Jack in the Box Sirloin Swiss & Grilled Onion Burger – Slummin’ It

jackintheboxsirloinswissThough I dearly hope that On Sandwiches stands as the home of the world’s finest sandwich discourse, there are other places on the internet that discuss sandwiches. One of them is The Dwichtorialist, a French operation that features a variety of creations that intrigue and inspire. Imagine my delight when the proprietor of that site made their way stateside and sampled a few of our wares. Everything seemed swell when Umami Burger rated a nine out of 10, but a recent post on Jack in the Box had me more than puzzled. Having tried the sirloin Swiss and grilled onion burger, The Dwitchtorialist rated it an eight out of 10.

I’ve eaten at Jack in the Box. When in the right state, I’ve even found it quite enjoyable. But eight out of 10? I had to investigate. Wouldn’t it be a delight, if Jack in the Box had a burger that was capable of standing with the best? It would, friends, but it isn’t. The burger actually isn’t bad. It suffers from the same thing that hamstrings all fast food patties thicker than average, namely having been cooked dry all the way through. There’s a mayonnaise involved to compensate, and it has a nice peppery bite to it. That’s about where the fun ends, though. The grilled onions are sparse, and fail to bring the sweet notes one would expect. The Swiss is that thin strip you see nestled below the pickles, and the taste is about as strong as the sight. Like most fast food there’s more than a little salt, and overall it..it was a fast food burger. As one would expect, I suppose, but I had my hopes up.

It seems to me that this demonstrates the limits of criticism, to a certain extent. I cannot try the Jack in the Box burger as anyone but myself, a denizen of America, a man who has eaten his fair share of American fast food. Consider it a wall of context, one which genuinely can’t be torn down. And that’s so much the pity, given that on the other side of this wall a Jack in the Box hamburger is an eight out of 10.

Quiznos Lobster Seafood Salad Sandwich – Slummin’ It

quiznoslobsterseafoodsalad

Though I ate the above sandwich, I had not originally intended to talk about it. I ate it because there’s always the chance that a franchise chain will put out something surprising, and I wasn’t going to talk about it because there’s a much, much (much) better chance they won’t. On Sandwiches is an enterprise of enthusiasm, not one of criticism, and so I avoid talking about many of the disappointing sandwiches I eat. But someone on Twitter requested it, and so here we are.

Sweet mercy, this is awful. The above picture very nearly does the sandwich justice, and it was nice of the Quiznos down the street to let me know right away what I was in for. The national chain was not so kind:

Lobster-Sandwich-DetailI’m not one for “fast food doesn’t look like it does in the ads,” as it strikes me as fruit hanging so low one might trip over it. But the disparity between those two images is too wide for me to ignore. Where do they get the bread used in the photo, I wonder, and do the tell the proprietor of that enterprise what they’re doing with it? I imagine some baker catching sight of the ad one day, recognizing his own bread and weeping softly.

Anyway. To the matter at hand, this sandwich is no good. There is some lobster and seafood salad, but it’s as bland as such a thing can get. Far from the chunks present in the promo photo, It’s minced beyond recognition. That’s not my preferred state, but it can still make for a good sandwich. That wasn’t the case here, of course. What’s most irritating about a case like this is that it wouldn’t take much to save the effort. If your seafood salad lacks flavor, a little lemon juice will boost things up. Fresh cracked black pepper, seemingly included in the promo version, would have gone a very long way here. (Pepper is available at nearly every sandwich franchise, but it is never fresh cracked. The rate of aromatic decay in a peppercorn is one of nature’s great injustices, but it is what it is.) So despite that a halfway decent sandwich was well within reach, Quiznos instead delivers the above. Tragic.
quiznos2In case the seafood might strike you as some kind of aberration, the above is the Prime Rib Peppercorn sandwich. It is exactly as good as it looks.

Slummin’ It — Big Jack Daddy Burger, Buffalo Wild Wings

It’s been more than six months since the last installment of Slummin’ It, and that’s because I generally don’t go out of my way to eat terrible sandwiches. Sometimes I find myself in an establishment that promises 1600 calories full of burger (and fries?), a giant stupid pile of the usual lettuce/tomato/beef, plus a helping of pulled pork and some onion rings. I like big, stupid sandwiches in an abstract sense, and occasionally in real life. Buffalo Wild Wings is the kind of crap-on-the-walls establishment that should really excel at big, stupid sandwiches, so I was genuinely looking forward to what they could muster up.

This wasn’t the worst hamburger I’ve ever eaten in my entire life, but it does join a very short list of sandwiches I wasn’t willing to finish. It was dry and bland, the patty too thin to be anything other than well done, a meager offering of two onion rings, the whole thing just a sad display, like some manner of firework spinning in sad circles on the ground, putting out clouds of smoke.

I want to be clear that I did not expect this burger to be good. I expected gusto, not quality. I wasn’t expected pulled pork that had been lovingly smoked, I was expecting something that came out of a bucket and was reheated before being drenched in sauce. I was expecting sub-TGI Friday’s food, and I was still incredibly disappointed. It was just a bad sandwich, and that’s a bottom line that’s hard to escape. Modest or grandiose, at family-run landmark establishments or the Funnest Feedbag in all Fifty States, a bad sandwich is just a bad sandwich.

Slummin’ It – Wendy’s Spicy Guacamole Chicken Club

Some installments of Slummin’ It take place almost by accident. For example, I might find myself at a rest stop at 3am and have no option but Burger King. Others grow naturally, emerging where late night revelry meets enthusiasm for a greasy burger. This installment I knew had to happen as soon as I saw an advertisement for the sandwich. After all, it’s not every day that one of the major players in fast food tries their hand at guacamole. Going in, I figured I had this sandwich pegged. I was ready to come back here and holler about a crime against avocados, about know-nothing eggheads overstepping their homogenized, corporate world. But honestly, the sandwich could have been a lot worse. The guacamole is loose and smooth, a far cry from the many kinds of guacamole we all know and love, but in the grand scheme of processed avocado product, it was one of the better ones I’ve come across. It had a bright, strong avocado flavor, and while the texture wasn’t ideal it isn’t like I haven’t run across smooth guacamole at plenty of taquerias. The sandwich includes both cheese and mayonnaise, which, given the avocado, really aren’t necessary. That said, they don’t interfere too much, and all you can really taste is the chicken, the avocado, and the bacon.

Looking at what I’m writing right now, I really do feel like I should be taking a more negative tack. But to do so would be dishonest, because the sandwich wasn’t that bad. I should be clear: It was a fast food sandwich with sub-par processed guacamole, needless cheese and mayo, and a limp, tasteless bun. This is never going to compare with any sandwich made with even a single ounce of effort or thought. But in the wasteland that is fast food chicken sandwiches, I think this sandwich ranks pretty high. Ultimately, I think processed sub-par guacamole is still a far sight better than a standard gloppy ranch dressing, and this sandwich reflects that disparity in quality. That’s the power of an avocado for you, I guess, that even run through some unimaginable factory, treated with all manner of powders and chemicals, piped out, shipped across the country, doled out by some uncaring teenager in a paper hat, it’s still got enough gumption left to pull a mediocre chicken sandwich up to a tolerable level. I’ll understand if you’re hesitant to believe me on this one, but I can only report on what is. This is a tasty sandwich, far tastier than it had any right to be.

Slummin’ It – All American Patty Melt, Red Robin

Red Robin is primarily a vendor of hamburgers, with a selection of chicken sandwiches that appear to be more or less hamburgers with chicken breasts swapped in for the beef patty. But the menu also boasts the “All-American Patty Melt,” and that was what I went with. The patty melt is a sandwich with history but without glamour, which leads to it getting something of a short shrift. It’s easy to just figure it’s a hamburger on toast, or a cheeseburger with a patty in the middle, but that sells the whole thing short. I don’t mean to make too much of it, obviously it’s not a sandwich of electrifying genius, but it is a mid-century American classic. (Californian classic, to be precise. Tiny Naylor put it together at his coffee shop sometime in the 40s or 50s, at the corner of La Brea & Sunset that now houses an El Pollo Loco.) It’s a simple but complete sandwich: Patty, thousand island dressing, sauteed onions, and cheese (preferably swiss) on marbled rye. Red Robin’s version was exactly that, with no re-imagining or unnecessary deconstructing.

Here’s something else that Red Robin’s All-American Patty Melt was: It was the item on the menu with the most calories. In a chain that will gussy up a hamburger with all manner of fried this and sauteed that, I got a chuckle out of the humble patty melt being the most substantial thing on the menu. When it arrived, though, I was a bit taken aback. Where did those 1400 calories go? It’s two slices of rye, two slices of swiss, a patty of not unreasonable size, a couple ounces of dressing and some onions. According to the nutritional information, it isn’t even grilled in butter, they use margarine. Similar to what I’ve found previously while Slummin’ It, there seems to be so much less present than the calorie count would indicate. So there’s some kind of mystery here, about what’s in the dressing or what kind of cheese they use or just what the fat ratio of the beef is. It’s a puzzler, one I haven’t quite figured out yet. Beyond just the simple math of it, the sandwich isn’t particularly rich or indulgent. For all of those calories, you don’t get a sense that you’re eating something especially decadent, or even especially good. It’s not really bad, but most of it is just sort of there. I don’t think that’s quite so damning as it can be in other contexts. With something like a hamburger, “good enough” is enough to sink things, because you likely walked past a better hamburger on your way to the one you’re eating. A patty melt, on the other hand, isn’t the most common offering. It’s far from inconceivable that you might find yourself craving a patty melt and find that Red Robin is your only real option. If that ends up being the case, I should say that this would hit the spot. I wouldn’t suggest that it be someone’s first patty melt, but it’s a sandwich that knows where to set its mark, and it hits that mark. In the end, there are a lot of things worse than a good-enough patty melt.

Slummin’ It: The McRib — McDonald’s

I had toyed with the idea of Slummin’ It with the McRib, but ultimately I try to keep things positive around here and I didn’t forsee good things. Then an associate made a special request, and at On Sandwiches we aim to oblige. (Whether you’re pleased with the result or not is up to you.) So I went, bought the sandwich, and took it home to eat and to consider. The issue that arose was exactly what angle from which to judge the McRib. It’s not really fair to compare it to the sandwich world at large, is it? It’s a processed pork patty only available when the scraps it is composed of drop below a certain price. No, I decided, to be fair I would have to judge the McRib on its own merits. And to a certain degree, on its own merits it is very much a success. The pork patty has the consistency that it always has, the sauce is almost sickeningly sweet, and the limited-time-only nature of it leaves it feeling like something special. My point here is this: the sandwich is exactly what it intends to be. I cry foul when I feel a sandwich is content to mire in the middle of things, but there’s an odd place in the world for aiming low.

But setting concept aside, how stands the execution? I have to say, friends, that I was disappointed. Not by taste or consistency, those were exactly what I expected them to be, but by effort. What you see above is exactly how the sandwich appeared to me, and that’s not a sight I find appealing, even if I go in with low expectations.

McDonald’s is in a bit of a unique position. Simply due to the scale of their operation, they can, within profitability, do whatever they want. The exact nature of every ingredient is exactly specified. Color, taste, size, quantity, it’s all carefully planned out. Workstations are designed around the food, nudging poorly motivated workers towards putting out food exactly as it is intended to be. Just stop for a second and think about the size of McDonald’s operation, every decision made between the origin of your meal and your consuming it, all of the people involved in those decisions. Think about that for a moment, and then stop and think about why all of those people, by their combined smarts and effort, couldn’t get more than 8 scraps of onion on my sandwich. I’ll forgive the scant pickles, the fast food industry has some fetish about two pickles being appropriate for an entire sandwich. That’s a story for another day. But there couldn’t be more than a tablespoon of onion there! That pitiful onion is something I simply can’t abide. McDonald’s has an army at their disposal, an industry, a kingdom. When I looked at my McRib all I could think about was the scale of the operation and how something so comprehensive, so obscenely large, had managed to produce something so haphazard and unimpressive. In effect, the sandwich had passed through a thousand hands before it ended up in mine, and I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that I might be the only one involved who gave a damn.

Slummin’ It: Ham & Turkey, and Bacon Club on Wheat Bread – 7-11

We all have moments where we fall prey to cravings. If you’re reading this there’s a good chance that your average craving, like mine, is for a sandwich. And when these cravings strike we are often able to seek out our local favorite, or a new establishment we’ve had our eye on for a while, or we simply head to the kitchen and see what we can put together. But what happens when that need strikes in less opportune times? I headed out with the full intention of buying this sandwich, but in my mind I was imagining a situation of much uglier circumstances. I pictured myself stranded on foot, heading through an unfamiliar city, beset by a foul mood or a string of bad luck. In such a situation I might say to myself that I just want a sandwich, any sandwich will do. What sandwich am I most likely to come across? Is it likely to be any good? If, in my darkest moments, I put my faith in fate and just go for the nearest sandwich, am I likely to meet satisfaction or further dismay? This is almost certainly geographically specific, but if dropped at random the only thing you’re more likely to come across than a Subway is a 7-11. So 7-11 was the natural choice to explore this hypothetical set of unfortunate circumstances, and 7-11 is where I went.

Look at the name of the sandwich for a moment. Ham & Turkey, and Bacon Club on Wheat Bread. Why is the first “and” an ampersand and the second one the full conjunction? It feels as if the cold cuts and the bacon have been segregated somehow, almost placed in different philosophical categories. What necessitated this? The label also includes “with tomatoes,” but doesn’t include the information that lettuce is present. Again, there seem to be two sets of rules for two different ingredients. It’s hard to overstate how unsettling I find that. But I went to the 7-11 for the sandwich, and I was not going to leave empty handed.

I went into this with pretty low expectations, but this sandwich still managed to fall short. The tomatoes are tasteless mush, the ham and turkey are flavorless & uninspired, and the bacon…the label doesn’t mention that the sandwich contains mayo, but it does. It contains a lot of mayo. This is likely to protect the bread, but it’s so much mayo that it manages to match the bacon in intensity of flavor. Granted, it’s particularly bland bacon, but just consider that. The sandwich featured flavors of bacon and mayonnaise in about equal proportion. If that sentence doesn’t horrify you, well, let’s just say you and I worship at different churches. I only ate half of this number, because while I’ll swallow a bitter pill in the service of sandwich blogging, swallowing two is just silly.

Returning to my earlier hypothetical situation, what I learned in eating this sandwich is not very comforting. It raises the question of whether any sandwich is better than no sandwich at all, an issue which I am not prepared to settle at the present moment. It’s a larger question than this sandwich can answer, and I hope that the next time I consider the issue I’m not in a strange city, walking the streets desperate for a sandwich, any sandwich at all.

Slummin’ It: Double Whopper With Cheese – Burger King

As some states have made calorie information on the menu mandatory, many national chains have instituted such policies across the board. Burger King is one of those chains, with each item on the menu board bearing an estimated calorie count. What studies are beginning to show, though, is that no one cares. Instituting mandatory calorie labeling hasn’t lead to people making different choices. To my mind, this makes perfect sense. I walked in to Burger King wanting a double whopper with cheese, and that’s what I was going to leave with. The fact that the menu board informed me I was about to consume about a thousand calories didn’t sway me.

The information may not have moved me, but it did stick in my head. As I ate the sandwich I considered the number over and over again, constantly comparing it to what I was eating. I have no problem eating a thousand calorie sandwich. Some back-of-the-envelope math had the kimchi grilled cheese I made at close to 1000 calories, and had I included bacon it surely would have gone a ways past 1000. So it wasn’t the size of the number that was needling me, but simply the number in comparison to the sandwich. Because above all else, what struck me about the Burger King Double Whopper with Cheese was how insubstantial it was. The patties aren’t particularly thick. The bun isn’t tremendously fluffy, large, dense or really anything at all. There’s no sea of mayo, it’s only a few slices of cheese at most, but somehow you end up with a sandwich where there’s nothing there. The lettuce and tomato are lost in the mayo, what little flavor the beef has is lost in the cheese, but the beef is really very dry so the texture of the beef overwhelms everything else. The bun is quickly compressed to almost nothing, and just like that you’re left picking sesame seeds out of your teeth, having consumed a few slices of cheese and a helping of mayonnaise. And for this you’ve paid 1000 calories. The last time I brought up calorie count on this blog was over two years ago, in discussing a sandwich at Panera Bread. “You only get to eat so much in this life,” I said. “There’s no reason to waste 1000 calories on this sandwich.” In that case, it was that 1000 calories were wasted in the service of a borderline lousy sandwich. In this case, though, I think the sin is greater. It’s one thing to waste 1000 calories on a bad sandwich, but quite another to waste them on nothing at all.

Introducing: Slummin’ It

In my post earlier this week, I reiterated that I consider myself an enthusiast and not a critic. I go looking for good sandwiches; it’s very rare that I’ll sit down for a sandwich without some sense that it’s going to be good. But I’ve been thinking about that, and I think there’s room for growth.

In my review of the fried chicken sandwich from Flanagan’s Ale House in Kentucky I got into a discussion of how most people experience sandwiches. It is not, I feel safe in saying, very close to how I experience sandwiches. (I’m going to come off like a snob here, but the shoe fits so I’ll wear it.) The numbers, were we to look at them, present a distinctly American portrait that I’m sure you’re all capable of putting together. What I’m driving at is there’s a gap between the kind of sandwich looked for by someone like you or I and the kind of sandwich you average person on their lunch break settles for. They take their five dollars, wander in to their local franchised sandwich joint and walk out, convinced that the pile of iceberg lettuce and few scraps of lunchmeat they’ve been handed are a legitimate sandwich. Maybe all that salt goes to your brain after a while, I don’t know.

So there’s a gap there, between me and them, and I’ve been thinking about how I might cross it. What I’ve come up with is the newest semi-regular feature here at On Sandwiches: Slummin’ It. I’m going to go out and eat a sandwich that I wouldn’t ordinarily even stop to consider, and I’m going to share my thoughts about it with you. I hope I find something to enjoy in these sandwiches, and I hope you find something to enjoy in reading about them.

Slummin’ It: Jack in the Box Bourbon BBQ

Jack in the Box Bourbon BBQ Steak Grilled SandwichPhoto courtesy of flickr user theimpulsivebuy 

I start here because the grilling is a good sign. There are plenty of sandwiches out there that wouldn’t be successful but for the magic of a flat-top, and I suspected that if Jack in the Box understood that they might understand some of the larger, more important issues in sandwich making.

The grilling is the high point, unquestionably. I’m trying not to judge these sandwiches too harshly; while the buttery grilled bread contained neither the nuance nor depth of flavor that you might get in a competent diner, it was buttery and it was grilled. Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations, but I’ll give out points here for reasonable approximations. Beyond the bread, though, the sandwich comes up short, very short. I’m not sure what kind of steak went into this, but it’s tough and whatever flavor is there has disappeared. Where did it go? Well, it went the same place the namesake bourbon bbq sauce went: into the cheese. The downside of the grilling is that the cheese melts to a slimy ocean, and anything that might have been good about the sandwich is lost at sea.

I will say I’m disappointed that this project started with a bad sandwich, but I cannot claim to be surprised. But I intend to continue on, still an enthusiast, but an adventurous one. Here’s hoping I find some sandwiches worth the effort.