You might not be familiar with Alhambra resident Quang Hong, but there’s a fair chance you’ve heard of his website, Brand Eating. The fast-food news and review blog attracts more than a million page views each month and is on it when Taco Bell drops a new Franken-taco or Dunkin’ Donuts adds a new frozen coffee slushie.
What makes Brand Eating unique compared with other fast-food review sites is its decidedly evenhanded and understated tone. There are no gimmicky promotions, over-the-top eating challenges or flashy rating systems. Instead, Hong chronicles the wide world of mass-market food culture with the same meticulous attention a taxonomist might give a genus of butterflies. “I write for myself, really,” Hong says. “I started the blog because the type of information I wanted wasn’t available anywhere else. It wasn’t something people wrote about.”
Hong started Brand Eating in 2008, essentially on a whim. His cousin, who runs the popular Vietnamese cooking blog Wandering Chopsticks, sent him a link that offered a referral bonus if he created a blog. “I wanted my cousin to get the $50 or whatever it was, so I set up a site,” he says. Previously, Hong worked as an editor at a game developer website and attended Loyola Law School, briefly interning at the L.A. District Attorney’s Office. Now he runs Brand Eating full-time, occasionally traveling to sample new products at restaurant corporate offices, including Little Caesars' headquarters in Detroit and Dunkin’ Donuts' outside Boston.
One thing you might not expect of someone who samples fast food for a living (and at times visits five fast-food restaurants in a day): Hong is not overweight. “I’m not a heavy eater,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll eat half a burger for lunch and then leave the rest in my fridge for dinner.” Hong’s girlfriend used to split meals with him during visits, but after she recently stopped eating gluten for health reasons, he’s been eating more meals by himself. “I think I've gained like 10 pounds already,” he says. “I’ve been trying to cut back.”
Hong foresees the future of his site as reliant more upon food news than reviews, admitting that he sometimes wonders how long he can keep this up and that he doesn’t enjoy eating fast food for nearly every meal. He’s also somewhat put off by the rise of YouTube fast-food reviews, in which video bloggers scarf down items on camera, often in rather gluttonous displays. “It’s like the Korean video celebrities who live-stream when they eat,” he says. “There’s almost a voyeuristic element to it.”
Hong says he realizes fast food is a socially contentious issue, and he tries to remain as objective and stoic as possible. “I’m not trying to convince people to eat fast food,” he says. “It’s a resource. There are lots of people who want to know how the Quesalupa – or whatever the new promotion item is – tastes without going out and buying it.”
As for the state of fast food today, Hong says: “I think Wendy’s has the whole 'fresh' image down, and Taco Bell is hitting it out of the park with the millennial demographic.” And on the growing appeal of "healthier" fast food: “I don’t think that people are interested in eating healthier fast food necessarily, but there is greater interest in sourcing, non-GMO products, fresh produce and things like that. That’s what these companies are paying attention to.”
Here are the five best fast-food items in existence, according to Hong:
Crunchy Taco at Taco Bell
“I prefer more traditional stuff over novelty items. This tastes like my childhood. I don’t add hot sauce, because Taco Bell seasons their meat pretty heavily. If I’m at Del Taco, then I might use hot sauce. Also, if you've ever wondered why Taco Bell meat looks different than ground beef you make at home, it’s because they add oats.”
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McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets and french fries
“These are the two best items that McDonald’s makes, and they’re very consistent. I usually order fries without salt, so they cook a fresh batch for you. Also, if you get them salted and then dip them in ketchup, the combination ends up being too salty.”
In-N-Out Double-Double with grilled onions and “extra toast”
“This is the best fast-food burger in my opinion. You need the extra toast on the bun because it gives it a much-needed crunch.”
Little Caesars' Italian Cheese Bread
“Of all the pizza chain breadsticks, these are the best. Their dough is more like bread dough rather than regular pizza dough, which make a difference. Domino's are not cheesy enough, and Pizza Hut fries their breadsticks. The ones at Little Caesars have a nice pan-baked crust, lots of cheese and are brushed with garlic 'buttery spread' (they can't legally call it butter). And they cost $4.”
Carl’s Jr. Big Carl
“This is a superior burger to the Big Mac. There’s less bun, it’s flame-grilled, and it tastes very similar. They used to offer a promotional price that was a very good deal, but it’s still something I’ll order occasionally.”