I Ate a Hamburger at Iraq's First Hardee's

It was surprisingly good.

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Nov 17 2014, 5:00am

Photos by the author

Hardee's is an anomaly of a fast food chain. First off, some restaurants in the chain are called Hardee's and others are the oddly apostrophed Carl's Jr., despite having the same branding and the same basic food. I attempted to figure out the reason for this, but it turns out the menus have only slight differences. More confusingly, some Hardee's have Carl's Jr. menus, so I have no idea. The most stark difference seems to be that Carl's Jr. exists primarily in the western half of the United States, while Hardee's has laid claim to the southern/midwestern parts. We Northeasterners have seen Hardee's clichéd misogynistic ads on TV, but have been largely left in the dark as to whether or not the food is any good, as their aren't many locations north of the Mason-Dixon line. 

Residents of Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, probably used to wonder whether or not Thickburgers ® were as delicious as they look in the ads too, but not anymore.

Erbil, of course, is the city that caused the latest US war—ahem, sustained military campaign—in the Middle East. Back in August, Islamic State militants were 30 miles away from the city and approaching fast. Seeing that Erbil was filled with people who enjoy such things as female employment and voting (OK, and a US consulate), President Obama got on TV, super-duper promised to do only a little bombing and totally not get carried away or dragged into an endless quagmire. After the speech, he bombed the militants approaching the city, stopped their advance, and then got carried away and dragged into an endless quagmire.

You might suspect after the whole ISIS-almost-took-over-the-city thing might deter new American chains from opening. Nope. In February, Carvel and Cinnabon opened up in Erbil; Pizza Hut came a few months later. ​And now there's a Hardee's.

One has to question why private companies in the United States seem keen on opening burger joints in such a volatile environment. Is this just a fairly innocent expansion venture from a Midwestern burger joint, or a desperate ploy for more cash from a largely forgotten about burger chain? I went down to the new Hardee's in Erbil to find out—and to see how the locals feel about it.

Hardee's made no effort to blend into the surroundings. The building exterior had the American modular home architecture that could be found in a highway rest area. The building was topped with the Hardee's mascot, an anthropomorphic star that looks like the baby-in-the-sun from Teletubbies, smiling down at customers. This Hardee's even had a drive-through, which, to my knowledge, is the first in-your-car feeding option to come to Iraq (open to a reader proving me wrong on this one).

The interior didn't do much to deter the thought of Midwestern ingurgitation, either. Sans the TV blaring a talk show featuring two dudes in thobes, everything else was right out of the American fast food chain experience. Sign boards were in English, there were faux metal tables and chairs, booths had enough space to accommodate the obese, and there was a typical walk-up ordering counter. Even that ubiquitous burger joint fast-foody smell of sodium and MSG was in the air.

The customers seemed to be entirely from the cosmopolitan upper class. Typical Kurdish clothes were replaced with tattered jeans, T-shirts with ironic statements, and faux-Gucci sneakers. 

Some of the options on the menu were: the 100 Percent Charbroiled® Big Deluxe Burger, something called the Super Star Burger, the Big Burger (distinct from the Big Deluxe Burger), and the Classic.

After much deliberation, and what I thought was an overly-snide comment by the cashier about there being people behind me, I ordered the Classic, figuring the name implied it to be the signature menu item of Hardee's.

I came into this with pretty low expectations, and thought I would write some ironic antagonistic review like, "Fast food is terrible, who eats this stuff? lol." But I would be remiss to not admit that the burger was actually pretty good. The patty was thicker than McDonald's, the bun had a buttery taste, and the vegetables were fresher than the typical wilted shredded lettuce staple of most fast food joints. To top it off the curly fries were crunchy and didn't have that limp-chewiness of the typical American fry.

So, OK—I was satisfied with my meal. But I still hadn't answered my original question: What the hell is Hardee's doing in Iraq?

Firstly, Hardee's has a financial incentive despite the political risk; places that have been without US-imported trans fats tend to go crazy when it arrives. The 30,000 person line at the first Soviet Union McDonald's and the 90-minute line for KFC in Kenya illustrate this. Judging from the large crowd here on a Tuesday to spend $9 on a burger when a falafel from a street vendor costs less than 50 cents, this is no exception to the rule.

However, the US has worked hard to get American chains into Iraq. While you might think there are more pressing issues, the US Embassy entertained representatives of US chains in both Kurdistan and Iraq proper. One such meeting in Baghdad was in May 2014, mere months before the fall of Mosul in June, when they hosted representatives from, amongst others, Pizza Hut, Quiznos, the smoothie chain Froots, and woman's midlife crisis fitness chain Curves.

And the US has a pretty Mr. Burns-esque record when it comes to exporting fattening crap. Between 1998 and 2007, the US exported turkey asses, which are almost all fat and devoid of nutrients—and only used in pet food in the US—to Somoa, during which Somoa became one of the most obese nations on Earth. Further, the implementation of NAFTA has seen Mexico get fatter and fatter with the importation of cheap soft drinks made with US-grown high fructose corn syrup. Exporting fast food to our new ally Kurdistan seems like a symbolic microcosm of the US's insistence on exporting its culture as a way of winning friends and pigeonholing people's mindsets into a sort of neo-liberal, pro-corporate culture automaton.

I had been finished with my sandwich for 30 minutes at this point, and I was sitting alone scrawling quixotic ideas about the destruction of culture in my notebook. As Hardee's was filling up with customers, there was a dearth of tables, and the staff was giving me increasingly scowling looks in an attempt to convey the message I had to go and leave my burgeoning anti-globalization epiphany for another time.

As I was leaving, a convoy of Peshmurga—the Kurdish fighters battling ISIS—drove by. I wondered:  What did they think of all this Americana in Kurdistan stuff? Weren't they fighting ISIS for a distinct Kurdish identity and eventual independent state?

I went back inside, reassured the staff I wasn't just going to sit back down and start another free-write session, and ordered burgers and fries to go.

Then I caught up with some Peshmurga guys sitting in the back of a Toyota pick-up. The first group of guys were receptive to the free Hardee's I was handing out. When pressed on the opening of the Hardee's, they seemed pretty excited about it. "Very nice!" one said. I asked if they thought it was odd a Hardee's opened despite everything going on around them. My question was dismissed and I was informed Kurdistan was very safe, and that "ISIS rats are nothing."

I was still not out of free food, so I approached a guy standing guard. After some reluctance, he accepted the food, eating some of the curly fries and placing the bag next to him. He told me he had fought ISIS "at some point," but wouldn't tell me where. When asked about Hardee's, he seemed to not even know it was an American chain, but that he had already been to the restaurant and that fast food is "very good," and that it "makes you feel good."

Well, if anyplace needs to "feel good," Kurdistan has to qualify. While local men and even women are battling it out with ISIS, the general narrative in the Western media is that the Kurds are some kind of Terminator meets King Leonidas in the Battle of Thermopylae. The reality, however, is that families have been torn apart and rates of PTSD and depression are inevitably on the rise. Decades of fighting Saddam, various militant groups, and themselves in a civil war have left a multi-generational scarring of war and a flood of easy-to-purchase weapons.

So, why not? If the people who are fighting ISIS want an American Midwest burger, opening a location seems like a reasonable thing to do. Hopefully, they will have the good sense to not go crazy with the whole American fast food thing and eventually convince Curves to open their first location. Qu'ils mangent de la 100 Percent Charbroiled® Big Deluxe Burger.

Hardee's declined to comment for this story.

Follow Ryan McCarthy on Twitter.

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