Friday, September 14, 2007

Fast Food Karma

I don't think I'm very picky about food. I'm not talking a total lack of discrimination -- I know the difference between a New York strip and a sirloin, for instance -- but to be honest the threshold of what I'll actually eat is pretty low. The only things I can think of that I absolutely won't eat are beets and lemon pastries. I have preferences, but if push comes to shove I'll eat just about anything.

For this reason I'm not usually picky when it comes to restaurants, either. I'm convinced that there's something I will like no matter where we might go. Just as an example, your typical casual dining restaurant is bound to have a BLT, a bacon cheeseburger, or a quesadilla. Unless it's a specialty restaurant like seafood or pizza, and I like both of those. Or, to put it somewhat more simply, any given restaurant is probably has some sort of specialty or ethnic cuisine, and I can't think of any of those I don't like, or it serves something involving bacon.

I'm also not a fast food snob. To me, fast food is what it is. I'm sure it's not healthy, and it's probably a symbol of a whole host of things I try not to stand for, but it can be tasty and convenient and to be honest I'm just as happy as the kids are in those moments when we suspend our concerns for health and global awareness and hit a drive through. It's life in America, and it shouldn't surprise you that there's something I like in every imaginable fast food restaurant.

The kids often choose McDonald's, which is fine by me because I'm partial to their double cheeseburgers. The McDonald's cheeseburger is really more an entity unto itself than a contribution to cheeseburger culture as a whole, but it's only a dollar and as such seems like a kind of low-impact decadence. The Quarter Pounder with Cheese is better, but to an extent incommensurate with the price difference. A dollar-menu alternative is the McChicken sandwich, which I'll sometimes get when I've been hitting the double cheeseburgers too hard, and once every couple of years I'll eat a Big Mac. I even tried a chipotle chicken wrap, and it was pretty good.

At Burger King it's hard to justify getting anything but a Whopper, though they sometimes have a novelty involving bacon that I feel compelled to try. Taco Bell is problematic only because I like so many things, though I often end up getting the quesadilla because you can eat it while driving and wearing decent pants. KFC's chicken doesn't always agree with me, but they now have boneless wings (can someone explain the difference between a boneless wing and a nugget?) which are pretty good and don't seem to have any untoward gastrointestinal effects. Arby's has the Bacon Beef-n-Cheddar, the appeal of which should be self-explanatory, but sometimes you just need a fistful of regular roast beefs and a gallon of Arby's sauce.

Wendy's is probably my favorite. They have the new Baconator, and the Big Bacon Classic, but really I often find a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger and a small chili to be satisfying. I like the hot sauce packets they give you -- the sauce is strangely clear, and slightly viscous, and is apparently known only to Wendy's. If I feel like splurging, though, I'll get a Spicy Chicken Sandwich. They actually have a bit of kick to them, and they're large enough that my wife and I can sometimes even split one.

This was mood I was in when we stopped at a Wendy's on a recent trip. I was hungry, having been driving for awhile, and I wanted a Coke, so when one of the girls declared she just wanted fries, I saw my ticket: get the combo meal, give her the fries, and two of us are happy. One-third of lunch (there are six of us, for those of you who don't remember or who are poor in math) is taken care of in one fell swoop. Proud of myself for this moment of luncheon efficiency, I arrived at the table in triumph only to discover that something was terribly amiss.

My sandwich was tiny. And by "tiny" I mean "very small", lest there be any confusion. And I'm not even sure it was spicy. I returned to the counter and tried to communicate my disappointment. "I'm sorry," I said to the rather greasy-looking young man who inquired about my dismay, "but I ordered a Spicy Chicken Sandwich and I don't think that's what this is. Maybe I got a Crispy Chicken Sandwich instead?" The Crispy Chicken sandwich is the value menu version of their regular chicken sandwich. If I were doing the value menu, I'd have killed a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger and be halfway through my chili by now.

Greasy Guy inspected my sandwich. "Nope," he said matter-of-factly, "That's a Spicy Chicken." Apparently in Wendyspeak, it's not a "Spicy Chicken Sandwich", it's just "a Spicy Chicken." You could hear the capitals in his voice and appreciate his command of this insider lingo. I tried to look incredulous. I tried to look wary. I tried to look like I wasn't going to fall for any of this bait-and-switch bullshit. But he would have nothing of it. He was either a master of deception or incredibly daft. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

I returned to my seat defeated. I should have made a fuss, demanded to see a manager. But I was hungry, and with each bite -- of which my sandwich comprised four or five at best -- my evidence dwindled and the prospect of doing anything substantial became more and more ludicrous. I filled out a comment card, in a vain attempt to fill the gnawing sense of lack. Besides, we had inexplicably ended up with an extra order of fries so I filled up on those and we went on our way.

This was on mind as I thought about dinner a few nights ago. My jazz class is two hours away, and the university will pay for dinner and a hotel if I want it. If I stay the night I hit the Applebee's down the road. So far I've tried the bacon cheeseburger and the quesadilla, and they're both very good. But this particular night I didn't want to stay, but I was hungry. I thought about Applebee's -- they have take-out and the quesadilla is probably portable -- but it wasn't on my way out of town, and I'd have to wait. The Jimmy John's, to my chagrin, was already closed, and I was about to give up and just eat something when I got home when I noticed a Wendy's a few exits down.

This posed both a temptation and a dilemma: dare I risk it? Do I get a Spicy Chicken and chance disappointment? My original hankering for one had not been truly satisfied, but I'm uncertain whether I can take the defeat a second time. What if they changed the sandwich? There's still the value menu, and there's also an Arby's at the same exit. I can get a Bacon Beef-n-Cheddar and be happy. But there's that gnawing lack, that sense of emptiness needing to be filled. I can do nothing else: I order a Spicy Chicken Sandwich combo meal and hope for the best.

I am not disappointed. The sandwich is huge, the fillet perched awkward on a bun hardly adequate for the task. It is both hot, in the temperature sense, and unambiguously spicy, as if hell-bent on burning your tongue one way or the other. It looks as though it were carved from a roast pterodactyl, as if the universe were somehow trying to right itself in light of my prior bad experience. I drove down the road, gratefully nursing my nearly-burned tongue. Except the fries kind of sucked.

Is there no justice?