Nothing in life fascinates me as much (at least, since that stern talking-to I got from Jennifer Anistons lawyers) as new fast-food products. Not since Dr. Frankenstein was directing research for the European medical industry has anybody produced more botched experiments or buried the bodies faster.
Remember the grilled pineapple-and-cheese Hula Burger? McDonalds certainly hopes that you dont. McSpaghetti or McPizza, either. And its hard to say which failed more spectacularly: Burger Kings early-90s attempt at table service (with a menu that included shrimp, salad, baked potato and of course the sine qua non of fine dining, popcorn). Or its 2005 Meatnormous Omelette Sandwich, a breakfast-buffet-on-a-bun that included eggs, cheese, bacon and ham dressed with 330 milligrams of cholesterol and 1,950 milligrams of sodium.
So when I heard that Burger King has introduced a mutant low-cal dish called Satisfries, I reacted pretty much the same way those apes did in 2001: A Space Odyssey when they saw that black monolith: jumping around, squealing and brandishing a club at my editors while demanding a chance to sample and write about it.
Nothing gets Americans ticked off faster than messing with their fries, which they consume at an awesome rate of 60 pounds per person per year. The Internet has entire message boards devoted to bitter screeds about how fries havent tasted worth a damn since 1982, when McDonalds began the downfall of the fast-food industry and probably even Western civilization by caving to the Health Gestapo, switching its deep fryers from beef tallow tallow being the polite cooking term for fat to vegetable oil.
And someday we will doubtless invade and subjugate some other country for atrocities it has inflicted on defenseless potatoes. From Canadas barbaric poutine (cheese curds! on fries!) to the sinister mayonnaise fries of Belgium and the Netherlands, the world is one culinary outrage after another to the keepers of the American french-fry flame.
So my editors, who I sometimes suspect are as happy to be rid of me as I of them, gave me a few bucks and sent me off to Burger King and a few other venerated french-fry spots to see what the fuss is all about. My verdict: By the next full moon the night will be alive with tattered bands of Burger King executives, shovels over their shoulders, looking for a deserted spot in which to inter a mutilated corpse. Satisfries are dead on arrival.
This isnt really surprising. The stuff that makes food taste good fat, salt, sugar are the same things that throw the calorie fascists and the blood-pressure police into a rabid frenzy. This is especially true for fast food, which in the hands of nutritional fundamentalists gets reduced pretty much to nothing. Literally: McDonalds health-nut-certified Arch Deluxe, which cut the fat in a Big Mac by nearly two-thirds, did it by using beef patties composed mostly of seaweed and water. Thats great if youre a sea turtle, but human customers were less enthusiastic, and the Arch Deluxe is now buried out in the Everglades alongside the McGratin Croquette (dont ask).
Satisfries were obviously invented by scrawny, calorie-counting schoolmarms rather than anybody whos ever eaten a meal for pleasure. Burger King is promoting them with the pitch that they are dramatically healthier than the fries at McDonalds. My confidence in this claim is more than a little undermined by a Burger King press release that claims Satisfries have 140 percent less fat and 230 percent fewer calories both numbers are mathematical impossibilities.
Whatever the real-world numbers, though, Im willing to believe that Satisfries are healthier than McDonalds fries, because they taste so much lousier. Burger Kings new batter, which is supposed to improve the nutritional value of the potato sticks by preventing them from absorbing so much cooking oil, also appears to prevent them from frying properly.
Though they brown nicely, theyre unpleasantly mushy inside and taste less of potatoes than cooking oil. Satisfries have an old-school crinkle cut so they dont get mixed up with what Burger King employees now refer to by the unfortunate sobriquet old fries. But believe me, your mouth will never mistake one of these pasty newcomers with the crisp originals.
Or anybody elses fries, for that matter. To give our taste test some context, I visited four other revered deep-fry oases: McDonalds (obviously), the up-and-coming Five Guys chain (which only began expanding outside its Washington D.C. birthplace a decade ago), Coral Gables upscale OneBurger (bad fries would be a zoning violation), and Aventuras Bourbon Steak, which in addition to $100 steaks made from hand-massaged Japanese wagyu cattle offers the spoiler alert best fries in the known universe.
My approach to evaluating fast food is generally to grab a fistful of it, stuff in my mouth, and grunt either good or I told you we should have gotten pizza. But my girlfriend, whos written a bunch of cookbooks (though never one with anything as useful as how to make the Big Mac special sauce), insisted that we keep a bunch of charts ranking the various fries on color and crispness, greasiness, potato flavor, seasoning and heat when served.
Satisfries came in dead last with just 15.5 points out of a possible 25. Five Guys fries, the greasiest of the bunch the brown bag in which theyre served will be soaked with the peanut oil in which theyre cooked by the time you get it from the counter to the table were next, with 17.5 points. Burger King old fries came in fourth with a very respectable 20 points, getting dinged slightly on seasoning (over-salted) and flavor. McDonalds was just ahead with 21 points. And OneBurger, a nondescript black box from the outside but one of the true holy places of burger-and-fry cuisine within, served delicious fries that were truly excellent in nearly every respect: 24 points.
The ringer in this competition was Bourbon Steak, a perennial presence on lists of the best 10 restaurants in America and better known for its porterhouses slow-poached in butter than as a competitor to the Satisfry. This is the sort of place where french fries arent called a side dish but an amuse bouche.
And amusing they are. Each order comes in three stainless steel cups, together with a sauce for each. In one cup the fries are dusted with rosemary; in another, with smoked paprika and in the other, a subtle onion salt. Dips include a smoky barbecue sauce, a smoked-onion aioli in another, and spiced ketchup in the third. Then theres the secret ingredient: Theyre cooked in duck fat, which probably gives them their gusto, but remarkably, the fries have not a speck of grease, are light and airy and yet have a potato flavor that does not quack.
The very best thing about Bourbon Steaks fries: Theyre free. Of course, to get them, you have to order one of the entrees, which start at $40 and curve sharply upward. (I dont even want to guess what the menu warns is market price for the Maine lobster pot pie with truffle cream might be.)
Heres a tip that, unfortunately for the Heralds bookkeepers, was passed to me only after Id eaten at Bourbon Steak. If you sit at the bar, you can order the fries for just $5. Thats twice as much as a bag of Satisfries, and about 26,000 times the taste. Burger King needs to hire a duck-oil scientist.