Hey, great news: Maybe we're not all going to die young from discount-beef-induced cardiac arrest, after all! Traditional fast-food sales are in decline, and the (admittedly gigantic) remaining customer base is starting to gravitate ever so slightly toward the less-bad-for-you options.
This is fantastic, unless you own a fast-food franchise, or have a stake in a limp-pickle distributorship or a rusty-iceberg-lettuce cartel. Or maybe you just want to take comfort where you can in this cold, hard world without some asshole blogger judging you for spending your lunch half-hour drowning your troubles in whichever iteration of Kickin' Habanero Sranchracha sauce is swamping that day's flabby burger or burger-like thing.
While I'll celebrate any indication that we're collectively looking after our collective physical well-being, I can't say that I've ever been much of an advocate for "healthy" fast food, because I'm a firm believer that a body has a right to pollute itself as it sees fit, and also because the minute I walk into a fast-foodery, I'm admitting nutritional defeat. And most of you agree with me, which is why the gentle tilt toward healthier eating is only one of the factors contributing to the industry's struggles. Another, bigger problem is that the menus have become too damn complicated.
McDonald's blames a good deal of their recent 4.6-percent domestic sales dip on an overly ambitious menu that confused customers, compromised the company's cherished supply-chain efficiency, required increased employee training, and lengthened wait times. To streamline things, they're doing away with some of the nearly redundant variants of the quarter-pounder, and also, one suspects, they may become more judicious about rolling out new products every time someone in R&D thinks of a different powder to mix into the mayonnaise.
Burger King and Wendy's also seem to have ratcheted down their innovation units lately, unveiling fewer splashy new items than in recent years. Both of their major late-fall menu additions are fairly conservative. Burger King's Yumbo is a ham sandwich, and though ham is somewhat novel in the modern fast-food world, this thing isn't actually new; it's being reintroduced after a four-decade layoff. Wendy's Bacon Portabella Melt on Brioche, meanwhile, is quite the handful of words, but when you parse it carefully, you realize it's just a standard bacon cheeseburger with mushrooms and some of the fancy bread Wendy's is favoring these days.
So which of these tame new beasts provides the better "Ah, fuck it, I could never afford to live more than six weeks into retirement anyway" lunch?
Burger King's Yumbo
My Yumbo adventure got off to a heartwarming start when the nice counterwoman asked if I was sure I didn't in fact want TWO of these 490-calorie sandwiches at 3 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon. I did not, but I thought it polite of her to offer, and I also appreciate her concern for my finances: She explained that while my single Yumbo was going to run me $3.99, I could tack on an extra bonus Yumbo for just a buck and a penny more, this new-old ham jam being part of Burger King's "Two for $5" promotion.
The rest of the experience wasn't as pleasant. The crux of the Yumbo is four ultra-thin slices of slightly overripe ham with pointlessly blackened edges that might as well have been Sharpied on. The ham wasn't bad, despite being just a smidge funkier than ideal—it wasn't sweaty or otherwise offensive, and it did have some legitimately porky qualities that elevated it above Lunchables level. But it certainly wasn't special enough to justify such a paltry serving size. The nutrition-fiddling tool on BK's website indicates that the Yumbo contains 100 calories' worth of ham; this other thing suggests that's somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.25 ounces of meat. That's not enough for an otherwise lightly dressed $3.99 sandwich.
The rest of the Yumbo was made up of the same five-inch rectangular sesame-seed bun employed for Burger King's Original and Spicy Chicken Sandwiches, some wack-ass lettuce, mayo, and a couple slices of orange cheese that was allegedly melted on—the Yumbo is billed as Hot Ham and Cheese, though mine was about body temperature—but something about the adhesion made it seem as if the cheese had been screen-printed onto the ham. It seemed more a casing than a condiment. I can't explain it. I didn't like it.
Here is the rare fast-food sandwich that could benefit from a couple slices of cruddy tomato or, ideally, pickles or mustard—anything to provide a bit of vibrancy or at least moisture. It isn't bad, but it isn't worth $3.99—and two aren't worth $5, either, if you've got access to a Subway or a grocery store. If you want a ham sandwich, you're better off making your own quickie replica with more meat for less money, or else getting one custom-built at America's premier lunchmeat restaurant. The Yumbo fills no voids.
Wendy's Bacon Portobello Melt on Brioche
Over at Wendy's these days, $5.49 and a mild sense of adventure will get you a quarter-pound of their best-in-the-game beef with inoffensive yellow cheese on both sides that neither add to nor detract from the experience (it's amazing that cheese is such a potent force in the universe, yet makes such a minor impression on most fast food); a soft, shiny, squishy brown bun; two standard strips' worth of good if flabby bacon; six thin caps of earthy and substantial mushroom; and a small squirt of a nearly irrelevant cheddar sauce that imparted no distinct flavor beyond a light tanginess.
The BPMoB is deceptively subtle for a heavily adjectived fast-food burger, which is part of its strength. This is an excellent sandwich—one of the finest of its class I've had all year—because of the standalone quality of the ingredients, but also because there aren't too many bells, whistles, and spicy-blue-cheese ointments getting in the way of the main attractions.
I was rooting for the Yumbo, because I'm tired of Wendy's always winning these fights, and because I'm partial to both ham and nonsense words like "Yumbo." But in the end, it wasn't even close. Go get yourself a Bacon Portabella Melt on Brioche. Hell, buy two.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Image by Sam Woolley.
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