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A super-sized odyssey through the world of fast-food burgers

Charred and Scarred

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We live in the era of a fast-food arms race. National chains are loading up their burgers with everything they can squeeze between a bun, regardless of what the rules of common decency and dietary standards dictate. Meanwhile, legions of loyal customers are caught in the crossfire. It may seem like a joke, but even with the ceramic-headed kings and mayors McCheese, the Burger Wars are no laughing matter.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, almost half of all Americans say that they eat fast food weekly. Compare that to the 37 percent who attend some kind of religious service at least once a week, as reported by the Pew Research Center, and you can see just how important all-day breakfast actually is. It may be difficult to take fast food seriously, but there is no denying that it has become a national institution. This gives all the more reason for you to know the newest burgers to invade your local drive-thru. Some have reached new heights in what a mass-produced burger can do, while others have flown too close to the sun on wings of melted cheese. These are the baddest of the bad in fast-food burgers.

Hardee's Tex Mex Bacon Thickburger

The television commercial for the Tex Mex Bacon Thickburger drew a considerable amount of attention when it was released in late September, but it had less to do with beef and more to do with the political nature of the ad. Keeping with the style of Hardee's past commercials, the television spot features plenty of scantily clad models caught in the seductive throes of eating a cheeseburger, but this time there is a bit of substance buried beneath all the glamor.

The commercial depicts a women's volleyball game that takes place on the border of the United States and Mexico. In fact, the two teams are using a wall built between both countries as a net. The women, caught up in a heated match, are debating the true nationality of the Tex Mex Bacon Thickburger, as female volleyball players are wont to do. Fortunately, male representatives from both sides of the border are in the stands to agree that the burger is a multinational effort that exhibits the best aspects of both cultures. Blending the fire-roasted peppers and onions with 100 percent black angus beef and bacon, this newest variation on the Thickburger does prove that bad taste knows no borders. The bright orange tomatoes were visually disconcerting, but juicy, while the bottom bun was soaked through with what is being called a spicy Sante Fe sauce. In spite of the ashy peppers, tangy Southwestern mayonnaise, and pepper jack cheese, which largely goes unnoticed, the burger didn't provide much heat. Instead it tasted overwhelmingly of bacon and the charbroiled patty, but it's not the biggest problem when your burger tastes like meat.

While Hardee's Tex Mex Bacon Thickburger might not be able to balance the flavors of two neighboring countries, it's a hearty burger willing to support a pathway to citizenship, which is more than you can say for most sandwiches.

The Tex Mex Bacon Thickburger may not be the prettiest out of the bag, but the models in Hardee's commercials make up for it - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • The Tex Mex Bacon Thickburger may not be the prettiest out of the bag, but the models in Hardee's commercials make up for it

Wendy's BBQ Pulled Pork Cheeseburger

I feel like I didn't quite get the full experience when I ordered the BBQ Pulled Pork Cheeseburger from Wendy's. On this particular evening, the Wendy's I frequent was all out of the "crunchy slaw" meant to accompany the burger, and I was provided a regular hamburger bun rather than the toasted brioche bun promised on the menu. What I ultimately ended up with was a meat stack: pulled pork piled high atop Wendy's classic square beef patty with a slice of cheddar cheese.

There are three choices of barbecue sauce with the burger: sweet, smoky, or spicy. I opted for smoky, but I was left regretting my decision. The sauce was generic in the sense that it tasted like the flavoring on potato chips, a broad imitation of barbecue sauce rather than the actual thing. This is unfortunate because the "slow-cooked" pulled pork was tender and had enough of that smoked flavor to stand on its own.

Since the Wendy's BBQ Pulled Pork Cheeseburger was lacking a number of pretty significant ingredients, I decided to give Wendy's another chance and try the restaurant's main offender: the Baconator.

Count'em six slices of bacon on Wendy's Baconator - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Count'em six slices of bacon on Wendy's Baconator

With a name that is immediately embarrassing for the customer, yet still not worse than Thickburger, the Baconator is probably the simplest burger on this list. It is nothing more than a Wendy's double cheeseburger with mayo and ketchup, but instead of two or four thick-cut slices of applewood smoked bacon, this abomination has six "never-microwaved" strips. And it should be no surprise that it is incredible. The bacon was crispy, but the burger was much more than that. There is something magical that happens when ketchup and bacon combine in a Wendy's cheeseburger. It's the perfect ratio of salty and savory with just a touch of acidity from the vinegar in the ketchup. The beef patty actually plays a supporting role, which isn't too surprising when those in charge are willing to cover a burger in pulled pork. As the Baconator proves, sometimes in the world of fast food, it's best to keep things simple.

Burger King's Halloween Whopper

What can be said about the Halloween Whopper that hasn't already been mentioned in countless blog posts and doomsday prophecies?

If any burger has grabbed the public's attention recently, it is this marvel of modern chemistry and a clear sign of the end times. With a jet-black bun dotted with white sesame seeds, this new take on the Whopper is certainly visually arresting. The idea of a black bun started with Burger King Japan's "Kuro Burger," which also included black cheese. When Burger King announced the black Whopper's arrival stateside, the press release said the sandwich "has a look that's curious to the eye" and "may make some think 'hmmmmm?'" To better tailor the Japanese-born burger to the American palate, Burger King decided to flavor the bun with A1 sauce.

In the words of Eric Hirschhorn, chief marketing officer for Burger King North America, "It may look Japanese, but it tastes like America."

I hope this is not what America tastes like. In addition to the smoky, black pepper flavor baked into the bun, the burger has the usual touches of a classic Whopper: flame-grilled beef, melted cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, mayo, pickles, and sliced onion. If the company's burger technicians would have stopped here, the sandwich could have gone down as an adventurous oddity in the annals of fast food. Instead they decided more A1 Thick and Hearty Sauce was needed to truly capture the flavor of this great nation. Perhaps a critique on American excess, the additional sauce is what pushes this burger overboard. With each bite, the tangy kick of the A1 assaults the eater. Like a shadowy figure in the night, this burger sneaks up on you. And be forewarned, it's a burger that fights back.

Steak 'n Shake's Sriracha Steakburger

Speaking of burgers with a kick, the Sriracha Steakburger is not for the faint of heart. Rarely does a major chain follow through with promises of spice, but this burger brings the heat. Topped with two slices of pepper jack cheese, ample jalapeños, fried onions, and slathered with sriracha sauce, Steak 'n Shake did not play it safe with this one.

Yet, while heat is the main focus of the Sriracha Steakburger, the chain still takes the time to get the basics right. The bun is nicely buttered and has a bit of a crunch to it. The beef patty is juicy and manages to not be overwhelmed by the other powerful flavors. The same cannot be said for the fried onions, which couldn't manage to make an impression. This is probably for the best, since this burger already has enough going on. Sometimes less is more in the world of fast food.

Denny's Bourbon Bacon Cheeseburger

The Bourbon Bacon Cheeseburger was the last burger I sampled for this article, and it may be the last fast food burger I ever eat.

After touring the area's biggest names in fast food and seeing what latest creations they've unleashed upon the world, this was the burger that proved my undoing. It almost seems quaint when considering the black buns and sandwiches named after killing machines offered by competitors: a beef patty topped with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onions, pickles, and bacon. But then the list of ingredients continues: sautéed mushrooms, fire-roasted bell peppers and onions, and sweet bourbon sauce.

Within this burger is something edible. In that, I have no doubt. The ingredients seemed fresh enough. They were well prepared, and of course, Denny's knows how to handle bacon.

No, the problem with the Bourbon Bacon Cheeseburger comes from its very inception. In an attempt to offer something for everyone and have a more convoluted burger than the drive-thru across the street, Denny's created a culinary chimera — parts that, though combined, do not make any earthly sense together.

In the Bourbon Bacon Burger, Denny's has created something that should not be. The sweetness of the bourbon sauce is spoiled by the pickles. Upon first bite, the sliced red onions hang from the burger like the tendrils of some misshapen, Lovecraftian beast.

As I attempted to eat the Cthulhu of burgers, I recorded my experience. They tell the story of what happens when more is mistaken for better. They tell the story of the perils of excess. And more importantly, they tell the story of a burger gone wrong. Here are my thoughts in their entirety:

I cannot eat this burger. I honestly can't do it. I'm staring at this burger, and I am defeated. Everything about this burger ruins everything else about it. It is a burger divided against itself.

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