Fast-Food Iced Coffees, McDonald's Brownie Melt, Burger King's Funnel-Cake Sticks

Generally speaking, fast-food joints offer mediocre fare that's neither cheap enough nor nourishing enough to justify the havoc they wreak on their patrons' health. Still, chains do occasionally have genuinely special items on their menus. Wendy's Spicy Chicken Sandwich is well worth risking future infarctions for, Hardee's breakfast biscuits are so good that they don't even need meat, and McDonald's french fries—when they're piping hot and salted properly—outpace any potato chip on the market.

For some reason, though, the major fast-food places suck at dessert. Hardee's and Chick-fil-A both have delicious hand-dipped milkshakes, but McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Sonic all feature shakes and other ice-cream dishes that taste like a conglomeration of milky chemicals, palatable only if the right combination of cookies, candy, and/or whipped cream gets mixed in. (Actually, that isn't entirely fair. McDonald's plain ice-cream cones aren't so bad. And its hot-fudge sundae will do in a pinch.) Still, Burger King and McDonald's in particular keep pitching themselves as ideal spots to hang out, grab a sweet snack, and wash it down with some of their café-quality coffee. So I decided to do as both restaurants suggest, and try out the latest permanent additions to their dessert lineups.

From McDonald's, I ordered up a Brownie Melt, accompanied by two kinds of Frappé: the Mocha and the Caramel. I have to say, first off, that I was surprised by how tasty the Frappés were. I rarely drink coffee any more, so I was glad that the coffee element of both the Mocha and the Caramel Frappé was strong without becoming overpowering. They both tasted like good coffee, not coffee flavoring or some scorched diner brew. Both were also too sweet, though they didn't have the syrupy taste I was expecting. Between the two, I'd give the nod to the Mocha, because the flavor combination tasted more natural. I'm in favor of more restaurants adding caramel to their menus, but the Caramel Frappé was like a sugar-flavored cup of cold sugar. (Also, the Mocha Frappé comes with a hot-fudge drizzle over the whipped cream, and most desserts are improved with a drizzle of hot fudge. In fact, you can keep your fancy desserts and just leave me with a jar of hot fudge and a soup spoon.)

Frankly, if I was in the mood for a cold, creamy beverage, and McDonald's was my only option, I'd order a Frappé before I'd order a shake. The Frappé isn't as icy as I feared it would be, and it actually tastes more like milk than the official McD's milkshake. One caveat, though: both times that I've ordered a Frappé at the drive-thru, I've been asked to pull forward into the little "Congratulations! You've just made the old lady working the beverage station heave a heavy sigh!" parking space. So if you're in a hurry, you may want to make other plans.

As for the Brownie Melt, I have multiple qualms. First off, if you're going to sell a hot confection covered in chocolate sauce, why not go the extra step and offer an à la mode option? I mean, the ice-cream machine is sitting right there! Charge me an extra 50 cents, walk two steps, and yank that nozzle down for a second. Bang: I just increased your profit margin, McDonald's. You're welcome. Yes, I will accept free hot fudge instead of money.

Of course the reason there's no Brownie Melt À La Mode at present is because it wouldn't work with the BM's current packaging: a specially designed square plastic tray, resting inside a cardboard container that sports the slogan "Deliciousness defined!" And that isn't the only unique design element of the Brownie Melt. The brownie itself doesn't follow the expected "dense, rectangular cake" model that brownie-lovers have come to expect. It's more like 16 brownie cubes, stacked together like Legos. (Ever had monkey bread? Picture a smaller, brownie version of that.) Why this odd configuration? Presumably so the dessert will be easier to microwave. Which means, I'm sad to report, that the Brownie Melt does not define deliciousness, unless in your dictionary the definition of "delicious" reads "scorched and rubbery, with an unpleasant sugary grit."

Moving on to Burger King, I treated myself to Funnel Cake Sticks and a cup of Mocha Joe. (As I was ordering, I briefly considered adding a Cupcake Shake, but I couldn't pull the trigger. Maybe next time.) I'm afraid I don't have much positive to say about the Mocha Joe. Everything I feared the McDonald's Frappé would be, the Mocha Joe actually was. The coffee flavor tasted like coffee flavor, not fresh-brewed coffee. And even though the drink wasn't blended with ice, it was almost as thick as the Frappé, and far more syrupy. I'd almost rather drink BK's wretched fountain iced tea than ever sip a Mocha Joe again.

The Funnel Cake Sticks were at least palatable, though that's about the best I can say for them. They resemble actual funnel cakes in that they're crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, and they come dusted with powdered sugar.  But they have almost no flavor, and strangely, they aren't greasy enough. There just isn't a lot of funnel-cake fun there. Part of the funnel-cake experience involves pulling apart a twisty hunk of fresh-fried dough. At no point in my funnel-cake-consumin' life have I ever daintily lifted a sliver of dough and dipped it into a container of white icing, as Burger King would have me do. (I know the dessert has the word "cake" in it, but not all cake demands to be iced.) The icing BK provides doesn't even stick to the sticks particularly well. Lift the stick from the icing, and the white stuff drips off the side and onto the fingers, like it's being poured from a pitcher. The only way to keep your fingers icing-free is to treat the product as though it were a plate of spaghetti, and twirl the stick as you lift it quickly to your funnel-cake-hole.

But the truest sign that Burger King's heart isn't in this funnel-cake "dessert?" They recommend you order it for breakfast, too. That's the fast-food mentality in action right there. Dessert? Breakfast? Why distinguish? Serving something special takes a backseat to serving something consumable.