Ever since the pie-ologists at Pizza Hut Labs took a closer look at their product’s crust and thought “I bet we could fit cheese in there,” fast-food joints have been seeking to improve their fare through the fine art of piling and cramming. Slap on a sauce, inject some goop, layer in some bacon, and presto: That burger or taco that’s been sitting on your menu for decades is an entirely new foodstuff, ready for its own commercial and an enticing picture in the front window.
For example, Taco Bell is now selling what it calls a “Beefy Crunch Burrito,” which consists of the restaurant’s usual seasoned ground meat-like substance, along with rice, sour cream, nacho cheese sauce, and—to kick it up—a handful of Flamin’ Hot Fritos. Which raises a couple of questions:
1. Doesn’t this seem like the laziest possible product upgrade? Taco Bell already has a similar burrito on the menu: the Volcano Burrito, which contains twice the meat, shredded cheese, hot sauce, and thin tortilla strips. In essence, the Beefy Crunch Burrito replaces the Volcano’s quasi-natural ingredients with more processed ones. It’s sloppy in conception, as though some Taco Bell buyer checked the wrong box on an order form and now has thousands of cases of Fritos to unload. (Of course, the company could just be ahead of the curve, and “Just throw some Fritos on it” will replace “Just add bacon” as the way fast-food restaurants try to add value without spending money.)
2. If people really want to eat a tortilla full of mildly spicy meat, molten cheese and corn chips, I’d direct them to Sonic’s Jr. Fritos Chili Cheese Wrap, which is cheaper and smaller—the latter point being significant, because any given human should only consume so much “Frito-Pie Wrap.”
Creativity and value aside, how does the Beefy Crunch Burrito taste? Honestly, it might be okay without the chips, which don’t add much spice, but do give the burrito an unpleasant texture. For all the recent beefing about Taco Bell’s filler-ific “beef,” the stuff does taste pretty good, and when combined with nacho cheese, sour cream, and rice, it creates a warm, soft, mildly flavorful, food-like experience. But the Fritos detract. I’ve tried the BCB on two different occasions now, and both times, the chips felt stale and rubbery, almost like big hunks of gristle.
The bigger problem here is Taco Bell’s continued insistence on wrapping soft items around crunchy ones. They’ve done it with the hideous “Crunchwrap Supreme” and other countless variations on the “use refried beans to glue a flour tortilla to a taco shell” concept. I sometimes wonder whether the nutritionists in the Taco Bell product-development department keep lists of their ingredients in one of those tri-level children’s books, where kids can turn the pages in the right combination and put an astronaut’s head on a policeman’s body with a fisherman’s boots.
Or perhaps since Taco Bell only has about nine ingredients in its kitchens, it gets bored with putting them together in common, appetizing ways. Maybe that’s why half the time, when I order one of the limited-time specialty items at Taco Bell, it comes with ingredients not pictured on the menu, like a glop of unexpected guac, or a handful of chopped tomato. Once the employees get started slapping incompatible items together, it’s hard to stop.
(I will say that the Beefy Crunch Burrito bests the other new item on the Taco Bell menu, the Quad Steak Burrito, which heaps a massive portion of the restaurant’s dry, microwave-y “steak” into a tortilla with rice, shredded cheese, sour cream, and an indistinctly acidic sauce they’re calling “fire-roasted salsa.” Taco Bell’s steak may contain more beef than its ground beef, but honestly, the oat-enhanced taco meat tastes better, and feels more like actual meat.)
Over at Burger King, meanwhile, the new item du mois is the “BK Stuffed Steakhouse,” described thusly on the restaurant’s website: “Take a flame-broiled patty, stuff it with jalapeños and cheddar cheese on the inside, top that with spicy poblano sauce, ripe tomato and crisp iceberg lettuce, and somehow fit it all on a toasted, corn-dusted bun.” (It’s the “somehow” that scares me a little.)
Burger King’s Whopper is one of the better fast-food burgers, in my opinion—at least among the cheap, omnipresent chains. The Whopper’s patty is thin and unobtrusive, contributing just the right amount of broiled, meaty flavor to a sandwich that’s generous with what we used to call “the garden” back when I waited tables. The Whopper has a good garden: thick tomatoes, crisp lettuce, sharp sliced onion. If I’m out on the road and I have to settle for fast food, I often opt for a Whopper because I know at least it’ll provide me with a few vegetables. (Wendy’s is a close second, burger-wise; its Single has a good garden too. But if I’m at a Wendy’s, I almost always get a Spicy Chicken Sandwich, because c’mon.)
Lately, though, Burger King has been emphasizing its “steakhouse” line of extra-thick burgers, and every time I’ve eaten one of those, I find that the flaws in the meat itself are too exposed. The burger has a spongy texture, and leaks juices that taste like mortality. (Every time I bite into one, I picture Krusty The Clown filming a Krusty Burger commercial and panicking because he thinks he swallowed some of his signature sandwich.) I tend to eat a Steakhouse burger quickly, and purely for sustenance. Why do I keep eating them at all? Because sometimes I’m traveling and my choices are limited, but also because Burger King keeps varying the toppings on its Steakhouse burgers, and I keep thinking that one day it’ll come up with a combination that’ll help me forget that the burger itself is so sucky.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that BK has done exactly that. I wouldn’t call the BK Stuffed Steakhouse “delicious” exactly, but it’s the tastiest Steakhouse I’ve come across, and different enough from most fast-food burgers on the market that I could see myself actually craving one from time to time (as long as it stays on the menu, anyway). I have my qualms about the pinkish poblano sauce, if only because I’m half convinced that most fast-food specialty sauces are concocted out of a quick whip of ketchup, mayonnaise, and a random assortment of dried spices. But the chunks of cheese and jalapeno in the Steakhouse patty have a positive effect on the taste, supplementing the usual industrial gray flavor with actual zing. It’s not real food, but it’ll do.
Let’s just hope Taco Bell doesn’t buy out Burger King, or we can expect the inevitable Crunchy Stuffed Steakhouse, served between two flatbreads. And a month after that: the Bacon Crunchy Stuffed Steakhouse, wearing fisherman’s boots.