We revisit some of America’s most iconic fast food menu items in the age of social distancing.
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In the Before Times, I was out eating and drinking most nights, with a focus on novelty. Sure, I had my regular brunch and easy neighborhood dinner spots, and -- not to brag -- I was a regular at some of the cheapest dives in town. But most of my discretionary income went toward seeking out new restaurants and bars. Now, as we all anxiously await a murky future where it’s safe for newcomers to get their shot, and we do what we can to make sure our old favorites can re-open, all that eat seeking is on hold.
Instead, I’ve been (watching my husband) cooking at home a lot more, making cocktails, and finally venturing into the world of Outside Food by way of some erstwhile favorites known to folks across the country. First up is the fast food behemoth synonymous with the United States: McDonalds. So, Mickey D's, how you holding up?
Here’s how its most iconic menu item, the Big Mac, looked and tasted after its journey from the golden arches to my front door.
Bah dah bah bah bah: Ordering, wait time, and delivery experience
I began the order process at noon, because noon seems to approximate lunch time, which I’ve recently celebrated as early as 10am and as late as not at all. I went directly to McDonald's site and allowed it to use my current location, which I never do. I checked out the available deals, but none seemed worth going through a necessary extra step: downloading and ordering through the app. It was already 12:03. Back on the delivery page, I could choose between Uber Eats or DoorDash, two platforms I had never used.
The Uber Eats option had a code for $5 off and DoorDash had $5 off $15 or more. Without actually doing the math, I figured it’d be six of one, half-dozen of the other. Uber Eats had a 99-cent delivery fee and estimated delivery in 15-25 minutes from a location .9 miles away that I’d previously walked by on trips to Other Half Brewing. DoorDash delivery would be free on an order over $10. It would come from a McDonald’s half a mile away that I used to walk by when the F train decided to go express on my way home from work and I’d have to get off one stop early and walk the rest of the way in heels that I haven’t looked at since March. The second location was closer, but it would take longer: 26-36 minutes. And now it was already 12:19.
DoorDash had the item I planned to order, a medium Big Mac combo with a diet Coke ($10.69), front and center on its site, so I added that and a 4-piece chicken nuggets with sweet and sour sauce for $2.69. Both were listed with the caveat If sold out, Chef recommendation, which was kind of exciting. My total was $13.28 before tax, tip, and a $1.34 service fee I hadn't been aware of -- short of the $15 minimum I’d need to reach to use the $5 off code. Other than a few recommended upsells that I didn't want, DoorDash didn’t have a way to add another item without navigating back to the full menu and losing all the payment and delivery information I’d entered. I could have switched over to Uber Eats by then and tried my luck with its take on the $5 discount, but by now it was already 12:42, and what kind of person spends 42 minutes placing a lunch delivery order? I learned a painful $1.72 lesson that day, my friends. From there, I tracked the progress of my order on and off in the DoorDash tab, and my contact-free delivery landed at 1:01pm; much faster than the estimated delivery window.
Credit: Amber Sutherland-Namako/Thrillist
I’m lovin’ it: Taste, presentation, and how it holds up
The familiar McDonald’s smell (every fast food place has its own) was already slinking into my building when I opened the door to the hallway to retrieve it. It wasn’t like being in the restaurant, of course, but it was a little like passing one on the sidewalk. Everything was copiously packaged. The food was in an exterior shopping bag, an interior paper bag, plus each item’s familiar branded container. I snapped a few quick photos and remembered the last time I took a photo of a French fry was when a bunch of us crammed into booths at the Shake Shack by the Brooklyn Bridge following my wedding afterparty. Then I plated everything, discarded the packaging, and disinfected the area because that’s what the internet says to do even though nobody knows if it really makes a difference and we’re all just trying our best. I poured the Diet Coke into a Tavern on the Green pint glass.
I was surprised by how well everything held up. You could still pick the McNuggets, Big Mac, and French fries out of a line-up, even absent their packaging. I was most concerned about the Diet Coke, which I was looking forward to because of fountain soda’s objective soda superiority over canned and bottled varieties, and because I’d sort of accidentally stopped consuming caffeine about six weeks ago and never started up again so as not to be too alert for Any Of This (™). Even after its half-mile trip, the diet Coke was plenty icy. Sipped through a red and white paper straw left over from one of our last, (but hopefully not the last) parties, it was crisp and perfectly proportioned -- demonstratively the product of a well-maintained machine.
The Big Mac didn’t exactly look like a photograph of itself -- nothing ever does -- but it arrived as expected: two beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, sesame seed bun, dumb middle bread. If you’d asked me prior to this very moment whether a Big Mac included tomato, I would have responded emphatically, “yeah, sure, probably.” But it does not! Gotta save room got that dumb middle bread, which, together with the special sauce, is what sets the Big Mac apart from any other fast food double cheeseburger. These two ingredients are all that makes this the company’s -- nay, the nation’s -- most iconic sandwich. Apart from the dumb middle bread and the special sauce, the Big Mac I had wouldn’t be terrifically distinguishable from any other fast food double cheeseburger. But it was still tasty and intact in its little vessel, which is particularly impressive considering its superfluous architecture. (Yes, I’m still grousing about the dumb middle bread.)
Credit: Amber Sutherland-Namako/Thrillist
True to form, the chicken McNuggets looked like any Chicken McNuggets you’d find in any McDonalds anywhere at any time. Golden, nebulous shapes that, if you’d never tasted one, wouldn’t seem especially appetizing. But, even at just above room temperature, that first bite was sensational. All four were uniformly crispy-enough on the modestly seasoned outside, and juicy on the processed inside. And anyone who has ever tasted them would recognize their inimitable flavor as McDonald’s own, sight unseen.
Do not expect any fast food item to be delivered heat lamp hot, and set your French fry expectations even lower. Fries have a lot of surface area and a lot of room for air to circulate around them. I defy any fast food French fry to retain its heat from the restaurant to your home. Ergo, the McDonald’s French fries that came in my Big Mac combo had cooled quite a bit. But they were crispy, just this side of too salty, and familiar. If you want them piping, preheat your oven while you wait for delivery, dump ‘em on a cookie sheet, and bake for a few minutes to bring the temperature back up.
Tip always. Tip extra. Tip as much as you possibly can and save elsewhere. You can compare prices across delivery platforms, for example. If I’d gone through Uber Eats, the combo would have been $10.99 and McNuggets would have been $1.49, making the total $12.48; a dollar and change less than the pre-tax, tip, and fee price on DoorDash. And whenever you can use those discount codes, $5 off this or that, pipe those savings directly into that tip line.
Join us again next time when we ask Burger King: How You Holding up?
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Amber Sutherland-Namako is an editor at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @AsaSutherland.