The fast food industry never seems content to let us, the dining public, enjoy the relative sanity of a single cheeseburger, in peaceful (if mildly self-loathing) solitude. Heavens no. Instead, in a mad rush to capture the imagination of a jaded fast food–dining audience, each restaurant must spin off increasingly hysterical tweaks to their menus in the hope that food bloggers like us will tweet about these new items, before moving on to their next abomination. And guess what? It works every time.
To meet the demands of the mad scientist chefs responsible for the latest buzzworthy fast food creations, food stylists often are charged with increasingly bizarre tasks. Imagine, for example, the first time a trained professional was asked to create a passably photogenic version of a grilled bacon and cheese sandwich that uses fried chicken for buns, or a grilled cheese sandwich that has fried mozzarella sticks cooked into the middle. Any stylist who didn't go home to have a serious talk with their spouse about the direction their life was headed simply wasn't paying enough attention.
The talent of these stylists has managed to keep up with the increasingly puzzling product, however, resulting in tons of artfully assembled, heavily Photoshopped versions of each menu item, which seem to be a vague reference to the actual meal rather than a still reproduction of it.
Here are five of the newest menu offerings from the big chains, presented with their styled promotional photographs, as well as the reality you'll face when you place your order.
5. McDonald's "Bacon Habanero Ranch" Quarter Pounder
The Pitch: "A quarter pound of 100% beef topped by smooth white cheddar, thick-cut Applewood smoked bacon, tomato and leaf lettuce, and a spicy-cool habanero ranch sauce, all on a toasted, bakery-style bun."
The Reality: When we confronted the reality of the dry, grey, well-done 4 oz. slab of McDonald's beef that lay before us, it seemed for just a moment like we might never get to answer the obvious question: Just what on earth does "spicy-cool" taste like? We didn't have to worry for long. Clearly, our burger had been made in a bit of a hurry, which left all of the promised "premium" sauce gobbed onto one side of the bun, soaking onto a surprisingly recognizable strip of bacon. The sauce itself was a good addition to the basic Quarter Pounder, however, with a pleasant heat that felt just right.
4. Wendy's Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger
The Pitch: "A delicious new twist on our classic hot 'n' juicy cheeseburger with a sweet and smoky honey mustard sauce, melted cheddar cheese and applewood smoked bacon all on a warm, soft pretzel bun. Now a specially crafted cheeseburger is closer than you think."
The Reality: It's been a long time since we've seen a fast food product receive as much advance hype as this, with the official press release touting a taste "outperforming any other promotional hamburger in recent Wendy's history," One reviewer even went so far as to call the sandwich a "game-changer," a term we'll reserve for nuclear weaponry and failed vice presidential candidates.
Instead, we'll tell you this: The bun is interesting, and manages to be chewy, heavy and light, all at the same time and in a completely unnatural way. The bacon is crisp and thickly cut, though the burger is the same square same-old, same-old that you're used to from Wendy's. The fresh spring mix, cheese sauce and honey mustard sauce all work to set this burger apart. But at around six bucks with a soda, we felt the price was getting awfully close to the cost of a sit-down pretzel burger — before we remembered that no one has ever actually requested a sit-down pretzel burger.
3. Burger King Rib Sandwich
The Pitch: "Our new Boneless Rib Sandwich combines a juicy boneless rib patty with a sweet and tangy BBQ sauce, and topped with crispy bread and butter pickles, all on a warm toasted artisan-style bun."
The Reality: Further solidifying Burger King's newfound role as the "also-ran" of the fast food world, the chain has decided once and for all to challenge McDonald's dominance of the pressed-pork-puck marketplace. Don't misunderstand; we're big fans of generic, rib-shaped ground pork parts, slathered in barbecue sauce and sliced pickles (since, after all, the only way to improve on a McDonald's McNugget is to make it out of pork). We approached Burger King's version of the sandwich with a fair amount of excitement, since its inclusion on the regular menu meant we would no longer be subject to the artificial scarcity McDonald's creates around its sandwich each year.
Unfortunately, a McRib it ain't. Maybe it's the missing chopped onions, the too-sweet pickles or the round form, but something just isn't bum-rushing our pleasure receptors in the same way as the original version.
2. KFC's "Hot Shot Bites"
The Pitch: "Like a slap to your taste buds."
The Reality: These proved to be one of the few bright spots in our recent tasting, with an overall presentation that proved strikingly similar to the product photography. Maybe that's not surprising when talking about these simple breaded-and-fried chunks of chicken knuckle; after all, if they arrive to your car both "hot" and "in a box," the battle is already half-won. These "Hot Shots" are so much more than good looks, though: They pack a spicy wallop that's unusual (and welcome!) in most mass-market, factory-to-table food items like these.
1. Taco Bell's "Smothered Burrito"
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The Pitch: "Our new Smothered Burrito is filled with shredded chicken, premium Latin rice, hearty beans and creamy chipotle sauce. Then it's smothered with red sauce, loads of melted cheeses and topped with reduced-fat sour cream. Available with seasoned beef or marinated premium thick-cut steak."
The Reality: The spiritual successor to the divisive "Enchirito," the new "Smothered Burrito" takes all of the chain's legendary ingredients, soaks them in three different shades of goo fired from a caulking gun by a sulky teenager, and slops them together into a plastic tray that you can't possibly eat from in your car without searing your genitals. FINALLY.