Special: New Fast-Food Roundup

Veteran consumers of fast food have certain expectations—certain low expectations. At the start of every month, we expect fast-food chains to introduce new "limited time only" products, and by and large, we expect those products to re-combine ingredients that the restaurants already have on hand. We don't expect that any new item will change our perception of fast food as cheap, inferior, and bad for our health—though we do appreciate the effort that the good people at the restaurants' corporate offices put forth to foster the illusion of novelty.


Few fast-food places have been more brazen about the monthly game of mix-and-match than Taco Bell, which apparently only has about half a dozen ingredients on hand at any given time, along with a chart hanging over the melter that keeps track of all the possible combinations. Every time Taco Bell introduces a new ingredient—be it bacon, spicy chicken, or a puffy flatbread—it's only a matter of time before they run it through The TB Gauntlet, adding a version with nacho cheese, then a "fresco" version with all cheese replaced by a watery pico de gallo, then a version with an extra tortilla glued to the outside by a layer of refried beans, and so on.

The Bell's latest round of ingredient roulette has resulted in the Bacon Cheesy Potato Burrito, which elevates a heretofore-unheralded item on the Taco Bell menu—the actually-good Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes—to entrée status. The burrito takes these little fried potato nuggets and tosses them in a tortilla with cheese sauce, bacon bits, seasoned ground beef, and sour cream. In the mouth, the texture of this beast feels like what an alien civilization would synthesize if asked to produce what we humans call "food." In the esophagus and in the stomach—like most Taco Bell product—the Bacon Cheesy Potato Burrito feels like a Brillo Pad.


But how does it taste? Let me break it down for you. I ordered the BCPB twice from my local Taco Bell, both times without sour cream, since the burrito seemed creamy enough already, and both times with a fair amount of Fire Sauce at the ready, because Taco Bell food tends to be low on the spice/flavor factor. The second time, my local Taco Bell threw a handful of rice onto the burrito for no apparent reason. (This actually happens fairly often at my neighborhood Bell, where they interpret the concept of "recipes" fairly loosely.) Both times, the burrito was unappealingly lumpy—sort of like a tater-tot sandwich on Wonder Bread—and left a pool of reddish translucent grease on my tray. And both times, the dry, crunchy bacon bits dominated the flavor of the meal. I'm used to a lot of different tastes coming out of the TB kitchen: "tomato-y," "cumin-y," "plastic-y." I'm not sure I can get used to "smoky."

Still, I admire Taco Bell's willingness to keep experimenting with what's sitting in the walk-in. The TB food scientists are like toddlers, mixing up the contents of their Gerber Graduates trays, or like me whenever I throw a few Ziploc Boxes worth of leftovers together with a fresh starch to make a "new" meal for my family. There's something blessedly unpretentious about Taco Bell's approach to new menu items. Come back next month, when they start tossing Cinnamon Twists into Meximelts.


At least Taco Bell isn't as presumptuous as Wendy's, which is touting its new Sweet & Spicy Asian Chicken (along with the rest of its new line of boneless wings) as so "tasteful" that customers will think they're eating in a fancy restaurant. This has become a common marketing approach for fast-food places over the past several years: pitching their products as practically fine-dining-worthy. Hardee's/Carl's Jr. has the confusingly named "Six-Dollar Burger," which they market as being as good as the pricey need-a-big-knife-because-they're-just-so-damn-huge burgers served at sit-down chains. Pizza Hut has aired commercials that show diners at fancy Italian places being fooled by the deliciousness of the Hut's baked pasta dishes. And now Wendy's—which already claims to be "way better than fast food"—has been running ads that insist the Sweet & Spicy Asian Chicken is the kind of dish you'd order if you were out at some place with cloth tablecloths and candelabras.

In actuality, Wendy's Asian Chicken wouldn't pass muster in a place with steam tables and an "All You Can Eat" sign hanging over the front door. The boneless wings aren't bad, exactly. They're big and meaty, and the Sweet & Spicy sauce sports a pleasant ginger/pepper/citrus taste. (I also tried the Buffalo sauce, which was weirdly sweet, and not so good.) But c'mon: This is fast food. It's no better and no worse. Actually, it might be just a little bit worse, if only because "Asian chicken" doesn't pair neatly with any of Wendy's chosen sides. The particular mix of flavors doesn't go well with fries, or a baked potato, or chili. The best side for an Asian Chicken combo would be the garden salad, but Wendy's doesn't really have an appropriate dressing to accompany it. (Ranch? Italian? Thousand Island? Bleu Cheese? Chipotle?)


What's fascinating about Wendy's latest endeavor—or fascinating to fast-food devotees, anyway—is that it represents the latest in Wendy's string of attempts to foist lumps of breaded chicken onto consumers in different configurations. Wendy's has served dipped chicken sandwiches and various kinds of chicken strips (sauced and unsauced), and the chain's value menu currently features the dinkiest, blandest chicken nuggets in Christendom. And yet nothing Wendy's has ever attempted in the rarefied realm of the poultry arts has ever topped the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, which is still arguably the most perfect entrée in the entire fast-food universe.

Unlike Wendy's, Hardee's has always maintained a certain lack of pretension about its food—"Six Dollar Burger" or not—but sometimes it takes its winking "fast food for the people" stance too far. Case in point:

The unfortunately named Biscuit Holes might seem like the elusive "something new" in fast food: not quite doughnut, not quite biscuit, not quite cinnamon roll. But when I lived in Athens, Georgia, I occasionally visited an all-night dive called Herbie's that served a similar snack called "Herbie Balls." The proprietor, Herbie, had a reputation as an ornery old cuss, fostered by years of taking the abuse of drunken college kids at 3 a.m. Herbie would let loose with a stream of profanity at anyone who tested him, such that a large portion of Herbie's late-night clientele would go to the restaurant just to taunt him. (It was like a real-life version of the Tube Bar tapes.)


Anyway, whenever I visited Herbie's, the man himself was very cordial, probably because I never hollered at him. And those Herbie Balls were good: warm and crispy and sugary, perfect for soaking up the alcohol after last call. The main problem with Hardee's Biscuit Holes is that they're served at breakfast. Hardee's should stay open 24 hours and only serve the Biscuit Holes between midnight and 4 a.m.

But hey, what's there to complain about here, really? The Biscuit Holes are fried dough dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with frosting. They're delicious. In fast-food consumption as in fast-food packaging, some things shouldn't be overthought.