The idea for this piece came from an Uproxx staff discussion on Slack, a popular chat software we use to communicate with each other. The subject was fast food and, after about 5,000 messages, two things became clear: 1) everyone had an opinion and 2) everyone deemed themselves an expert. Food is like that. Of all the things that get “reviewed,” it’s clearly the most accessible. That’s actually exactly why I think food is so cool: we all have a pretty high degree of authority when discussing the things we’ve eaten.
The strong opinions in that discussion became the germ of a bigger idea. I wanted to have our writers eat one fast food item, then really give it a proper review. Can a $3 burger hold up to an $18 burger at a mid-level eatery? Is there any fast food that can transcend “good for fast food” and move into the realm of “just plain good?” Was there enough variety of flavors and textures to make any dish genuinely notable? Or could all of the reviews be summed up by writing “meh, it’s fast food…whatever.”
-Steve Bramucci, Managing Editor, Uproxx Life
Abigail Eastwood, The Chicken Quesadilla: Taco Bell
In the name of full disclosure, I am not a fast food expert. I’m more of a, middle of the pack, medium-paced food expert. That being said, a few times a year, when I get a hankering to obliterate my digestive system, I seek the menu of one of America’s finest establishments, Taco Bell. Though my eyes are easily distracted by the shiny allure of exciting options like the Quesalupa and Doritos Locos Tacos, my head says “be cool.” So, I go conservative and opt for a chicken quesadilla.
Like I said, I’m no fast food expert, but the bottom line is this: the Chicken Quesadilla from Taco Bell tastes good. Like, “I could eat six of these if I didn’t know I was eating Taco Bell”-level good.
In this case, there are a couple of explanations as to why I enjoyed my quesadilla so damn much — including not having eaten in five hours and having just played ninety minutes of tennis. (Hence my cool and fancy appearance as a cartoon.) Plus, I was charmed by an overwhelmingly friendly cashier who assured me that my food would be “ready in a second” (which it literally was). But ultimately, no matter your dining experience, or how hungry you are, it comes down to the food itself.
A chicken quesadilla is made up of three key components – tortilla, cheese, and chicken.
- Ordinarily, I prefer a nice, crispy tortilla. So much so, that at the restaurant where I work, I order quesadillas and modify them to be “extra crispy,” which by the way, I’m pretty sure guarantees the opposite. At Taco Bell, the tortilla is floppy and wavering on soggy.
- Ordinarily, the cheese in a quesadilla should be melted and pully aparty. It should be proportioned to balance properly with the tortilla and the meat inside. At Taco Bell, the cheese was three-quarters of the way melted and a bit heavy-handed for my taste.
- Ordinarily, the chicken inside of a chicken quesadilla should definitely be chicken. And there was nothing wrong with the chicken in my quesadilla, but I’m a skeptic of all fast food protein ever since someone found a finger in their Wendy’s milkshake. Still… Live Más, right?
All of these shortcomings — a floppy tortilla, unmelted cheese, and curious meats — can be easily overlooked because of THE SAUCE. I don’t know, nor do I want to know what’s in it. I do know it’s controversial among consumers. But I happen to like it very much. It’s just a little bit spicy and there’s not a gross, devastating amount of it. I think it saves the meal, maybe even the world. Whatever this mayo-y, “aioli” they slather inside of the Taco Bell Chicken Quesadilla is, it seems like magic and keeps me coming back… albeit maybe twice a year. Bravo, Taco Bell Saucier!
While other Mexican fast food joints, who shall remain unidentified, struggle to recover from highly publicized E. coli epidemic, you may want to consider ringing the Bell. It may not be GMO free, but it’s cheap, ready in seconds, and tastes pretty damn good.
David Pemberton, The Monkey Style Burger: In-N-Out
“That’s not really on the menu, sir.” The teenager behind the counter obviously knew what I meant when I asked for a double burger, monkey style, but for some reason, he was being obstinate.
“I know it’s not really on the menu,” I replied. “It’s on the secret secret menu… right?”
The teenager sighed heavily and rolled his eyes. “You’re just going to have to make it yourself, sir.”
For those of you not in the know, a “Monkey Style” burger is basically an In-N-Out burger stuffed with monkey style fries. It’s one of those things that I heard about from a friend who read about it from a blogger who had seen it mentioned on Twitter. The urban legend of fast food orders.
But, for some reason, In-N-Out refuses to actually construct the burger for you. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to affiliate themselves officially with the “Monkey Style” burger, or perhaps there’s some kind of fast food Illuminati pulling the strings. Whatever the truth may be, I was forced to shove mounds of cheesy, greasy fries into a double hamburger with my bare hands, like some kind of asshole, to fully review the “Monkey Style” burger.
And it was so worth it.
The fries give the burger a surprisingly delightful chew — a mouthfeel that is both gooey and ooey — with a pleasant, if indulgent, fattiness. There’s even a hint of spice. The burger is filling, too. It’s a self-contained meal, and the shrapnel that falls from betwixt the buns are a fine hash of meat, potato, and special sauce — perfect for eating with your fingers.
The “Monkey Style” burger is over-the-top, messy, and insanely satisfying. Though, in full disclosure, I was violently hungover when I ate the burger. I wouldn’t suggest attempting it otherwise.
Ben Esch, The Western Bacon Cheeseburger: Carl’s Jr.
The Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl’s Jr. has meant a lot of things to me over the years. When I was a chubby youngster, it meant a soothing, zesty treat after soccer games. When I was a significantly chubbier 25-year-old, the Western Bacon Cheeseburger meant my final treat before I started on a massive diet so I could finally join in on the skinny jeans trend that was sweeping the nation. And last week, with both myself and my jeans now much less skinny, the Western Bacon Cheeseburger from Carl’s Jr. showed me exactly how disgusting food can be.
It wasn’t just the taste of the burger that was disgusting, though that was pretty disgusting. The beef smelled and looked like beef, and it almost tasted like beef, but there was a disturbing lack of flavor depth… or even flavor. It tasted vaguely reminiscent of the real thing, but only enough to make me want the real thing even more. The bacon smelled like bacon, but tasted like bacon grown in a lab from the stem cells of terrible bacon. The BBQ sauce had no heat, but just enough sugary acidity to remind me of bile. The only part of the burger that was passable was the onion ring, but the taste, and the much-needed texture it gave the burger, were quickly replaced by the stale grease that coated my tongue.
I wasn’t just disgusted by the cheeseburger; I was disgusted that I ate so many of these foul things over the years. Because I’m 100% sure the burger always tasted this way; this was just the first time I ever really focused on the flavors. Judging by the other people in the restaurant—the hyper kids, the exhausted moms, the homeless guys passing the afternoon with a cup of Sprite, the customers with the glazed, guilty eyes of people who had just stumbled out of their first porn theater–I don’t think anyone else was focusing on how their food tasted, either.
The Carl’s Jr. was full of people who were only there because they couldn’t think of anything better, eating food they weren’t really tasting, supporting a company who does not care about them, or food. It’s a company that uses sex to sell a burger that’s pocked with pellets of hard gristle (which I was still picking from my teeth hours after I threw my burger in the trash). The absolute indifference of everyone involved was the most disgusting thing of all.
If I had a time machine, I would slap each and every Western Bacon Cheeseburger from the hands of my younger self (after I was done inventing the internet and drowning Hitler). Because if I was gonna be a fat kid anyway, I could have at least done it with food that actually tasted good.
Mark Shrayber, Dr. Pepper Milkshake: Burger King
Imagine you have a grandma–one who loves you and still has her full range of motion–who likes nothing more than making milkshakes. Now imagine that grandma has suddenly come into a large commercial kitchen (best not to think too hard on the circumstances of how she got it) and is trying new things that she knows will make you want to visit her again and again, even as an adult. She doesn’t want to be sad Pawpaw, is the point.
Enter the Dr. Pepper milkshake: It tastes homemade, isn’t thick enough to make drinking it cumbersome, and despite the fact that it sounds like it’ll rot your teeth from the inside, it’s sweet enough to make you pause between sips, but not so sweet that you won’t want to gulp it down immediately and order another. Which is what I would do. And would have done. But the Burger King was closing and I had to finish mine outside.
Vince Mancini, AM Crunch Wrap: Taco Bell
The obvious choice for my fast food review was Taco Bell’s AM Crunch Wrap. Taco Bell changed the breakfast sandwich game (not a major feat, admittedly) with one simple trick: adding hash browns. Breakfast feels like the safest bet at a fast food joint, and fried potatoes are one area where it’s not uncommon for a fast food place to outshine its sit-down peers. French fries at your local mom and pop? Meh. French fries at McDonald’s? HELL YES. Combining fast food fried potatoes and fast food breakfast? Well, that just makes good sense.
Working hash browns into a breakfast one-hander was somehow both obvious and casually revolutionary. And insofar as Taco Bell mimics actual Mexican food, there is in the crunch wrap at least a small hint of my all-time favorite Cal-Mex treat: the California burrito (a carne asada burrito where french fries take the place of the usual beans and rice).
The major drawback of the AM Crunch Wrap is that Taco Bell only serves the breakfast menu at stand-alone Taco Bells. Not at their combined Taco Bell/KFCs (Kentaco Fried Chicken Bells, as I like to call them). The hybrid drive thrus happen to be the only kind of Taco Bells we have inside San Francisco, meaning that if I wanted to join the breakfast revolution, I’d have to drive all the way down to Daly City. I mention this only because having to drive 40 minutes to eat fast food goes against everything fast food stands for. I thought it was only fair for you to know that I didn’t eat this crunch wrap under optimal, or natural conditions.
First bite — there was a cold spot in the middle which was initially off-putting. You feel cold inside fast food and your mind automatically goes to some Hot Pocket you didn’t nuke long enough. Merely being cold shouldn’t suddenly make you upset about eating processed garbage food when you’ve already made the conscious decision to do so, but it does, oh but it does. In fact, hotness may be the only quality we truly demand in our junk food (discuss). After a second I realized the cold was just pico de gallo salsa.
It’s supposed to be cold, Master Wayne. Phew.
The other big difference between the crunch wrap and your usual breakfast sandwich is the tortilla. Taste wise, a fast food tortilla is a slight step down from a fluffy English muffin. Sure, being grilled to a crispy brown like it is in the commercial does elevate the tortilla somewhat, but let’s face it, it’s never actually going to come like that. Even assuming it did, it’s just hard to beat an English muffin. What the tortilla does bring, however, is convenience. It’s big enough to completely envelope your breakfast sandwich, so that you don’t really have to worry about anything dripping or spilling out. Heck, you could probably eat a Crunch Wrap with one hand while descending a windy escalator and cutting deals on your cell phone with the other (“Sell! Sell! Short it! You’re f*cking fired, Bob!”). Call that a draw.
The eggs: The crunch wrap uses scrambled eggs, which is a bit of a downgrade. One of the rarely-discussed merits of the Egg McMuffin is the fact that they use those rings to make a perfectly round fried egg. Sure, that egg round was probably sitting there a while, but the clearly defined white and yolk tells you you’re not eating scrambled eggs that came from a powder. You gotta like that kind of subtle reassurance. Makes a man feel good. My Crunch Wrap’s eggs tasted fine, but I did miss seeing that real egg white and real egg yolk, separated.
My final verdict? Satisfying. You’re not going to finish a Crunch Wrap thinking “Gee, that was delicious!” because hey, it’s still fast food. But the AM Crunch Wrap doesn’t disappoint. Is it better than an Egg McMuffin? Hard to say, Egg McMuffins are pretty damned good. But where it might not be an improvement, strictly speaking, the Crunch Wrap at least distinguishes itself, thanks to the hash brown. It offers an alternate choice and not just a step down. Meanwhile, the textural contrast and clearly defined ingredients give it a distinct edge over its tortilla-ensconced predecessor, the fast food breakfast burrito.
The only real question now is when Taco Bell is going to run with the big boys and start offering breakfast all day.
Jennifer C. Martin, The House Zalad: Zaxby’s
If you haven’t heard of Zaxby’s, you’re not alone. It’s another addition to the southern-fried chicken fast food category. It seems to be regional, mostly appearing in the south where it’s a well-known alternative to Bojangles or Chick-fil-A.
I don’t actually eat much fast food, but one exception was when I was pregnant with my second son. I ate Zaxby’s once a week. I preferred the Kickin’ Chicken sandwich served with crinkle-cut fries. And then I’d have them give me a birthday cake milkshake topped with chocolate whipped cream and sprinkles instead of a soda. I was eating for two, dammit. To change things up, I’d occasionally get a “healthier” Zensation Zalad: a vaguely Asian concoction that included an entire egg roll as a topping.
When I learned that Zaxby’s was opening in Richmond, I was struck by a wave of nostalgia. I had to go back and get that Zensation Zalad. After days of eating out during a recent move, I didn’t feel up to the Kickin’ Chicken sandwich quite yet.
But when I got to the drive-thru, the Zensation Zalad was no longer on the menu. I decided to ask for it anyway, because I’m the worst. MAYBE IT WAS A SECRET MENU ITEM.
“Do you have a Zensation Zalad?” I shouted at the intercom.
An impatient female voice responded, “No. That’s a limited time-only item.”
“But it’s for a story…” I responded, as if she was supposed to care.
“What else do you want?” she demanded.
“I guess, uh, The House Zalad with fried chicken… with no cucumber, please?”
When I opened up the salad back at my house, it was at least 25% cucumber.
The good thing about getting a “zalad” from Zaxby’s is that it makes no attempt to be healthy. I’m not one of those people who considers a side salad with vinaigrette to be an entire meal. This salad comes with buttery Texas toast, two kinds of shredded cheese, fried onions, and in my case, fried chicken and ranch dressing. Sure, they offer grilled chicken at Zaxby’s. But don’t do that. Trust me on this one. The fried chicken is tender and the breading is plentiful, yet still crispy.
In the salad itself, the cucumbers were highlighted superbly. They were peeled and chopped up finely and nearly impossible to pick out. The shredded carrots and red cabbage were sparse. But the full-sized tomato slices were red and ripe, and the mixed greens were crisp and as flavorful as fast food salad gets. Plus, the whole thing was huge. I’m not a dainty eater and I couldn’t finish it.
For people who feel like salad should defy its boundaries as a “diet” food, The House Zalad with fried chicken is a great choice. When there’s almost as much cheese and fried chicken as there is lettuce, who’s going to complain? It’s not the tastiest item on their menu, but it’s great if you want to lie to yourself about being healthier and eating a salad for lunch.
Josh Kurp, Spicy Chicken Sandwich: Wendy’s
My theory, based on literally zero hours of research: Your favorite SNL cast is the one that was on when you were a teenager, and your favorite fast food meal is whatever you grew up eating. For me, it was a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin (later, the much-improved McGriddle) in the morning and Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich in the afternoon and/or evening, often in the same day. I was not a healthy child/teenager/adult.
The thought of forcing down another Egg McMuffin disgusts me — they were always weirdly soggy — but I could eat a Spicy Chicken Sandwich every day, any day. It combines two of my favorite things: chicken, and spiciness. When Taco Bell brags about something being MUY CALIENTE, or whatever, that’s bullsh*t. But there is a hint of spice to Wendy’s masterpiece. It’s barely there, but it’s there, and it’s MUY TASTY. (Instead of learning Spanish in middle school, I was at Wendy’s.) Having one recently, for the first time in years, reminded me of going to the mall on Saturdays with my weekend-custody father. I’d waste his money by dragging him to a terrible movie, or playing for hours at the arcade, but our customary trip to the food court Wendy’s? That was money well spent. Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich is delicious nostalgia. Hold the mayonnaise.
Andy Isaac, Sliders: White Castle
I have one rule in life and that rule is simple: Don’t trust anyone who says they don’t like White Castle sliders. In fact, go ahead and never associate with that person again. Go ahead and make that person your mortal enemy.
You see, the White Castle slider isn’t just a run-of-the-mill item at a fast food place. No, sir. It is food nirvana. It is an experience unlike any other. But don’t take my word for it. Take the word of this wise, wise man from the 2004 film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.
“As a Burger Shack employee for the past three years, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you’re craving White Castle, the burgers here just don’t cut it. In fact, just thinking about those tender little White Castle burgers, with those little, itty-bitty grilled onions that just explode in your mouth like flavor crystals every time you bite into one… just makes me want to burn this motherf*cker down.”
When I die, please bury me in a vat of White Castle sliders. And in lieu of flowers, please spread french fries over my casket. Thank you.
Steve Bramucci, Homestyle Ranch Chicken Club: Jack in the Box
After a morning without food, I strolled into my local Jack in the Box around 3 p.m. I figured that my hunger presented the most optimal conditions outside of getting drunk for me to actually like the sandwich I was going to eat. At the counter, I asked to modify the Homestyle Ranch Chicken Club slightly with a spicy chicken patty. This is a no brainer — everything is better with spice, especially fried things featuring cheese and mayo.
Because I work from home, little midday excursions like this become very social for me. Which is why I insisted on explaining the whole project to the woman behind the register. She handled me like someone who has considerable experience with people talking excitedly about chicken sandwiches. Which I can only assume she does.
“We’ll make yours fresh then, hon,” she said, with a wink that confused me on a whole range of levels.
True to her word, the sandwich came out hot. I walked a block, sat down on a bench, and started to eat. The deliciousness of fried chicken isn’t some great mystery. The juices are sealed in and it’s essentially covered in a thin, crispy layer of fried dough. Fried dough is good in all iterations. Still, it was a nice surprise to discover just how well this chicken patty was fried. It had a real-live crunch, the moisture had been retained, and the aforementioned heat was present, but not overpowering. The bacon was spot on, too. It was paper thin, which is good for a sandwich like this — there’s no way that thick bacon could ever get nearly as crisp. Fighting to rip apart a slice of thick cut, stretchy bacon is the grossest of all fast food eating experiences.
After these two perfectly prepared meats, the sandwich got a little shakier. The bun was almost nice, but there was a kind of chemical bounce to it that felt artificial. This is not me playing food writer — anyone would have noticed if they were making an effort to be attentive to such things. The tomato was kind of cardboard-ish, because most non-organic tomatoes are. Even if you hate the “eat local” or “grow your own” movements, you should plant a tomato vine. Homegrown tomatoes are just miles better than tomatoes trucked across continents. The lettuce was another nice surprise. The mayo was mayo (I would have loved a hint of garlic). The white cheese slice touched my nostalgia receptors, which played well with me because I happen to love, but never buy processed American cheese.
The point of this exercise was to see if any fast food could compete with fast casual concepts (Umami Burger, etc.) or even legit restaurant fare. On that count, the Homestyle Ranch Chicken Club from Jack in the Box comes pretty close. The proteins were perfectly done, so if I’d ordered it at a sit-down burger joint, I might not have been thrilled, but I wouldn’t have sent it back, either. Yes, it’s Jack in the Box — more revered for price and staying open late than flavor — but the fact is they know how to make a pretty good sandwich.