What I talk about when I talk about burgers 2
About six years ago I wrote an essay called “What I talk about when I talk about burgers”, which was my attempt to communicate to non-Californians why In-n-Out is a treasured institution of CA life. I don’t write about food much, but I have a soft spot for fast food culture because it is food that has undergone incredible amounts of pressure and the result is, sometimes, a shining diamond. Your favorite local pizza slice has to live up to the standards of a couple hundred people who live in the area, the occasional out-of-towner, and maybe an annoying food critic every now and then; the McDonald’s Big Mac evolved and adapted through decades of supply chain logistics, economic fluctuation, revolutions in food science, product design, and the actual tastes of billions of people across the world, all to be able to compete with your favorite local spot and the rival corporate food burger chain across the street.
All of this work to scratch the most basic of food desires: I am hungry now, and I would like to not be hungry within thirty minutes, with minimal effort or expense. Everyone can relate to this need, which is why we love arguing over fast food chain tier lists.
When I wrote that essay, I was fresh off of five years of living in Oakland and two years of living in West LA, both of which had plenty of late-night local food options besides burger chains. To choose In-n-Out over tacos meant choosing to drive over walking two blocks. But for the last six years since, I have lived in a sleepy Bay Area suburb, and my relationship to fast food has changed. I keep slightly later hours and do not eat dinner until around 10 or 11PM, which is well after most restaurants around here have closed. If I have no food on hand, no energy to cook, nor time to drive over to another town for late night food, then my remaining options are to put down $60 for a Branded Experience from a nearby ghost kitchen via DoorDash, or choose from In-n-Out, McDonalds, Carl’s Jr., Jack in the Box, and Taco Bell.
In-n-Out remains beloved, of course. Their recent tussle around refusing to comply with local vaccine mandate policies got some play in the media because people who are not from California associate In-n-Out with California, California with liberal politics, and liberal politics with heavy-handed COVID policies, but people from California know that In-n-Out became an institution precisely because it appealed to everyone here and some of us just ignored the Biblical citations printed on their packaging.
But I find myself eating there less often for the simple reason that my wife is usually not in the mood for burgers. As a single man, I was free to choose from whatever struck my fancy in the moment, but as a Wife Guy, I am the minority vote for food, so if Wife wants chicken nuggets, then McDonald’s it is.
She usually wants chicken nuggets, so it’s usually McDonald’s. An unexpected side effect of loving women is that I have eaten more McDonald’s in my adult years than I ever thought I would eat, and as I grow older I have learned to appreciate the decades of refinement that go into the McDonald’s menu that have actually elevated it to my current go-to favorite fast food spot. Where I used to think of McDonald’s as the default fast food upon which all other chains differentiate from, now I think of it as the leader that all others follow. But before I go into that, allow me to sort through the contenders.
There used to be a Burger King within a reasonable range. Burger King is one of my least favorite fast food burgers. I believe that the art of fast food is in taking the ingredients you can work with given your supply chain and making something that is a) delicious in its own right and b) resists comparison to anything else; the Burger King Whopper fails miserably in this regard by giving you a complete cookout burger, with all the fixins (lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, ketchup, pickle, maybe cheese). It is a complete burger for five bucks or whatever, but the beef and vegetables are flavorless, a bite is mostly crunchy chewy texture dominated by the ketchup and mayo, and it mostly just reminds you of all the other burgers you have had in your life that tasted better than the one you are currently eating and ask yourself what set of unfortunate decisions led to this miserable moment.
These days I cannot eat at Burger King without remembering this one time I had a fancy sushi lunch in Palo Alto with a guy who owns the Burger King in the San Francisco International Airport, and talked to him for ten minutes about how I liked the fact that Burger King was always down to do the weird shit like French Toast Sticks and Chicken Fries and even hot dogs. What I learned from that conversation is that people who eat fancy Palo Alto sushi for lunch and own Burger Kings don’t actually eat Burger King.
Anyway, since then, the nearby Burger King went out of business, which I have almost never seen fast food joints do. It feels like an admission that they didn’t deserve to take up that space, which I think has just been replaced with more parking lot.
We will occasionally break for Taco Bell, which I had neglected for some time in favor of Real Street Tacos until watching a Taco Chronicles documentary episode on the history of crunchy tacos got me interested again. My adult memories of Taco Bell were mostly ordering a wide spread of items on the menu and being consistently disappointed; the burritos just felt like soulless delivery mechanisms for flavorless paste, the nachos like convenience store leftovers that tried too hard, the seasonal items clearly just cleverly rearranged layers of the same ingredients that every other item used. But the crunchy taco had never let me down.
When I watched the Taco Chronicles episode and learned that Taco Bell started out as a place that made crunchy tacos, it all made sense to me; they’ve got one item they’re really good at (crunchy tacos), and have basically had to go to extreme lengths to continue developing a menu to keep up with the other fast food giants. But I refuse to be hoodwinked! So now I just roll up and order six crunchy taco Supremes for the two of us, plus a bag of cinnamon twists, and down it all with a beer from the fridge. I will occasionally also order whatever new shit is on their menu, and I will grumble about how it’s not as good as the crunchy taco. With this, I am at peace with midnight Taco Bell, and will occasionally even indulge in the ~45 minute drive to the Pacifica Taco Bell at the End of the World.
And yes, speaking of crunchy tacos and California, I have inducted my wife to the noble order of Jack in the Box deep-fried two-taco enthusiasts. They are a beautiful and delicious mistake, and now they come in a box of minis that you can eat with chopsticks if you’re so inclined. But we don’t go to Jack in the Crack often because, frankly, the sandwiches kinda suck and my post-gorge regret usually kicks in at around the third bite. Jack in the Box hit different when I was a broke-ass high school student; now I understand that the cost is more than just the number on the receipt.
Which leaves Carl’s Jr (AKA Hardee’s) as the remaining challenger. I am a generous man, willing to allow second and third chances; Carl’s Jr is probably on its sixth strike right now. I live within walking distance of a Carl’s Jr/Green Burrito and I wish I liked it, but each time I roll up on the tail end of a stoned weekend afternoon walk, I am reminded that their prices are Real Burger Shop prices and the Famous Star has the same problem as the Whopper. It should be really hard to disappoint a hungry pothead, actually, and yet Carl’s Jr has done so with such consistency you’d think that was actually their goal.
But I remember those who have helped me in my life and I give them their due. Carl’s Jr has been there for me in some of my lowest moments. Everyone remembers the hangover that taught them their boundaries; mine hit halfway through my twenties and was healed by a morning Famous Star amid the homeless and hungry at the downtown San Francisco Carl’s Jr near the Powell Street BART station. And on last year’s Christmas Day, my wife and I guided a dear friend through a catatonic acid trip that left the two of us firmly convinced in our desire to never have children; tired and hungry, we found only closed doors and drive-throughs everywhere but a Carl’s Jr, and were thankful for its mercy. I took a bite of that Famous Star wondering if the baggage of my previous disappointments would overpower my gratitude and was relieved to find that it did not; turns out the thing it had been missing for me all these years is desperation. If nobody got me, I know Carl got me.
So now that brings me to McD’s.
The first thing you need to understand is that I am a Burger Man until the end of days. Nuggets are an appetizer, chicken sandwiches are a snack, and the breakfast menu is another matter entirely. I’m here to burg. In my youth, moving up from the Happy Meal to the Big Mac Combo was a rite of passage; as a young adult, discovering that the Animal Style Double-Double could wholly replace the Big Mac in my heart was the thing that led me away from the golden arches and towards the palm trees. Both of them hit the same general burger archetype — two patties, cheese, lettuce, and Thousand Island sauce, but In-n-Out’s grilled onions and tomato do a lot to amplify the flavor and texture of the freshly-grilled burger patties, while the Big Mac’s frozen flavorless beef and additional middle bun slice end up diluting the burger’s flavor and drying out the bite. A Double-Double’s vegetables are there to provide contrast and relief to the greasy juiciness of each bite; the Big Mac feels like it’s trying to stretch out each bite of burger by cutting it with flavorless bread and watery lettuce.
Nevertheless, I remained respectful of McDonald’s for two reasons: First, the fries are godlike, and second, the humble cheeseburger remained always mysteriously delicious to me, even though they were never satisfying enough to carry me through a meal. Premium sandwiches like the Big Mac, Whopper, Famous Star, and Double-Double introduce more ingredients for the price, which heighten the customer’s expectations and increase the number of potential points of failure.
Adding a tomato to a burger is a great idea for a cookout, but doing it within the constraints of a fast food burger might mean that you’ve just added a bland mealy flavorless slab of out-of-season shitty tomato to a burger that now is liable to become a slippery mess. The McDonald’s cheeseburger, and its grown big brothers Quarter Pounder and Double Quarter Pounder, understand that less is more. Dress the burger up with American cheese to give the beef patties a little gooey texture to each bite, pair ’em with ketchup, mustard, and some diced pickles and onions to give the burger some tangy crunchy contrast, and do nothing more. Let the cheeseburger be its own thing, comparable only to itself, and it will be enjoyed and remembered only for what it is and not what it could have been instead.
And so the thing that brought me back to McDonald’s was actually a menu change in 2018, where they changed to freshly grilled beef patties on the Quarter Pounder, instead of using frozen beef patties like their other burgers. This article does a pretty good job of explaining how big a deal it is to deploy that kind of workflow and supply change to the most prolific restaurant chain in the world, if you’re so inclined. As someone who also works on stuff that is intended for worldwide consumption, I am in awe of the determination and conviction required to pull this off.
Upon hearing of the switch, I decided to give it a shot. I had always thought of the Big Mac as their flagship burger, and once the Double-Double had ousted it in my heart, I typically opted to order a selection of their cheaper sandwiches like the McDouble or McChicken to satisfy myself through variety. Something about paying over $6 for a sandwich at McDonald’s felt silly to me. At the time, I thought it was because I was a cheapskate, but later I would learn that it’s actually because I felt like I wasn’t worth buying a six dollar cheeseburger for.
The difference was immediate and apparent within the first bite. The burger itself was hot and juicy, compared to the dry standard patty. The McDonald’s cheeseburger recipe had always stood out from the others in its relative simplicity; it just needed a little more love to elevate it to excellence. And that love comes in the form of a greasy, beefy, cheesy mess starting from the bottom of the bite, and the cool acid sweet/sour/crunch of the ketchup, mustard, onion, and pickle on the top.
These days our go-to order is 20 nuggets with BBQ sauce, a large double QP combo with a Sprite, and two guava and creme pies. We split the nuggets, fries, and Sprite. Start with a nugget, then a bite of burger, then a few fries, and cleanse with a mouthful of the drink.
It’s just enough to leave me looking at the precipice of regret. I suspect I will soon have to give up my share of the nuggets. I’m hoping I can hold out until 40 before I have to replace them with a side salad. I haven’t been to a Five Guys in five years and I don’t miss it, though, look, do what you gotta do.