Fast-food outlets are often criticized by the discount burgeratti for overstating the innovation of their "new" offerings, and for good reason. Every chain has been guilty of twisting an existing menu item two degrees toward novelty by using the same few tired tricks. Maybe they flop another protein patty onto a thing and call it the Double Thing; perhaps they paint the bun a nutritious new color, or even glue on some seeds; sometimes they whisper a different secret to the sauce, shifting it ever so slightly along the industry-standard chipotle-to-ranch spectrum; and, of course, for an extra 39 cents, they'll shove bacon any damn place you please.
There are a handful of telltale signs a fast foodery is playing name games with the same old food. One is the sudden appearance of the empty word "zesty" attached to an otherwise familiar item. You also want to be on the lookout for "garden" (iceberg lettuce and/or seedy cucumber wafers), "Asian" (weird orange glaze and/or shredded purple cabbage), and "kickin" (peppery ketchup and/or Mountain Dew marinade). Another indication your nominally new meal may be stale food with a fresh handle is that you are at Subway or Taco Bell.
The former can fairly claim that their very existence is an innovation, for no other chain delivers so many combinations of cheap meat and pickled peppers in so small a space without benefit of a grill or deep-fryer. But Subway still pushes their thin envelop to the fullest extent possible: They've been known to Philadelphiate a sandwich with the addition of more cheese and onions, and they're also not afraid to stretch the definition of "teriyaki." But now comes their heavily marketed new Flatizza, which is... a flat... pizza.
The groundbreaking use of Dorito-dusted shells notwithstanding, Taco Bell's tinkerings tend to rely on adjusting the force and sequence with which the various goo guns are deployed upon the all-too-suspecting tortilla. This is one of the reasons the fast-food underworld got so excited by the introduction of their new breakfast menu, and specifically its crown jewel, the Waffle Taco.
Let us now pit these two exciting new fast-food products against each other.
Perhaps you own a television, in which case you are well aware of this newly minted and horribly named just-a-friggin'-pizza-which-is-a-fine-thing-to-be. It's built on their flatbread wrap, I get it, but all pizzas are flat; even Chicago's crusted lasagnas are far wider than they are tall. You know how the only thing lamer than using Starbucks' official terminology is refusing to use it? You're damned if you do and even damneder if you don't, because only a fool wastes precious defiance on calling a grande a "medium," which is why I had to say "Flatizza" out loud in public to another human being; it went OK.
I had modest expectations, as I've long been of the belief that the only thing Subway's really good at is smelling like itself. That's not to say all the food sucks: The cold cuts aren't slimy and the bread … holds the cold cuts, which, remember, aren't slimy. They have a couple different kinds of mustard. Subway'll do if you keep it simple and avoid the more ambitious offerings, with ambition defined here as "requiring heat" or "costing more than four dollars." The Flatizza is ominously dependent on Subway's food-heating box, but during my recent investigation I was able to score both the pepperoni- and spicy Italian-flavored versions for $5 and some change, so it's in the financial safety zone.
The gentle pricing was a relief, because the trip had gotten off to a disorienting start when I realized the Subway in question didn't smell like itself. I'm not sure why. Did the introduction of the Flatizza alter the Subway ecosystem so profoundly as to change the chain's signature scent? Or was it a localized incident? I went to one across from a giant hospital complex, and I'm not sure what if any impact this had on the smell. Doctors are among the best-smelling people in the world, because they are healthy and wealthy and don't wear perfume or restrictive clothing. However, for every doctor in a hospital environment, there are 50 people who are emphatically not doctors, and those fine folk, whose lives and odors run the standard range of regular to comprehensively fucked, are far more likely than doctors to eat at Subway. Anyhow, for whatever reason, this one didn't smell like Subway. It smelled a bit on the bad side, to be frank, with a sweaty, vinegary air reminiscent of a Greyhound bus or the foot-wash station at a city beach, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that it didn't smell like Subway, but rather like the real world, which, sure, is gross. I took it as a positive sign.
As for the eating: In both instances, my Flatizza crust was thin and well-charred, yet curiously gummy in a manner that more forgiving reviewers might call "chewy." The undercarriage was nearly flavorless, which isn't the worst fate that can befall a cheap pizza. The crust could have used some salt, but at least it wasn't greasy or marred by fake butter or spray-on garlic juice or anything. It upheld the Subway bread tradition by benignly supporting the toppings.
The too-sweet sauce tasted like it came from a school cafeteria ketchup pump into which someone had poured simple syrup and maybe a bit of oregano dust. It was also suspiciously thick, but otherwise inoffensive. The cheese was bright-white, industrial-grade shredded mozzarella turned intermittently golden brown by the oven; it looked nice and tasted like salt.
The pepperoni was pretty nasty—it reminded me of a Slim Jim, which sounds awesome, but you know how sometimes wine is praised for having barnyard notes? This situation was the opposite, where a foodstuff tastes like something great, but in a bad way. The pepperoni seemed old and gamy. You shouldn't order the pepperoni Flatizza.
Should you order the spicy-Italian Flatizza instead? Hey, I'm not in charge of you, man. But sure, go ahead. The salami's actually pretty good. It shares its six-inch square with that rank pepperoni, which is a problem, but it's duly spicy and flavorful and easily identifiable as real salami rather than just the generic "Italian lunchmeat" I feared. It was a little flabby and would have benefitted from some direct exposure to the heating element rather than hiding beneath the cheese, but it was still very respectable.
The verdict: I'm OK with living in a Flatizza'd world—they don't make me angry in the way some stupid foods do—but I'll certainly never eat another one.
THE WAFFLE TACO
This is an extraordinarily stupid food, even by Taco Bell's standards. Why on earth would you ever eat breakfast at Taco Bell? Oh wait, I'm not here to judge you. So all right, Taco Bell sells breakfast now, and that's perfectly reasonable. They are aggressively promoting the Waffle Taco as the star of this new morning menu, so I tried both the sausage and bacon versions, even though I wasn't feeling very hungry or repulsive, because Carla Gordon's final requests were the same as any other mother's: Look after your sister, reconsider law school, and be the most comprehensive Waffle Taco journalist you can be.
A Waffle Taco costs $2.59 plus tax. At that price, it's really only fair to ask a food to have one or two redeeming qualities, and the Waffle Taco almost squeaked by on the virtue of the shockingly competent eggs. I'm used to my fast-food eggs arriving in disk form, but the stuff in the Waffle Taco seemed like real scrambled eggs.
The waffle shell was, of course, an abomination: spongy and too sweet by half, it resembled cotton candy that had been pressed into some kind of WaffleBoard available in the Home Depot edible-wall section. The meats were better than the waffles, but everything's better than those waffles, and as it happens, the meats were shitty. The bent-sausage patty was big and adequately spiced, but it was rubbery and ruined by several little pockets of cartilaginous gristle.
The Bacon WT was even more F'd. No bacon strips, just scattered flecks of the sort of meat sprinkles that belong on a 99-cent frozen pizza and nowhere near the breakfast of a man with $2.59 at his disposal. There was salty yellow liquefied cheese all over the damn thing, too. Waffle Tacos also come with little tubs of Taco Bell's sad stab at maple syrup, and isn't that a perfectly depressing reminder of where this whole handbag is headed?
You know that old saying, "Look, pal, if you're having breakfast at Taco Bell, I… I just don't know what to tell you"? Let's update that to, "If you're having breakfast at Taco Bell, stick to the eggs and never speak to me again."
NOMINAL WINNER: FLATIZZA
DEFINITE LOSER: SOCIETY
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter@WillGordonAgain.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
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