Eating Dirty With Ruby Tandoh #5: Burger King

The macho Whoppers and Hotties and King manspread all over the menu board, but it's the chips that are the stars of the show.

by Ruby Tandoh
21 April 2016, 10:30am

Illustration by Marta Parszeniew

I'm Ruby Tandoh and I'm a food writer who loves fast food. In this column, I'll review Britain's best-loved junk food chains, revelling in the joys of a 99p Chicken Mayo and giving my professional take on pressing issues like whether McDonald's or Burger King does the best shake and exactly how hot the Nando's spice scale goes.

What is it? Burger King
Any must-haves? It might be the burgers that shout and bluster and puff their chests, but behind every great Whopper there's a side, and it's the fries that really rule the roost here.
How macho does it want to be? Each burger is infused with the flame-grilled essence of primal man himself.
How macho is it really? As macho as a dad in a chef hat at a family BBQ.

Chips are everything. There are the fat, vinegary ones, glistening with salt; or fluffy, ketchup-dunked oven chips. Think of seasoned wedges with crescents of papery skin, and slinky, savoury fries and even American-style potato chips which are, of course, not chips at all. There are chips in a butty and chips with steak, chips in grease-sodden paper bags and chips in tiny pretend buckets in pubs. There's only one kind of chip on the menu today though, and it feels right to talk about it first, because for once these chips are the stars of the show. Burger King fries aren't an afterthought or a filler or a throwaway meal deal extra – they're the jewel in the King crown. They are amazing: earthy, salty, fluffy and crisp. Not the wormy, limp fries of other burger chains, these are deeply potatoey and rich. These are crisper too, and, refreshingly, it's a deliberate crispness: not the shards of coal you sometimes find at the bottom of a pack. For once, I attack my fries with the same enthusiastic ferocity as I do my burger.

Ruby eating Burger King's amazing chips. All photos via the author.

Energised by the fries, I'm ready to dive into the rest of the menu. In the past, I've always gone for the Whoppers and meal deals – their names and photos beam from above the counter in bright lights like an all-star Broadway cast. These are the big names, and it's off the back off this blustering showiness that Burger King has carved its niche in this already saturated market. Today I want to give something else a chance, though: the King Saver menu items that seem to somehow get relegated to the small print on the tiny wall-hung menu at the side. I tuck into the simple Cheeseburger first. It's nothing ground-breaking, but it's perfect - the beef has the smoky, BBQ richness that Burger King is so good at, the mustard is hot and generously spread, a thick, crinkle-cut slice of gherkin hangs out the side of the burger like a lolling tongue. The bun itself is somehow plumper and more self-assured than the apologetically flat ones in McDonald's, if a little dry. I don't know how this meaty, bolshy, deeply savoury burger could be part of the value range – it's a triumph.

The Chicken Burger, also in the King Saver range, is good too. It's no KFC, obviously, and the batter could benefit from some more thoughtful seasoning, but it's hearty and crisp, and I'd certainly order it again. The Chicken Nuggets are even better: for a place that's all about meaty, smoky beef, the chicken here is amazingly good. The nuggets are heavy and salty, crisp on the outside and tender, even succulent, within. These actually feel like they might fill me up – a real, serious part of an actual meal, and not just a snack.

The King Fish.

I move onto the King Fish. I always see this lit up on the menu board, and I always pass it by because there's always something bigger, bolder, brasher to be greedy about. The fish fingers (there are three, bookended by crisp lettuce and a slathering of mayo-esque sauce) are thick and golden, but they're leaking grease into the burger and over my hands. I love grease, but this is too much – it feels oily. It's a shame, because the fish itself is amazing: it's soft and tender and it falls effortlessly into meaty flakes – I can tell this is real finger from real fish. It's as great as any homemade fish finger sandwich I've ever had.

Next up is a burger so big and so brash, so brimming with machismo, so MAN that I don't even know if it's mine to order. Advertised with a backdrop of flames like it's been grilled over the roaring fire of manhood itself, it's not just a big burger or a huge burger but a Whopper, striding into the room all beefy and tough, manspreading across half the menu board. This is the Texas Crunchy King Whopper, and it's a monster – a deliciously greasy, oniony potato rösti stacked with a quarter pounder burger, cheese, bacon and a torrent of BBQ sauce. I can't think of a single meal that couldn't be improved by the addition of a hash brown, and here that heaviness is nicely balanced by the freshness and bite of lettuce, tomato and onion. It's inspired.

'Like something scraped from an infected tonsil': the Chilli Cheese Bites

Next I take a giddy leap into the unknown and order the Chilli Cheese Bites. As soon as I open the paper bag, the smell of fresh bins wafts up to greet me. The inside is greasily separated, the outside is dry; they're so gross for something so small. The thing is, I should love these. I go crazy for mozzarella dippers: salty and bland, rich and substanceless all at once. But these particular cheese bites somehow take that holy trinity of culinary splendour – cheese, chilli and deep-frying – and make it add up to zero. They're like something scraped from an infected tonsil. It's a rare Burger King dud.

Keen to wash away the taste in my mouth, I move on to dessert. First is the Twix King Fusion. It's thickly rippled with sauce and biscuit bits and chewy chunks; it feels like something that should be served in a huge sundae glass in an old-fashioned ice cream parlour, not from a cardboard bucket in an Essex Burger King. It's magical. The Chocolate King Sundae is also great, with dark, sweet chocolate standing out in vivid streaks against the snow-white ice cream.

The Chocolate King Sundae.

What really floors me, though, is the Chocolate Brownie Hottie. If you can bear to say the name out loud, the momentary cringe is well worth it: the hot brownie is bittersweet and heart-stoppingly rich, still molten in its chocolatey centre, and topped with a baroque swirl of the lightest, sweet ice cream. There are some foods that sail through in mediocrity on the strength of their name alone (think those cheese and onion crisps that masquerade as 'Wensleydale and sun-ripened armpit'); there are other dishes, like battered sausages and hamburgers, that serve up bliss with little more than a grunt and a nod. Burger King straddles these camps, somehow managing to rise above it all. For all the aggressive branding – the Whoppers and the Hotties and the Kings that promise so much with all their macho posturing – there are also cheaper, more modest gems to be enjoyed too, like the saver menu classics, the fries, and the nuggets. And best thing? It all tastes great.

More from VICE:

Eating Dirty with Ruby Tandoh #4: KFC

Eating Dirty With Ruby Tandoh #3: Nando's

Eating Dirty with Ruby Tandoh #1: McDonald's

Ruby's new cookbook, Flavour, is out 21st July 2016