Monday, June 29, 2009

Epicurious Differs with Zagat Survey's Fast-Food

Epicurious Differs with Zagat Survey's Fast-Food Findings partner
by James Oliver Cury
Thu Jun 11, 2009

The Zagat surveys, long known for regional, customer-written restaurant reviews, recently turned their attention to the budget-friendly world of fast food. More than 6,000 people responded to the company's online poll, weighing in on the best burgers, fries, salads, coffee, and more.

The results: McDonald's makes the finest fries, In-N-Out Burger boasts the tastiest burger, and Starbucks serves the best coffee. Wendy's nabbed "top food" and "top facilities" in the megachain category (more than 5,000 locations).

But we at Epicurious beg to differ. Below we present our own analyses of some of Zagat's key findings.

TOP RATED AMONG MEGA CHAINS (more than 5,000 U.S. locations):

1. Wendy's [WINNER]
2. Subway
3. KFC
4. Taco Bell
5. Pizza Hut

Epicurious analysis: We like Subway for the simple reason that it bakes its own bread and lets you see the sandwichmakers making meals in front of your eyes. You can see the quality of the sliced meats, cheeses, and produce. So if the tomatoes look under-ripe, you can skip them. Plus, tacos, pizzas, fried chicken, and burgers can be greasy. Sandwiches, unless drenched in vinegar and oil, should not have this problem.

1. Wendy's [WINNER]
2. McDonald's
3. Subway
4. Burger King
5. KFC

Epicurious analysis: Contrary to rumor, this is not a competition for best bathroom. Facilities are defined as "quality of seating, ordering and waiting areas." We think it depends on which location you visit, what time you're there, and if it's near a bar.

1. Subway [WINNER]
2. Wendy's
3. Domino's Pizza
4. McDonald's
5. Pizza Hut

Epicurious analysis: We've never met a surly Subway sandwichmaker, but have certainly met less-than-friendly order-takers at other fast-food chains. More to the point, there's a greater level of service needed to custom-build every sandwich in plain public view than there is in pressing the right buttons on a cash register and givig you proper change. Good call.

1. In-N-Out Burger [WINNER]
2. Wendy's
3. Burger King
4. McDonald's
5. Whataburger

Epicurious analysis: The cult following around In-N-Out is well-deserved: This is an independently owned, nonfranchised operation that sticks to what it does well (burgers) and doesn't attempt to cash in on healthy salads, grilled chicken, or coffee. More important, the burgers don't taste like any other fast-food fare. We especially like the flexibility in options: In addition to getting lettuce, tomato, onion, and a variation on Thousand Island dressing, customers can ask for things like mustard, pickle, and extra patties (the so-called secret menu).

That said, there are no outlets on the East Coast, so it's hard to think this represents a national opinion, and it's clearly not an apples to apples, or should we say, burgers to burgers, comparison.

1. McDonald's [WINNER]
2. Burger King
3. In-N-Out Burger
4. Wendy's
5. Chick-fil-A

Epicurious analysis: If you've ever had bad or even mediocre fries, you know how disappointing they can be: soggy, undercooked, oversalted, etc. MickeyD's fries are crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, golden yellow-brown, and most important, tremendously consistent. Plus, they stand on their own, even without ketchup, and they have that scent-recognition thing. You can tell a Golden Arches fry from a mile away, and even if you don't think you're into them, you get a craving.

Some people disagree: "Wendy's are cut a bit thicker and they're not flavored with some sort of beef extract," noted one Epi editor. Nathan's scored points with another editor: "I find the consistency a turn-off. There's no thin and crispy mixed with random fat and soft fries, no surprises. They don't suggest 'potato' to me at all, rather reconstituted potato flour. Nathan's fries are my favorites; almost sweet-tasting, and brown outside with a smooth, not floury middle. They taste like potato!"

1. Panera Bread [WINNER]
2. Wendy's
3. McDonald's
4. Au Bon Pain
5. Corner Bakery Café

Epicurious analysis: Who orders salads at these places? No one we know. That said, at least Panera offers more than just iceberg lettuce.

2. Popeye's
3. Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits
4. Church's Chicken
5. Culver's Frozen Custard

Epicurious analysis: We're partial to Bojangles ourselves, but it's mainly in the South, so for pure consistency, we will give a greasy thumbs-up to KFC.

1. Chick-fil-A [WINNER]
2. Panera Bread
3. Wendy's
4. Chipotle
5. El Pollo Loco

Epicurious analysis: We recently hosted a grilled chicken taste test in the Epicurious offices and found KFC's brand-new offerings to be best of breed. As our blog post enumerated:

"All the pieces, ranging from the breast to the chicken wing, had a nice golden charbroiled color, and grill marks, giving the impression that it had just come off the grill. KFC's meat was reasonably tender and juicy, and the skin actually had flavor thanks to the Colonel's six 'secret' herbs and spices."

1. Starbucks Coffee [WINNER]
2. Dunkin' Donuts
3. Peet's Coffee & Tea
4. McDonald's
5. Caribou Coffee

Epicurious analysis: We hosted an informal taste test of hot mocha lattes on the set of Fox & Friends; Dunkin' Donuts took top honors. But some editors here believe Dunkin' Donuts' products can vary depending on location. Starbucks seems more consistent, for better or worse.

1. Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shops [WINNER]
2. Rita's
3. Culver's Frozen Custard
4. Baskin-Robbins
5. Carvel

Epicurious analysis: What's not to love about Ben & Jerry's? Their products are great and the company seems to have a conscience. Plus, the shops are often quirky and have individual style, which is nice for a national brand. Second on our list: Carvel offers great soft-serve, flying saucers, and those ridiculous but somehow cool cakes like Cookie Puss and that Fudgie the Whale, etc. A final thought: Why no Friendly's or Haagen-Dazs?

1. Smoothie King [WINNER]
2. Jamba Juice
3. Pinkberry
5. Orange Julius

Epicurious analysis: Orange Julius still exists?

1. Ben & Jerry's Scoop Shops [WINNER]
2. Dairy Queen
3. McDonald's
4. Cold Stone Creamery
5. Wendy's

Epicurious analysis: We were shocked that the highfalutin Ben & Jerry's beat McDonald's. McD should win hands down! Its shake is heaven; so thick that it can be drunk through a straw or eaten with a spoon.

On a final note: The editors at Epicurious believe there's more to the story than the numbers tell. While more than 6,000 people voted, it should be noted that this sample group included, by definition, only those people who are both familiar with Zagat Survey and have online access. Furthermore, Zagat does not provide the exact figures (no percentages), so it's impossible to tell who won by a landslide and who won by a small margin (i.e., did Chik-fil-A narrowly win the best-chicken competition by a single percentage point over KFC?). Finally, these types of surveys are always popularity contests; many people vote for whatever places actually operate in their area (there were many regionally specific options that aren't truly national) or whatever they grew up with. And only fast food chains were considered, no mom-'n'-pop shops. So, based on this, we think the Zagat poll "lacks comprehensiveness" and "doesn't take into account smaller regional chains."


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