Carl’s Jr.

Irony in fast-food sandwich naming

A few years ago, before they let me write about food, I used to edit the news section of this paper. In that capacity, in the summer of 2001, I received an e-mail press release about a new hamburger. The hamburger, on sale at second-tier West Coast fast-food chain Carl’s Jr., was known as the Six-Dollar Burger. The premise of the hamburger was as follows: it’s the kind of thick, juicy burger you’d pay six bucks for at, say, Chili’s, but at Carl’s Jr. it’s only $3.95. This made the burger’s name perhaps the first instance of irony in fast-food sandwich naming—and it wasn’t just unironic rain-on-your-wedding-day irony either; it was real literal-meaning-in-opposition-to-implied-meaning irony.

The press release informed me that this Six-Dollar Burger was positioning Carl’s Jr. as a leader in the emerging category of “fast-casual dining,” and suggested that a sharp-eyed business reporter would want to document this trend with a feature story, presumably accompanied by a huge picture of the thick, juicy Six-Dollar Burger.

I have a personal interest in hamburgers, so I read this press release before deleting it. Of course, I did not write or commission a story about fast-casual dining or Carl’s Jr.’s place in this emerging market, because I am not a total sucker. But I will admit I was impressed by Carl’s Jr.’s willingness to risk customer confusion with an ironically named hamburger.

The PR people sent me “updates” every three days or so, the gist of the updates being that the fast-casual market was continuing to emerge and that Carl’s Jr. was even more firmly poised at its swelling tip. It was like a professional advertising campaign directed at me alone. After a couple weeks of these e-mails, I happened to find myself in Civic Center and hungry, and because I am in fact a total sucker I went into the Carl’s Jr. on Market Street and ordered a Six-Dollar Burger.

From the first bite, it was obvious what was wrong. At the time I wasn’t the trained fast-food professional that I am today, but the problem with the Six-Dollar Burger was so simple that a child could have perceived it. The burger’s creators had violated the central tenet of fast-food hamburger design: Don’t let them taste the meat.

The beef patty at the center of a Big Mac, a Whopper, or a Famous Star (Carl’s Jr.’s Big Mac equivalent) is patently unfit for human consumption. It’s only on the bun for legal reasons, so the chains can continue to call the product a hamburger. The job of the hamburger designer is to surround these obligatory slices of gristle with chemically engineered condiments of such intensity that the meat itself contributes nothing more than a vague texture. (The gold standard in this regard is still the Big Mac’s “special sauce,” a steroid-enhanced Russian dressing that’s delicious enough to justify not one but two of those repulsive all-beef patties.)

The point of the Six-Dollar Burger, however, is that it’s less like a fast-food burger and more like a restaurant burger, in which the taste of the meat is typically a component of the eating experience. Carl’s Jr. was serving a full-sized, inch-thick patty of fast-food beef. It was just as inedible as it sounds. Liability issues (as well as common human decency) require that such a burger be cooked for at least a week to eliminate any pink rareness. The result had approximately the taste and consistency of a regulation hockey puck on a bun.

What’s more, even the irony of the burger’s name dissolves on closer inspection. At Chili’s, your $6 hamburger would surely come with fries (or, optionally, coleslaw or some bullshit like that). Once you factor in the additional buck-and-change for Carl’s Jr.’s oddly unsalty fries, the Six-Dollar Burger turns out to cost ... just about six bucks.

The day after this disappointment, I got to work and found yet another Six-Dollar Burger “update” in my inbox. With the righteous indignation of one who has been burned by corporate America once too often, I hit Reply and composed a lengthy and well-reasoned e-mail to Carl’s Jr.’s press agent. I explained that (a) I wasn’t planning to give a fast-food chain a bunch of free publicity, but that (b) I had been moved by his ceaseless barrage of hype to try the Six-Dollar Burger myself, and (c) I had found it wanting, for the reasons outlined above. It was my first professional act of food criticism (“professional” in the sense that I did it on company time). I never heard back.

Cut to: a calendar with the wind blowing off the pages, to signify the passage of time. I stopped editing the news section and began writing this column and forgot all about the fast-casual market. And then, about a month ago, Carl’s Jr. scientists emerged from their flavor labs and reintroduced the Six-Dollar Burger to a wary public.

You would think that a big, impersonal corporation such as CKE Inc., which owns Carl’s Jr. (along with Hardee’s and the Green Burrito, a Mexican chain that I cannot imagine eating at), would not revamp an entire product line in response to a single e-mail from a bitter news editor. You would be wrong. It took three years, but the new Six-Dollar Burger directly addresses my central complaint re: the quality of the meat. The new burger is made with 100 percent Angus beef—beef, that is, that comes from a particular kind of cow, a cow thought to marble at a younger age, which is to say a more delicious cow. This obviously necessitated a return visit.

Full disclosure: since my e-mail provided the inspiration for the Six-Dollar Burger v2.0, I have an obvious bias. Bear that in mind, because I’m happy to announce that the new Six-Dollar Burger is pretty good, as fast-food hamburgers go. Those younger-marbling cows, it turns out, make all the difference. The thick patty is still cooked through—I suspect the meat-cooking robots in the Carl’s Jr. kitchens have no setting lower than “incinerate”—but it’s thoroughly edible and almost tasty.

Here’s what it’s like: Imagine you’re at a cookout in someone’s yard, probably in Oakland or somewhere like that. You grab a big handful of raw ground beef from a bowl, throw it on the grill, then go drink a beer from a blue plastic cup and forget about the burger. Someone else sees it on the grill and flips it at some point. After about 45 minutes you remember the burger, so you come back and take the charred object off the grill with a spatula, being careful not to let it drop onto the concrete patio. You set it down on a paper plate and let it cool in the waning afternoon light for an hour or so, and then you put it on a bun with some ketchup and mayo and eat it. That’s what the Six-Dollar Burger is like.

There are no tough little gristly bits to spit out. The condiments and vegetables are a pleasant complement to the taste of the meat rather than a disguise for it. Butter pickles are a classy touch. I’d eat this burger again, if there wasn’t anything better to eat.

There’s four other versions: bacon cheese, chili cheese, guacamole bacon, and “Western,” which has barbecue sauce and, absurdly, onion rings. You can also get the “low-carb” style, which is served on lettuce instead of bread. The only one of these I’ve tried is the guacamole bacon. The guacamole is straight out of a tube, and the bacon is that weirdly flat, stringy bacon you get at fast-food places, but the burger seems to be seasoned with more peppery sass than usual, and the sandwich comes without ketchup, and these two factors make it less sugary than most fast-food burgers, which I find admirable.

To the men and women at Carl’s Jr. responsible for amending recipes in response to random e-mails: bravo! Would that our government were as responsive as our second-tier fast-food chains! And watch for more conflicts of interest as I pursue a lucrative career as a consultant to the fast-food industry. Next month: KFC—Why the Chicken Should Be Way Better and They Should Give It Away Free.