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? McDonald's
Where is it? Where isn't it?
Ambiance? Friendly and mayo-heavy.
Value for money? You can go in with a tenner and come out with a full stomach, a happy heart and enough change for a Corona and a packet of crisps.
Food is 'honest' right now. Everything's quite literally out on the table: kitchens are bright and open; on the menu, dishes are spelt out as ingredient lists; cooks tease with behind-the-scenes Instagrams and proudly explain their supply chains. McDonalds has been at the forefront of this new, breezily open food culture and I'm keen to see whether the food lives up to its new credentials.
I arrive with my mind open and my jeans pre-emptively unbuttoned: the menu here is extensive and the postulating endless, and I want to eat it all. What strikes me initially is the brightness. There's a cluster of gleaming interactive ordering screens, posters across the walls and a carefully calculated kind of mess – scrubbed wood, white walls and graffiti detail. The crowd is varied, from mums with babies in prams to lone diners along the window-fronting benches and a few suits milling around the fringes. What really commands your attention, though, is the kitchen: here it is, an open book – all visible and buzzing with beeps, hisses, clatters and mumbles, as the menu comes to life.
While I wait in line for my food (there's no table service in this restaurant), I peruse a 'Good To Know' leaflet, printed on thick, recycled card, filled with twee illustrations boasting the provenance and quality of the ingredients on offer here. By the time my food arrives, I've definitely heard enough about the farmers who raised Angus the cow, and the butcher who carved him and the personable kitchen staff who fried him in burgers and the charitable endeavours that he'll fund. I know Angus by heart – now I want to know how he tastes.
Unlike some places where the margarita pizza or cheap house wines skulk apologetically in the small print, the bargain buys here are lauded. So what exactly, I wonder, is the difference between Saver Menu basics and the pricier classics? Is the difference between the £2.79 McChicken Sandwich and the rancid-sounding 99p Mayo Chicken just a bit of savvy marketing or is there more at stake here? Eaten in isolation, the Mayo Chicken is great: less than a quid for breaded chicken fillet meat (and it is really a fillet – not the chicken bums or toe rot of urban legend), fried to a crisp, deep golden colour and cushioned between the halves of a soft, glossy bun. For a quick hunger fix, try buying two, stacking the chicken bits in one bun and squeezing on a little ketchup. A wonder of a meal all for £2. But try it alongside the McChicken Sandwich, and the winner is clear. The McChicken, because it's battered and not breaded, is lighter and crisper than its cheaper cousin, and also saltier, which of course makes it 100 times tastier.
It turns out to be a far closer call between the humble Saver Menu Cheeseburger and the pricier Quarter Pounder with Cheese. So wooed was I by all this open, see-how-we-make-it rhetoric, that I really believed that my quarter pounder, coming in at less than £3, would be as thick, succulent and yieldingly tender as it looked in those glowing menu boards above the counter. What I actually got was more cow pat than beef patty: limp, soggy, greying. The best combo of value and quality comes, I think, in the Double Cheeseburger – far cheaper than the quarter pounder, though frustratingly not a burger that you can get in a meal deal – which delivers two thin patties and, crucially, double helpings of cheese.
I'm determined to go off-piste though while I'm here as a serious food reviewer, and outside of the old-style fast food mould. Even in an all-American powerhouse like this, I can feel the tug of market whimsy guiding me towards these somehow classier, 'European' menu items: stuff like mocha frappes, and iced fruit smoothies and toffee lattes so thickly sweet that the restaurant began to swim before my eyes. Though saccharine, they're cheaper than lots of coffee shop equivalents, and I can personally vouch for the hot chocolate's ability to put a brighter edge on even the most dismal day.
The meal continued. I tried a Vegetable Deluxe which sung with cumin spice and was rich with earthy, chickpea flavour; it's vegan too, if you order it without mayo. And then consider the Big Flavour Wraps: the one I tried was fat with fried chicken (well-seasoned and satisfyingly meaty), bacon (all the saltiness of bacon in the thickness of wafer ham – eurgh) and salad. It was filling, but the over-sweet sauces left it cloying. Next is the Shaker Side Salad, satisfyingly vibrant with mixed leaves, thick rounds of fresh cucumber and cherry tomatoes – honestly a fine choice if you're in the mood for something lighter than the usual fries. (Don't use too much of the balsamic dressing sachet, though: it clung to my salad leaves like an oil slick and burned my gullet out with its acidity.) Best of all though is the Toffee Sundae, which is sweet, vanilla-scented, and rippled with thick caramel – far better than my old favourite the McFlurry.
By the time I'm done, I'm breathless. This was no ordinary meal, but then it's no ordinary restaurant. Where else can I get that much energy – that much nutrition – so plentifully, and cheaply, and quick? I'm not so sure that this brand image of honesty and openness will hold up under scrutiny: there are so many sins hidden behind all the bluster and brag, from animal cruelty to fair wages for farmers and capsizing of smaller commercial competitors. But as far as genuinely affordable, energising, feel-good fast food goes, this is as good as it gets. I sip on this McDonalds strawberry milkshake until my cheeks ache and my head throbs, until my teeth tingle and my belly overflows my waistband, because it makes me feel good. And that's the McMagic of it.
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