Photo: Kevin Pang

Crapping on McDonald’s is a communal sport. The laws of popularity state anything with mainstream appeal must trigger a backlash, especially for people seeking cachet and credibility. For them, the list of reasons to crap on McDonald’s runs long: That it has become synonymous with paint-by-numbers food assemblage, that the living conditions of its factory-farmed animals likely aren’t ideal, that you can correlate its contribution to the obesity epidemic, that the food is meh, etc.

And yet.

We’re lying to ourselves if we only view McDonald’s, or any other chain, in black and white. However much I congratulate myself for my sophisticated palate, one that can discern minutiae in cheese vintages, McDonald’s remains—without embarrassment—essential in my relationship with food. The reason? I’m selective about where those relationships exist—with McDonald’s, it’s during road trips, early morning flights, and anytime I find myself driving home late. McDonald’s in the right context is immune from our crapping-on.

A few examples: The Sausage McMuffin with Egg is inarguably the greatest breakfast sandwich extant (edging out the original McMuffin). It has become part of my traveling ritual as I stroll down O’Hare terminal 3 with a rolling suitcase in one hand and a Sausage McMuffin in the other. Then there’s McDonald’s French fries, the version by which all other restaurant fries are judged. A fresh batch straight from the fryer, held three to a pinch, dipped in cool ketchup, is the pinnacle of the fried-potato experience. If those two aforementioned are Grade A food experiences, a box of hot and crisp Chicken McNuggets from the drive-through, dipped into (the regrettably discontinued) hot mustard, is an A- experience.

Now I propose we add one more to this list: It’s time we acknowledge the Quarter Pounder with Cheese as an under-appreciated chain burger. True, it lacks ambition and contains no fancy fillings. But in the category of plain cheeseburgers, the Quarter Pounder is a respectable workhorse sandwich.

When I was younger, this was my favorite McDonald’s burger—a thickish beef patty between barely toasted sesame seed buns, a pliable sheet of semi-melted American cheese, with ketchup, mustard, pickles, and raw onion slivers. Take one bite from the middle with all the components present, and it’s the closest in construction to an American backyard grilled burger.

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The last time I tried a Quarter Pounder with Cheese was in college, as my fast food go-to became a Wendy’s Junior Bacon Cheeseburger. But when McDonald’s announced in March that its Quarter Pounder would be cooked with fresh beef instead of frozen patties, I was spurred to revisit my old friend. What taste differences, I thought, could there possibly be?

To my delight, the differences weren’t negligible. The fresh beef patty seemed to retain more moisture, with a creamier texture than the meat strands-like interior of its frozen patty burgers. I could also spot granules of salt sprinkled on the surface, and indeed, the seasoning was one click before too-salty—which to me is just right. Despite the meat being cooked completely through, there was an appealing beefy presence. It is not, of course, what high-quality beef could taste like, but it was peppery and intensely savory, and that masks a lot of the deficiencies.

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Tasting through the Quarter Pounder again in recent weeks, there was a distinct interaction of three flavors—seasoned beef patty plus American cheese plus a dab of ketchup—one taste and I instantly recognize that flavor as McDonald’s, one with good hits of salt, umami, and nostalgia. But even if you didn’t grow up eating the Quarter Pounder, its straight-forwardness is a plus in a world of novelty and vogue sandwiches. There’s no flavorless tomato or lettuce to bulk up the burger, and so it must stand on the merits of the protein. And the fresh beef does taste measurably better than its previous frozen version, and I would place it behind top-tier chain burger patties like Steak ‘N Shake, In-N-Out, Smashburger, and Shake Shack.

And yet.

The Quarter Pounder with Cheese won’t outsell the Big Mac. By comparison, the Big Mac is a mediocre burger. Its thin beef patties easily dry out, there’s often too much lettuce, and the meat-to-bread ratio is out of proportion. The best trait about that burger is the Thousand Island-like Special Sauce, giving the Big Mac its literal and figurative color. But apples to apples, McDonald’s Quarter Pounder outshines its flagship burger. Indeed, there are far more elaborate and tastier sandwiches competing against McDonald’s, but in the lane of unadorned, simple, almost boringly vintage hamburgers, the Quarter Pounder is acceptably uncool and deliciously serviceable.

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