The Fast-Food Bacon Wars: McDonald's Goes High, Burger King Goes Low

Over the past decade, the American burgersphere has been shaped by three major forces: The first and most odious is the grind-your-own contingent's constant harping about how to flip a fucking hamburger. Having declared victory in their charcoal-fueled war against convenience (gas grills are still more popular among the masses, but wood is de rigueur for serious meat-heaters), their new inviolable edict is that no civilized person may flip a burger more than once. Now that we're limited to but a single turn, it is of utmost importance that we flip at the exact optimal moment.

Flip too soon, before the bottom is sufficiently crusted, and you risk sloshing a hot snot of beef fat onto your best grillin' jorts, which will enrage you into punching your nose and spiking your spatula, only you can't even do that right, so the spatula will bounce off your poor dog, who will then knock the grill over as she bolts back to the pound whence she came. All of which you richly deserve, but now your whole family's left lunchless, and oh shit, your lawn-fire spread and burned the neighbors' house down.

If you flip too late, you may trade up from arson to biological terrorism, as the overly charred undersides risk spreading pancreatic cancer to everyone over whom you wield your deadly beef power.

This is all very stressful. Let's go out for burgers instead. But what style of burger? Oh yes, there are styles of burger now. Many, many styles of burger. The most prominent pair account for the second and third burger trends dominating our national sandwich conversation: The proliferation of both high- and low-priced versions of this quintessentially middle-class food.

From delicious and fairly priced luxury editions like Minetta Tavern's $28 Black Label Burger to a slaughterhouse's worth of Trumpian gimmicks topped with foie gras and Cadillacs, it is now quite common for a restaurant to charge at least as much for a hamburger as for pasta and chicken entrees. I have no problem with this, because I respect the hamburger's unlimited potential; Burger King and McDonald's don't mind, either, because what's any of that got to do with them?

But they ought to care about the most exciting recent burger trend: The rise of the upscale downscale burger… or the downscale upscale burger? The scalescale upburgerdown? Save me from this Burneko-like descent into linguo-culinary madness! You know what I mean. I'm talking about Shake Shack and Five Guys and BurgerFi and similar mini-chains that offer what amounts to improved versions of regular backyard burgers at fast-food prices.

New offerings from Burger King and McDonald's respond to this challenge on different fronts. BK's Bacon Cheeseburger Deluxe is a rear-guard reminder that the big boys' supply-chain efficiencies (and variable concern for quality) allow them to provide a reasonable approximation of a light lunch for $1.49. McDonald's takes the high road with the Bacon Clubhouse Burger, a $4.79 journey to the outer limits of fast-food adjective inflation that promises all manner of "thick-cut," "artisan," "caramelized," and "flavorful" splendor. And if that's not enough, they broke the Big Mac's longstanding noncompete contract with the legendary Special Sauce!

It would be unjust to compare these two without accounting for the price gap, so I ate and evaluated both to determine whether the Clubhouse Burger is 3.2 times better than the Bacon Cheeseburger Deluxe.

Burger King Bacon Cheeseburger Deluxe

This modest little number's success hinges entirely on the bacon; porkless, the BCD would just be a 2.5-ounce cheeseburger hidden beneath the standard smattering of no-extra-charge accoutrements. You've got a sesame-seed bun topped with a couple of sloppy, seedy pickle chips; a bit too much ketchup and mustard; a few shards of bright-white iceberg lettuce with rusty highlights and no reason to exist; a handsome but ultimately worthless wafer of mealy plum tomato; and a thin slice of yellow American cheese.

The bacon is a middle-finger-sized strip chopped into thirds, which is a fair amount to cover the base of this tiny (but remember, cheap as hell) burger. As for the quality, that depends on whether you're in the overflowing camp of bacon apologists who regard the presence of any iteration of smoked pig stomach as an unquestioned glory. As a body who's somewhat more ambivalent about bacon, I wasn't repulsed by any means, but neither was I impressed. One edge was burnt, and the other was a ribbon of hard fat that simply refused to bow down to the flame-griller. It lacked flavor other than salt and a certain smoky greasiness that clearly marked it as the bacon from a $1.49 fast-food burger.

Aside from the mediocre bacon, the burger's other main feature was the curiously limp beef, which succeeded in tasting a little bit like Burger King smells but otherwise seemed exhausted by the pressure of the "Deluxe" charade. But still, it was an edible thing—with bacon!—that cost $1.49.

McDonald's Bacon Clubhouse Burger

The first thing you notice when you unswaddle a Bacon Clubhouse Burger is the dramatically glossy bun. As I stared down at it, I was reminded of grocery-store brioche, and also that I forgot to comb my hair. It tasted pretty good, too—artisanal, even, if you will (the McMarketing department does). It was sweet and buttery, and to be honest probably too much of both, but it's still refreshing to get a fast-food bun that tastes like something other than an enormous fluffy oyster cracker.

The rest of the burger is built on the classic Quarter Pounder chassis, which strikes me as somewhat scant for such an ambitious undertaking. Sure, there's a lot of other stuff happening here—white cheddar, caramelized onions, bacon, Special Sauce, lettuce, tomato—but it's pretty bold to charge just south of a Lincoln for four ounces of beef. Said beef was fairly flavorful, though, with plenty of salt and maybe even a little pepper making up for the slim portion and flabby texture.

The cheese was a pleasant surprise in that it actually tasted like real (if low-born) retail cheddar. If you'd blindfolded me and said, "Here's a sliver of Cracker Barrel. Guess whether it's the cheddar or the Swiss," I'd have known it was cheddar. That's revolutionary in the fast-food dairy game.

The caramelized onions were good, too; sweeter than they needed to be, especially on such a sugary bun, but still an upgrade over the usual desiccated raw stuff. The tomato slice was just as lame as the Burger King one, of course, so let's forget it and pause briefly to praise the lettuce for being green before moving on to rave about the bacon.

As established above, I like bacon plenty, but I'm not an unwavering advocate, and I'm also not easily swayed by the phrases "applewood-smoked" and "thick-cut." But that said, this was some of the finest fast-food bacon I've encountered. It might have been griddled (or hot-boxed or however the hell they cook it) a few seconds longer than ideal, but the extra-crispy edges were a perfect counter for the pockets of fat strewn about the interior. Plus, it tasted like bacon.

And there was Special Sauce, which is an awfully nice thing to call thousand-island dressing studded with sweet pickle relish. As for its impact on the sandwich—hey man, that's up to you.

Verdict

This is a close call, because there's nothing much wrong with the Burger King Bacon Cheeseburger Deluxe: It delivers all you can reasonably ask from a $1.49 sandwich. But the McDonald's Bacon Clubhouse ekes out the victory despite the 3.2x point spread by virtue of being a borderline innovative and legitimately pleasant burger experience.

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.

Image by Sam Woolley.

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