by Sam Thomas:
I’m from Middle America. The land of sweet corn and soybeans, unathletic basketball, birthday parties in McDonald’s Playplaces, Midwestern nice. And I was raised on fast food.
My town, of about 9,000 residents, is host to an impressive array of fast-food restaurants, which, if I had to guess, is the town’s third-largest employer after the city itself and a local waterworks company.
Needless to say, I know my way around fast food. My hometown has more fast food restaurants per 1,000 people than New York City. We have Culver’s, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, Subway, Burger King, Penguin Point, The Other Subway, Arby’s, KFC, Long John Silver’s, and Hardee’s; twelve of these places are on one road, within one block.
Much to my delight, quite a few of the chains from my hometown have also found a home in Shanghai, so I’m here to test them out. See if they’re up to snuff. Give them the ol’ once over. Check what’s under the hood.
I’ll be judging them solely on how they compare to their chain in my hometown and nothing else – just a specific Shanghai outlet up against its Samtown counterpart. It’s kind of like the Olympics because both the US and China will come in first or second, there are questions about the health implications for participants, and there aren’t any Russians involved. Let’s do this, y’all.
In the hierarchy of American fast food, Burger King is the place you go when McDonald’s and Wendy’s are too busy and the fast-food gods haven’t blessed your town with Chik-Fil-A, Five Guys, or Qdoba. It’s known for two things: a creepy-as-hell plastic King mascot and Chicken Fries that were incomprehensibly discontinued for three years. So, expectations weren’t particularly high as I hit the BK on West Nanjing Road.
First of all, HOLY SHIT, the workers at Burger King were cruising. I have never in my life seen a fast food restaurant as fast or productive; I’m used to hungover teenagers taking fifteen minutes to make some fries, not a production machine running like the fate of China rests on its greasy shoulders.
As I marveled at the efficiency, I ordered the Double Italian Stacker meal, got my food before I had time to hand over the cash, and walked upstairs to the slow jam-filled upstairs section.
The fries at Burger King are the saltiest things I have ever eaten, and I am not exaggerating. After about five fries my feelings moved from “this is dope” to “welp, I’m definitely going to get heart disease.” They tasted delicious, but the only thing I could taste was salt – the fries could have been made of anything.
The Good: Salty fries, American cheese flavored product, Speedy service, Beef that tastes like beef
The Bad: Salty fries, Weird Ass Bacon, Small Patties
The Verdict: Just like the American version, Chinese Burger King is solid without being exceptional, decent without being too boring. But by a hair, hometown Burger King takes this round over Shanghai Burger King.
First of all, I must confess: I’ve never actually been to a “Carl’s Jr.” Where I’m from, we have Hardee’s, which is the exact same thing as Carl’s Jr., with the same fonts, imagery, menus, and everything; just a different name. Carl’s Jr. is on the West/Best Coast (elitists), and Hardee’s are pretty much everywhere else.
Now I may as well just say it – American Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. sucks. This is the place you go at 10AM on Thanksgiving morning when you’re hungry as hell but mom hasn’t booked anything yet and every other restaurant in the county is closed. I honestly don’t know a single person who has ever said “man, I could really go for some Hardee’s right now,” but apparently, in the land of China, Carl’s Jr. has a pretty good rap… Y’all are nuts.
I had the Jalapeño Burger, which could be more aptly named the A Ton of Store-Bought Jalapeños Between Buns to Cover Up Flavorless Beef Burger. The sandwich, which was difficult to handle (I took notes in my phone, and one about the sandwich reads “falling the fuck apart”) had all sorts of stuff on it – pepper jack cheese, spicy mayo, beef, lettuce, tomato, onion – but I could really only taste the boatload of jalapeños. The flavorlessness of everything on the sandwich didn’t make much sense, but alas, such is life.
The fries were decent – infinitely less salty than Burger King, but much more potato-y in flavor. Far from exceptional, but I mean, they were alright.
Rough day for Carl’s Jr., but wait, what’s that?
No, it can’t be… I haven’t seen one in ages
I take back everything bad I’ve ever said about Carl’s Jr. Free refills are harder to come by here than pretty much anything. Only four of the six fountains worked at all, but still. I really felt like I was back home. Carl’s Jr. for life, man.
The Good: Free refills, fries that tasted of more than just salt
The Bad: Jalapeños with a side of burger; flavorless beef, cheese, etc.
The Verdict: Chinese Carl’s Jr., like its American counterpart, will be henceforth reserved for when a) nothing else is open or b) I’m really hurting for bottomless (non-alcoholic) drinks. In this battle of losers hometown, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. wins, just barely being less horrible.
It’s starting to seem like only the crappy American fast-food chains made it to China, and Subway doesn’t depart from that tradition – it’s the place you go when you really want a sandwich, but your town doesn’t have a Penn Station. Subways are freakin’ everywhere back in the States, though. They have more restaurants open than McDonald’s, which legitimately blows my mind. My little-ass town has two, the only restaurant in town to claim that honor.
Anyway, I arrived at Subway during lunch hour to find a line out the door. What? Line-out-the-door situations should only be reserved for Cronuts and shit. I resisted the temptation of a nearby Carl’s Jr., because, y’know, fuck Carl’s Jr., and stuck it out.
I ordered pretty much the same thing I would back home – an Italian BMT (which stands for Biggest, Meatiest, Tastiest, and are words that don’t describe anything about this sandwich except the lies) with lettuce, green pepper, jalapeños, oil, and vinegar. I went with the foot-long, because duh, but they cut it in half and packaged them separately to make me feel like a fatass. Thanks. Now I’m definitely eating all of it.
On the whole, I enjoyed the sandwich. I could actually taste the cheese, which was awesome because I love cheese, and it didn’t fall apart as soon as I picked it up (looking at you Carl’s Jr.). The deli meats had some spice to them, but the jalapeños were disappointing – they felt like they came from a giant jar, store-bought. The rest of the vegetables tasted like they should, which is about the only way I can describe them – not spectacular at all, but solid.
The sandwich was pretty good, but I couldn’t get past the feeling that there was something missing. The flavor just wasn’t there as much as I had hoped, or as much as I’m accustomed to back home. Everything tastes the way it should, but they’re just isn’t enough of the flavor. Finally, the bread weirded me out; it tasted pretty good (like bread), but it was strangely narrow. I dunno. Kind of a bummer.
The Good: I can taste the cheese, Meat has flavor, veggies taste as they should
The Bad: Narrow bread, long-ass line, sad jalapeños
The Verdict: When judged against other sub sandwiches, Subway is near the back of the pack, but compared to other Chinese fast food places, Subway kicks ass and takes names through a combo of meat that tastes like meat, cheese that tastes like cheese, and veggies that taste like veggies. However, in the battle at hand, weaker flavor hands Shanghai Subway a defeat at the hands of the hometown Subway.
I’ll just say what everybody is thinking: KFCs are fucking everywhere in Shanghai. They’re like Starbucks in New York – just all over the goddam place. Not to harp on a theme, but KFC sucks back in the States; undoubtedly, it brings up the rear of the “fast-food fried chicken” crowd behind the likes of Popeye’s and Church’s. Speaking of which, damn I could go for some Popeye’s right now.
Now, for a moment of gratuitous explanation before I proceed: Colonel Sanders wasn’t an actual Colonel. He’s a “Kentucky Colonel,” which is a made-up award given by the Governor of Kentucky (fun fact: Kentucky is a Commonwealth, not a state, because reasons) to people who have done something good for Kentucky or whatever. Nobody really cares about Kentucky, so they had to make up their own award. Finally: Colonel Sanders is from Indiana. Kentucky’s most successful son is actually a Hoosier. Ha. Up yours Kentucky. (I should probably note that I’m from Indiana, a state perhaps is best known for its unofficial tagline “hey, at least we’re not Kentucky”).
Sorry. Back to the fast food. My KFC experience was initially dampened because some dude decided to argue with the only cashier for ten minutes about who the hell knows what. To be honest, it reminded me of going too fast food back home – it just isn’t a true, hometown fast food experience without some idiot arguing about the price of chicken. When Mr. What Other People was finally done arguing, I ordered the 9 Lives Juice Drink (which sounds made up), two hot wings, popcorn chicken, and fries. I was hungry as hell, yo.
I should have been put-off by my food being handed to me before I finished putting my money in my wallet, but ya know Chinese efficiency. A few bites into the fries and it was pretty apparent that they’d been sitting out for a while, which was strange for peak dinner time. If they hadn’t been old, they could have been pretty solid; to me, they’re a case of wasted culinary potential. The hot wings may have been the biggest disappointment though – when I order “hot” things in China, I’m expecting my entire face to go numb, but the hot wings were pretty much flavorless. They tasted fresher than the fries, but I was bummed by the lack of spice.
The 9 Lives Juice Drink might have been the sweetest thing I’ve ever put in my body, but it tasted damn good. Finally, the popcorn chicken. Pop. Corn. Freakin’. Chicken. It pains me to celebrate anything that hails from the Commonwealth of Kentucky, but goddammit the popcorn chicken was good. It was fresh, the breading was flaky, crispy, and not too thick, and the meat was really tender and juicy, especially for popcorn chicken. I can give credit where credit is due: I loved the popcorn chicken.
The Good: Popcorn chicken, 9 lives juice drink
The Bad: Old ass fries, non-spicy chicken
The Verdict: KFC turned out to be a mixed bag, but based on the strength of the popcorn chicken, my hometown KFC takes a tough loss to Shanghai KFC.
Well, it’s time for the McBig one. The American fast-food company, Mickey D’s. I was raised in a McDonald’s, man. It’s an institution back in the States, especially in small towns – a place where exhausted parents can say “go play, sonny,” and complain with the other adults about whatever while the kids go down the path to childhood obesity. People love to hate McDonald’s: “ugh it’s so gross” “ugh it’s too greasy” “ugh it’s way too unhealthy,” but when you need a quick breakfast or a fast meal late at night, you go to McDonald’s, end of story.
In recent years, McDonald’s has tried to become more than America’s most fattening export – it’s now a coffee shop, and a dessert shop, and an ice cream shop; it has wraps and fish and salads; it doesn’t ruthlessly market (as much) to children. Back in the States, they even have the calorie count on the menu for each item, which is, y’know, cool, but if I’m inside a McDonald’s I’ve already made the decision to eat something that’s horrible for me.
I had a feeling that a McDonald’s burger is a McDonald’s burger, so I woke my ass up early and went for breakfast. Hot take: breakfast is Mickey D’s best meal. I had the sausage, egg, and cheese McMuffin, a hashbrown, and a black coffee – exactly what I’d have back home. Ordering was a trip, though – there are four goddam counters inside the McDonald’s. What? I used a digital kiosk that promised me English but gave me Mandarin, but I still ended up with my desired order. Go to me.
But first, an aside on coffee in China. Where can a guy get a not horrible, not latté-ified cup of black coffee? Even the coffees sold in convenience stores labeled “blue mountain coffee” are sugar and cream with a side of coffee. Damn.
Okay, back to scheduled programming. I sat at the smallest table in the world, next to the six-seater table that was acting as a temporary bed for three adults. The hash brown, which is normally my favorite, tasted like an American one, just a bit less salty. It was pretty darn good, but when I think McDonald’s, I think egregious levels of salt, so not necessarily bad, just different.
The actual McMuffin was fluffier than I’m used to, which was nice, and the egg had more flavor and fluffiness to it as well. The sausage tasted the same, but the cheese was a bit strange. It looked just like the American Cheese Flavored Product I’d had at Burger King, but it was tangier. Thumbs down on the cheese. The coffee somehow managed to be worse than American McDonald’s coffee, which is really saying something. It tasted like some jokester had replaced the coffee beans with cigarettes, made a pot of coffee, poured a half cup and filled the rest with whatever it is flowing in the Huangpu because it certainly isn’t water. It was exactly the type of shitty, black coffee I’d been missing. The only downside: it came in a cup for ants. 9 ounces. I drank it in seconds.
The Good: The sausage and egg McMuffin; horrible black coffee
The Bad: Tangy cheese
The Verdict: Yep. I’m gonna say it. Chinese McDonald’s does American McDonald’s best meal better. The quality of the McMuffin really took it over the top.
So there you have it – my hometown takes Subway, Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s and Burger King, but Shanghai holds on to KFC and McDonald’s. Maybe it was unconscious bias or maybe it’s legitimate, but you heard it here first: on the whole, Sam Thomas’s hometown has better American fast food than Shanghai. USA!
Special not-actually-fast-food encore: Pizza Hut
I’m going to take a stand here: Pizza Hut is not a fast-food restaurant. Back home, The Hut is the third nicest restaurant in town after Twente and Market Street Grill, and just ahead of Ugalde’s and Bob Evans’, which are all actual, real-life restaurants and not made up. No matter – the bossman says this article needs pizza, so it’s getting some goddam pizza.
Pizza Hut is alright – it kicks the hell out of “Horrible Ingredients, Terrible Pizza” Papa John’s (like Colonel Sanders, Papa John is from Indiana. Unfortunately, Papa John sucks.), and it might just edge out Domino’s on variety alone, but once you get into more serious pizza places, like Pizzeria Uno, Donato’s, Lou Malnati’s, etc., it doesn’t stack up. I do have to give The Hut some credit – it’s the place to be after a high school basketball game, and it’s extremely popular with the local police force; there isn’t a time of day or night that a half dozen of my hometown’s finest aren’t enjoying some Pizza Hut. If you ever find yourself in a small, northern Indiana town on the run from the long arm of the law, stay far far away from Pizza Hut.
Before I continue, I have two extremely important truths to tell about pizza. Number one: Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is the best pizza; it’s just like a normal pizza, but with a ton of cheese. It’s amazing. Number two: the only acceptable way to eat pizza is with your hands, not with a knife and fork. End of story. Do you know who eats pizza with a knife and fork? Donald Trump. Bill de Blasio. Sarah Palin. Politicians. You eat pizza with your hands, damn it.
Pretty much everyone has told me Pizza Hut has some strange as hell pizzas. Prawns and durian and whatever? Nah. And corn? Why? That doesn’t even make sense. As Kenan Thompson would say, what’s up with that?
I had the New Orleans pizza with “New Orleans” chicken, which isn’t really a thing, weird Chinese bacon, mushroom, tomato, “cheddar cheese” sauce, more cheese, and, you guessed it, more goddamn cheese because I got the stuffed crust version – I’ve been all over Hell’s half-acre looking for a meal with a bunch of cheese in this city, so I certainly wasn’t about to turn one down.
Service was pretty slow for a completely empty restaurant, but the pizza came and, well, it was just sort of a normal pizza. However, for a medium pizza (No, I didn’t eat the entire thing by myself, thank you very much), it was a bit small, and it also wasn’t nearly as greasy as I’m used to; the slices stayed more or less parallel to the table instead of folding over themselves in greasy goodness, as pizza should.
The actual cheese on the pizza and the non-existent “Cheddar Cheese” sauce was rubbery and kind of flavorless, which was a disappointment, but the mozzarella in the crust was very tasty and just like my hometown Pizza Hut. That said, cheese is of paramount importance to me, especially on a pizza, so only batting .333 in “cheesy goodness” is just downright unacceptable.
“New Orleans” chicken proved to be pretty tasty, with a slight spice to it, but the veggies – tomato and mushroom – were flavorless and little more than filler, which, to be fair, is on par with American Pizza Hut veggies. Finally, the crust portion of the pizza was just sort of there. Back home, it’s normally a bit salty or flavored in some manner, but it really just tasted like normal, kinda soft bread. Bummer.
Finally, it turned out to be one hell of an ordeal to pay for the damn pizza. Honest to God, the only people in the restaurant were my pizza-sharing friend, three servers, and myself. After ten minutes of flailing like a moron to get their attention, we had to walk to the corner of the restaurant, where they were just having a server-pow-pow or whatever, to pay. That also sort of reminds me of my hometown Pizza Hut, actually.
The Good: The chicken, bacon, and mozzarella cheese
The Bad: Pizza cheese, cheddar cheese sauce, veggies, slow service, small ass pizza, slow service
The Verdict: Oddly enough, this is the biggest runaway of the entire contest; hometown Pizza Hut crushes Shanghai Pizza Hut because it’s, ya know, way better.
Sorry if you thought this was going to be a surprise stunner for you, Shanghai. I tell it how it is. Your Pizza Huts kind of suck, as does the rest of your American fast food. I’d apologize, you know, because Midwestern nice, but secretly, you know I’m right. The USA!