We're not even going to bury the lede on this one, you guys: The new Arby's Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich is kind of friggin' awesome. What may be most impressive here, though, is not just that Arby's has managed to assemble a sandwich that is actually delicious and tastes at least somewhat like food, but the way in which the D-list chain seems to be successfully reinventing its entire menu, one item at a time. Let's back up for just a moment.
Arby's was built on a simple foundation: quick-service hot roast beef sandwiches, piled impossibly high and artfully in the corporate menu photography. But not roast beef like you might “buy in a store” or “cut off a cow's body.” Instead, Arby's roast beef was like something that had been grown in vats of green liquid from the future: weirdly gray, wet and too smooth, bearing no resemblance to anything that might have ever been alive.
The dining public seemed to agree; the last major expansion of Arby's was in the 1970s, when the chain opened new restaurants at the rate of 50 per year. Now, many people's most familiar image of an Arby's is one of a restaurant going out of business, the windows boarded up, the Horsey Sauce hosed out and the jaunty lasso hat sign taken down. It was getting increasingly tricky to see how Arby's could continue to fit in with the modern-day fast food landscape, where non-hamburger options are getting fewer and farther between. Until now.
Arby's Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich
The Pitch: It's slow-smoked for 13 long hours. Which proves we're pretty passionate about brisket. Arby's Smokehouse Brisket is piled high with slow-smoked beef brisket, topped with smoked Gouda cheese, crispy onions, BBQ sauce and mayo, and served on a toasted, bakery-style bun.
Available: Now, for a limited time.
Regardless of how it got that way, the meat itself is tender, with the kind of big, beefy flavor you don't normally expect from a fast food chain. A slice of smoked Gouda lends additional flavor and melty texture, followed by a layer of crispy onions that don't quite manage to hold onto their crispiness. It's a shame; it's another textural contrast that would have sent this sandwich over the top.
There's just the right amount of sweet barbecue sauce on top and, somewhat inexplicably, a layer of mayonnaise on the bottom that doesn't serve any purpose other than to kind of skeeve you out. Everything is wrapped in an outstanding “cross-cut” bun that has a nice amount of chew — another unusual quality in a fast food item. The sandwich was, in short, an enormously pleasant surprise.
We have no idea how the sandwich is assembled, which parts of it come from the corporate office ready to go and which are cooked on-site. It's entirely possible that none of it is cooked at all, that Arby's scientists have figured out some mysteriously technological way to synthesize real-seeming food.
But the end result is, indeed, a pretty respectable barbecue brisket sandwich. In fact, it may be one of the finest fast food items currently available. Add a medium order of curly fries* and a Pepsi, and you're in for 1,390 calories and almost 2,500 milligrams of sodium, which means that not only is this the only meal you should eat for the day but also that you'd probably better get home afterward and get your feet elevated.
*Why does the phrase “Arby's Seasoned Curlies” not appear in most church hymnals? They're positively heavenly.
Look, Arby's Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich isn't going to make you think that you've been magically transported to the parking lot of a run-down gas station in Texas, eating top-quality slow-smoked beef brisket out of a smoker the size of a tanker truck. Completely against our expectations, though, Arby's has managed to engineer a sandwich that bears some resemblance to real food.
Most of all, this sandwich forces you to change the way you think about Arby's ingredients, and about its increasingly inventive menu. We're not sure what Arby's has done, whether it has actually started cooking real food, or the Flavor-Fix Nutri-Matic Rheostat 9000™ has become so sophisticated that it just seems that way. Either way, it's a lunch you won't regret even a little, and a big step forward for a chain that we had almost forgotten all about.
See also: This Week in Self-Loathing archives