The Revolution is Not a Dinner Party

It's Just Lunch....or IS IT??

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Frank Bruni: Close but No Cigar

Here is a great article writing up NYTimes foodie-in-residence Frank Bruni's fast food trek across the United States. Let me first say what I loved about the piece:

1) props to Whatabuger...this Texas chain has it all. I had seen ads on some national cable channels and wondered what the hell it was. While visiting The Revolution is Not a Dinner Party's Irregular Heckler JTB in Houston, I got to try this gem. Whataburger is cheap, very good, and fast...while nothing stands out as the best ever, the whole package is clearly superior to almost every other chain in the country.

2) Wendy's gets high marks in the top 10 list....I love Wendy's and it was a central part of my childhood. As you can see from this map, I grew up equidistant between 2 Wendy's (Mt. Lebanon allegedly has an ordinance that forbids fast food, so the locations are all on the border of my town). One of the most embarrassing things that ever happened to me was when I thought I left my retainer on my tray at the Wendy's in Castle Shannon. Back at that time, Wendy's distinguished itself not only with its superior food product but also a liberal policy regarding self-bussing of trays. This particular Wendy's had a mentally challenged man who would clear the trays. After the retainer was declared missing, we rushed back only to find out that the trays had been bussed. The poor guy went through the entire garbage can looking for it. No luck. We left, and cruising back home on Bedling Road, I reached into my pocket and realized it was there. My dad made me go back and apologize. He is a good man. I am an idiot.

Two other wendy's anecdotes:

I, me, yours truly, INVENTED the use of the chili sauce in the gold packet on the chicken sandwich (great on the fries too). The manager at the Greentree location picked up on the idea and started pitching it to other customers.** Its just a small skip and jump from that to the ridiculously successful spicy chicken sandwich. For the record-skip the spicy and get the regular chicken sandwich with EVERYTHING EXCEPT TOMATOES....this means, in Wendy-talk, that they put everything (except tomato) that would go on a hamburger on the chicken sandwich...more institutionally challenged (read: urban) Wendy's have a big problem with this and the counter people will refuse to hit the "everything" button, interpreting "everything except tomatoes" to mean "everything that would usually go on a chicken sandwich (lettuce, tomato, mayo)hamburger." This retardedness results in a sandwich which is just lettuce and Mayo, you don't want that. You want ketchup, mustard, mayo, pickles, onion, and lettuce....often at the urban Wendy's you have to recite these things while the people look at you like you are insane. Don't even try pointing out the "everything" button, they don't like that. Anyway, get the sandwich as above and smother it in the chili sauce. Bliss in a bun, I tell you, bliss in a bun.

Second, at Tufts, Wendy's were more hard to find. Luckily, the Revere Beach Parkway location was just far enough away for a good drive letting the muchies build up. We would get baked and drive past the Orange Line, arriving at Revere Beach practically frothing at the mouth. One time, Dre, Edsall, and I were waiting in line and Dre (who looks like an overgrown skater boi) was told by two locals, "you aren't from around here, are you?" Before Dre could respond, the same guy threw a sucker punch at the group in front of him, resulting in a minor brawl that almost stopped us from getting bliss in a bun. (follow-up...last fall, I was at the now defuct Wendy's on 6th Ave. and some hate-filled racist got furious about his sandwich not being right...he called the counter people "monkeys" and threw his fries and his hamburger at them, then he picked up and threw a was out of control).

Bottom line, I take Wendy's seriously and I'm glad Bruni gave the Chili some love. However, the chicken sandwich really is the best.

3) I'm glad Bruni recognized the superior product turned out by Baja Fresh (a formerly Canadian chain that was bought by Wendy's...I f'ing love Wendy's)

Now to the screw-ups in the article:

I don't think Wendy's got enough love. It really is heads and tails above the other national burger chains. A more glaring mistake was the love heaped upon KFC. I like KFC-who doesn't?- but the simple, undeniable fact is the Popeye's is SO MUCH BETTER. I only learned to love Popeye's in Washington D.C....the Popeye product there is better than everywhere else. But, when you get a good Popeye's and its churning out fresh chicken, there is nothing better. Bliss in a bucket, I tell you, bliss in a bucket. If, dear Bruni, you need more than unsubstantiated superlatives, here it is. Popeye's has a spicier batter and the chicken is plumper.

But, more importantly, I think Bruni missed the whole point that I have gained from a lifetime of eating fast food around this great nation. The really interesting thing is that fast food, despite the fact that its supposed to be consistent across geography, actually varies tremendously by location. A McDonald's in Queens is not the same place as a McDonald in my leafy suburb. Inside of the tight strictures of the "rules" of chain life, each location takes on a character of its own. Some are fun, others are depressing. Some serve fresh burgers, others serve 3 hour old burgers. Some are willing to throw out old fries, others will serve them until someone yells about the shit they were served. Fast food is not a homogeneous experience, the familiarity of the "rules" actually allows an aware eater to gain a great deal of info about the location of the chain and the people living there. The "rules" of the chain actually make the little difference more acute. Loving places serve loving Big Macs. I know this sounds insane, but I'll stand by that observation. You're not going to eat a bad fast food meal in a town that cares about hospitality and customer service. Unless you're in an airport, then all bets are off.

P.S. you can see what I feel about In-n-Out burger here.

** check out this ebay "I want it now" posting to see just how popular said chili sauce has become in Pittsburgh. You can find other lovers and haters of the gold packet sauce via this google search.


At 10:59 PM, Anonymous kafui said...

I've never seen this chili sauce it still available? Is it a regional thing? I feel deprived now.

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous katy said...

I thought the woman responsible for the Wendy's "chili finger" incident should have been given the death penalty.

At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1) the "chili finger" woman was an ignoramus. the reason why she was so speedily apprehended was that she inserted the finger into the chili after it was already cooked instead of heating them both together at uniform temperature--an amateur's mistake!

2) please tell me more about this mt. lebanon--any town that zones out fast food is first rate with me...

3) my favorite sanjana quote of some time: "do the Bar graders count spelling?"

-- rfn


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