The Taste of Discipline

We can talk all we want about South Gate pupuserias and new places to get Korean barbecue squid; the real news in the world of cheap food is McDonald's McLean Deluxe, a new, lower-fat hamburger that's supposed to trim more flab from America's middle than Ultra Slim-Fast, Equal and Jack La Lanne combined.

McLean, basically a computer-age reworking of the McDLT, has been debated by nutritionists in half the newspapers and magazines in the country. Four-color photographs of it glisten from full-page ads on the back covers of health journals. "Hate the taste of discipline?" ask the ads. "Now you can enjoy a delicious burger without regret."

The burger was the subject of an adoring front-page article in the New York Times that read like the newspaper equivalent of those half-hour advertorials that sometimes wake you up on Sunday morning when you've fallen asleep watching TV the night before.

"The flavor is definitely there!" a McDonald's-loving construction worker told the New York Times reporter. "I don't know what it is, but it is there. I love it; yeah, I really do."

It was the 90 calories that shook the world.

As you probably know by now, some of the fat in the McLean has been replaced by meat-flavored water and a seaweed-derived emulsifier that's supposed to hold the water in, whipped into the meat mixture like air into a foam sofa cushion. The idea is somehow to trick mouths into believing they're chewing on something more interesting than meat-flavored water: a "juicy" burger.

Before I tasted the thing, I imagined hot juices spurting like butter from a chicken Kiev. When I finally tried one, the sensation was closer to biting into the sofa cushion. The lettuce and tomato helped, but not that much; the optional slice of diet cheese--five more grams of fat!--was more effective at masking the slightly artificial flavor of the patty. As a reduced-calorie experience, the McLean ranked somewhere between diet Dr. Pepper and those foil packets of stuff that NutriSystems clients reconstitute for dinner.

And when I packed a car full of people and spent an afternoon driving from McDonald's to McDonald's, everybody could taste the difference between Quarter Pounders and McLeans, even when I moved garnishes from one burger to the next. The spongy texture gave away the McLean every time. There has to be a better way of regulating cholesterol.

Other fast-food chains, the ones without R & D outlays that resemble the defense budget, are selling a lot of non-fried chicken these days. Last Friday I got in the Toyota again, cranked up the new Sepultura tape--fast food and death metal go together like ham and eggs--and ate a lot of chicken. The best part, maybe the only good part, was I didn't even have to get out of the car.

A lot of people at the office have been raving about the new El Pollo Loco chicken tacos and burritos, but neither is really anywhere as good as the chicken on which the chain made its reputation. The chunks of chicken in each taste boiled, not grilled. Tacos are made with pasty flour tortillas, and are dumbed up with limp shredded lettuce and glutinous orange cheese. The burritos, a little better, are filled out with the chain's rice and whole stewed beans, the kind of thing you might have done with the combination plate yourself at home. Maybe you should do it at home--the store-made burritos have none of the delicious, high-cholesterol skin that makes Pollo Loco chicken so good.

Taco Bell's chicken tacos and burritos are more or less the same as El Pollo Loco's, only much skimpier, somewhat cheaper and dripping with a truly unpleasant sauce that has a real smoked-sweatsock tang.

Jack in the Box Grilled Chicken Filet sandwiches are about what you'd expect from that chain: dull, over-sauced but on the high side of junk-food adequate. As the chain of choice for young urban professionals, Jack in the Box knows its audience.

And though Carl's Jr.'s Santa Fe chicken sandwich is cursed with the most annoying commercials this side of AT&T--misty; desert panoramas with what sounds like the theme music to "Kung Fu" playing in the background--the bird is nicely caramelized by the grill, and a whole Ortega chile gives the thing a nice snap. Now, if they could only find a way to pump up the sandwich with seaweed. . . .

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