‘America’s worst restaurant meal’8/21/2013
The franchise restaurant industry has been busy this summer reacting to trends and troubles. Darden restaurants had a particularly bad summer after stomach viruses, traced to salad mixes, struck a number of customers at the company’s Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants. Two years ago, the same company was criticized after a Hepatitis A outbreak affected several Olive Garden employees who were working while sick because the company offered no paid sick leave. To win back hearts and stomachs, Olive Garden and Red Lobster have both been aggressively promoting all-you-can-eat specials — “endless shrimp” at Red Lobster ($16) and “endless pasta bowls” at Olive Garden ($10). The latter special also included “unlimited salad.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Long John Silver’s had another kind of problem. The non-profit organization Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) declared Long John’s “Big Catch” to be the “worst restaurant meal in America.” CSPI advocates good nutrition, so it was particularly struck by the meal’s 1,320 calories derived from fried fish, hush puppies and a side of onion rings. Besides the high caloric content, it contains 19 grams of saturated fat, almost 3,700 milligrams of sodium and 33 grams of trans fats — “more trans fats than you should eat in two weeks,” according to CSPI.
We tried it, so you don’t have to. On my visit, the company seemed to be using Darden’s talking points. The Big Catch was advertised as “three times bigger.” A $5 dish included a fresh-tasting piece of haddock buried under a very thick crust of oily batter, with a pile of batter chips thrown in as a bonus. Hush puppies and onion rings piled on more deep-fried starches. This could become a go-to meal for State Fair food addicts looking for a post fair fix.
Elsewhere pretzel applications were the big, new thing. Wendy’s added a new, heavily promoted bacon-pretzel cheeseburger. Mine included a well seared beef patty, cheddar cheese, cheese sauce, apple wood-smoked bacon, tomato, spring mix, onion and honey mustard sauce. The star, though, was its pretzel bun, slit on top in the shape of a cross. It tasted like a really good soft-and-chewy pretzel, minus the large-grain salt. The honey mustard sauce complemented its flavor. The cheese sauce seemed redundant and, added to the bacon, had to push the sodium count up toward Long John levels. This bun is so successful, it already has imitators. Sonic introduced “pretzel dogs” on its summer menu. I tried a “cheesy bacon pretzel dog” that delivered a terribly salty cheese sauce with salty bacon, a salty dog and grilled onions. That dry bun was a huge disappointment compared to Wendy’s. At press time, both Ruby Tuesday’s and Chili’s were advertising their new lines of pretzel burgers.
With Chipotle and Panera growing faster than other fast-food chains, imitators are coming after them, too. Taco John’s introduced Chipotle-like “Santa Fe burrito or bowl” services. Taco Bell introduced a “smothered burrito” with nine ingredients, including mysterious-sounding “Latin rice.” Both lacked the superior, quality ingredients that drive Chipotle sales. Fast chicken also began chasing higher price points. After suffering two quarters of severely reduced sales in its big China market, KFC began pushing boneless chicken, including “hot shot bites.” Popeye’s responded with its own new, boneless “chicken waffle tenders.” Those were far more interesting with chicken breast meat fried in a crunchy waffle batter and served with a honey maple sauce. Unlike boned chicken, Popeye’s does not offer these in a spicy version, however.
Side Dishes Christen Clark won the Iowa State Fair’s “Kenmore Honored Harvest Time Recipes” contest and more than $8,000 in prizes for her “Sweet Corn Ravioli with Sautéed Summer Vegetables” recipe… Gusto announced its West Des Moines store will open soon. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.