Arby’s Answers The Question: “When Is A Burger Not A Burger?”
by Noel Murray
March 5, 2009
In the early days of The A.V. Club blog, I used to write an occasional series called “Noel Tries The New Foods,” in which I’d check out the latest in fast food and junk food and dutifully report my findings. Then “Taste Test” came along, and new foods turned into weird and gross foods, and since I haven’t the stomach to compete with Internet Eating Sensation Dave Chang (and since I don’t live in Chicago), I put my food critic days behind me.
And yet, sometimes there’s a new flavor of chips or a new fast-food sandwich that calls for the kind of knee-jerk analysis only a dumpy Red Stater can provide. For example, in the past week I’ve ventured out twice to try this odd concoction:
According to Arby’s own description, their new “roastburgers” are “made with thinly sliced oven-roasted beef, char-grill seasonings and burger-style toppings.” I've tried the Bacon Cheddar and the All-American, and if I were asked to come up with a more accurate description, it would be something like this: “Heaps of processed beef-loaf, shaken with some granular form of liquid smoke, and tossed onto a soft bun with LTO.” But you know what? That LTO (or “burger-style toppings,” as Arby’s would have it) makes a difference. The first week the roastburgers were available, I had a lovingly prepared Bacon Cheddar that had a nice charred taste to the meat, then a week later I had a sloppily prepared All-American which had what appeared to be a spoonful of “char-grill seasonings” in the middle of the meat-heap and nowhere else. And in both cases, the star of the show was the bun and the fresh veggies, which honestly made the sandwiches taste like a burger.
Now I’ve gone on record as being skeptical of foods engineered to taste like other foods. Let X = X, I’ve always said. But as I was consuming these non-burger burgers from Arby’s, I began to think that I’ve had the wrong attitude all these years. If Top Chef has taught me anything, it’s that “molecular gastronomy” is where it’s at. Take the essence of one food’s flavor and inject it into a different consumable substance. Create “an impression” of a grilled cheese sandwich. Do “your take” on the traditional nacho. Make jellybeans taste like sea urchin roe. That’s the TC way.
(Long aside: Speaking of Top Chef, I enjoyed this past season by and large, but the way it ended left a bad taste in my mouth, so to speak. It's not just that the consistently unexciting Hosea snuck past more colorful and imaginative chefs, but I was also bummed out by reports the finale’s editing was less than fair to visiting TC veteran Casey. In an interview with the SideDish blog, Casey said that all of TC loser Carla’s blunders were made to seem like Casey’s fault, when in fact they were the contestant’s ideas, poorly executed. I expect a certain amount of editing chicanery on reality TV, but if Casey’s right and she took the rap for something that wasn’t her fault… well, that’s just not cool.)
Anyway, I’m going to go on record and say that Arby’s is onto something here. They’ve taken the pretentions of fine-dining and injected them into the fast-food realm. Soon we will have French fries that taste like hot apple pies, and soft tacos that taste like spicy chicken sandwiches. Grabbing a bite at the drive-thru will be like entering some kind of carnival funhouse. In order to do that, the fast-food chemists have to master the basics. I’d say that finding a way to make Arby-meat palatable is a step in the right direction.