, why do you think companies spend so much money on the right advertising? Because a funny commercial makes people want to patronize your business.

Frankly, Carl’s Jr. has some of the worst advertising I’ve ever seen. Their commercials lately seem to be shooting for the young guy demographic, you know, all those guys in the beer commercials who just want to party and get laid and who, apparently, have never learned to cook for themselves.

It doesn’t sound that bad, an advertising campaign based upon the idea that “if it wasn’t for us, some guys would starve.” But in execution, these commercials are flat, humorless, and flat-out dumb.

It didn’t even start with that. The previous Carl’s campaigned focused on close-ups of people eating their big, messy food, with lots and lots of sound effects. “Don’t bother me, I’m eating” was the theme of this particular campaign, but they failed to realize that watching other people chewing noisily and smacking their lips and dripping goo down the front of their shirts wasn’t necessarily appetizing, even if it’s a relatively hot chick doing the eating.

But for me, the worst commercial of all, the one that really made me question if I’d ever give Carl’s Jr. another dollar of mine, was the one about the Jalapeno burger and the baby in the sonogram. Yes, you read that right.

Some guy at the ad agency thought it would be a good idea to feature a fetus, communicating via a sonogram monitor, that he was tired of his mother eating all those spicy jalapeno burgers. We even see the baby actually grab a handful of his mother’s uterus and threaten to rip some of it on the way out when he’s born.

MmmmmI’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

Jack-in-the-Box, however, has some of the funniest commercials I’ve seen in a long time. It was sheer genius resurrecting the original clown, calling him Jack, and making him the charming yet sardonic CEO of the company.

The commercials are full of fun little details, too, such as when we are shown Jack’s driver’s license, and see that he’s six-foot-ten. With that huge head, of course he’s that tall! And then fun carries over from the commercials and into the restaurant themselves, where we see pictures of Jack in the seventies, with long hair and sideburns.

But before I paint JITB in too positive of a light, I must say that they did a spectacular job of ruining one of the best fast food burgers of all time, the Ultimate Cheeseburger. For years this was one of my guilty pleasures, one of my favorite burgers despite the fact that the patty itself was one of the most flavorless out there. I think that almost everyone makes a better patty than JITB at this point.

Where JITB excels, however, is in being creative with their menu, and providing interesting ways to mask the fact that their patty is far from the best.

The Ultimate Cheeseburger, in its original form, was a thing of beauty, a carnivore’s dream. Even boxer George Foreman, another self-admitted burger junkie, put it at the top of his list, along with Fatburger.

The UC was a two-patty burger with three kinds of cheese, a special sauce, and a bun. For me, it was the greatest burger for a finicky eater like me since The Big Plain. I ate quite a few UCs over the years, more than I’m willing to admit. And I used to say to myself that there were only two things that it neededbacon, and a fresh, unfrozen patty. That would have made it a truly great burger, as opposed to be just a guilty pleasure.

A little more about that sauceI’m not sure what it is exactly, but it’s not Thousand Island dressing nor ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together, like most secret sauces. It’s definitely mayonnaise-based, with an undercurrent of horseradish.

Part of me thinks it’s a variation on hollandaise sauce. Someone once suggested to me that it’s mostly Miracle Whip, but I’ve never tasted that in my life, so I don’t know. I know that it’s also not just mayo and horseradish, since I’ve tasted Dijonnaise, hoping that it was the JITB sauce in a jar. It wasn’t. Needless to say, I dig that sauce, and the more they use, the better. That sauce helps to alleviate the general dryness of those patties.

Well, JITB listened on the first score. They added baconfour pieces of it!and called it The Colossus. I loved it! Every one I ate took a half an hour off my life, I’m sure, but it was arguably worth it. And the crazy thing about The Colossus was that when it first came out, it was only 4 cents more than the regular Ultimate Cheeseburger! That’s a penny per strip of bacon! Take that, Burger King, and your expensive pigs!

Well, I knew that my second request would never be granted, because it’s a big thing to ask a restaurant to commit to never freezing their beef. But I didn’t expect JITB to go in the opposite direction. It wasn’t really their fault, though.

Back in the early 90s, JITB locations in the Pacific Northwest were hit with a strain of E. Coli that nearly ruined them. After that, JITB made sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that every patty was burnt to a crisp in an effort to squash all those nasty bacterial critters. But those were rough days for Ultimate Cheeseburger lovers. If you thought that Jack-in-the-Box’s burgers were bland and dry before, then that little nightmare in Washington State surely drove you away for good.

But it gets worse. After a while, things calmed down, and JITB stopped cooking their patties in the mouth of an active volcano. And then, Jack started talking about his new, improved burgers with better meats, and better sauces. Well, I was all excited about the meat claim, hoping they finally came up with a patty that was as good as the rest of the sandwich. And, wellit was okay.

Perhaps it was as least as good as it was before the food poisoning scare. But what about this improved sauce? Nervously, I tried it, and realized, with utter frustration, that new sauces meant mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise instead of the old white sauce. I was outraged!

Fortunately, I discovered a trick. I found out that you could order the Ultimate Cheeseburger, with and without bacon (they stopped calling it The Colossus after a while and just started calling it the Ultimate Cheeseburger with Bacon), and a few other of their burgers (such as the also formerly yummy Sourdough Bacon Burger) with the white sauce. They call it “old-style.”
One counterperson told me that quite a few people were doing this, and a lot of people were complaining about the new, better sauces. I’m glad it wasn’t just me. Maybe Jack will listen and change it back.

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