Qué tal Las Hamburguesas? Fast Food Burger Match, Colombia vs. USA

Editor's note: J. Kenji Alt is a serious, possibly crazy (in a good way) burger fiend, having attempted to make a Blumenburger and successfully eaten 12 burgers in eight hours. Now you can read his report about two of the most popular fast food burgers in Colombia and how they compare to their American counterparts. Learn more about Kenji in his Grilled interview or check out his blog, Goodeater.org.

20081023-colombiavsus-collage.jpg

I was recently down in Colombia killing ducks and going to my fiancée’s sister’s wedding and took the opportunity to research a story for the Boston Globe on Colombian street food. Being the hardcore burgervore that I am, I also wanted to use the opportunity to do a comparison of Colombian burgers vs. American burgers. But knowing all too well that there’s such a wide variance in opinion on what makes a great burger (and already holding a bias against your average Colombian restaurant burger because they almost always mix onions and spices into the meat—a big no-no for me), I was at a dilemma.

Colombia doesn’t have the types of restaurants or burger styles we consider normal in America. There’s no pubs serving 9-ounce flame-grilled patties, no ice-cream stands griddling up 4-ounce beach burgers, no diners steaming sliders. Instead, you’ve got big hacienda-esque restaurants with Italian-themed burgers with mozzarella and marinara, or small family-owned restaurants with menus consisting of arepas, mojarra, rice fried with soy sauce (arroz tai), alongside handmade meatloaf burgers.

I’m not saying I couldn’t find good burgers amongst all the other incredible food Colombia has to offer; all I’m saying is that I couldn’t think of a good benchmark to compare them to the American burger experience.

20081023-colombiavsus-airport.jpg

Until the last day, that is. I was at the airport heading home when I spotted the great burger equalizer: the fast-food court.

So here now, a two-round match-up pitting two Colombian fast food chains (both found at the Bogotá airport), and two American fast food chains (one in Miami, and one in Boston).

Round 1: El Corral vs. McDonald’s

20081023-colombiavsus-elcorral.jpg

El Corral burger.

El Corral is Colombia’s biggest burger chain. The concept of fast food, for better or for worse (I’d say for better), has not exactly caught on in Colombia yet (our El Corral order took nearly 20 minutes to fulfill, compared to the 47 seconds at McDonald’s). But while it’s not uncommon to see someone walking down the street eating a cheese-filled arepa or corn-on-a-stick, the norm is for people to sit down or lean at an outdoor stand as they consume their meal. Even though El Corral serves what many Americans would consider to be a “fast food” style hamburger (i.e., thin, ordered at a counter, and served in a disposable wrapper), especially in locations outside the airport, you’d be most likely to sit down and treat the thing like it was a real restaurant meal (albeit a low-end restaurant meal). This is the one with the faux-hacienda locations.

El Corral’s schtick is their toppings—they boast over 16,000 combinations! Sure, you can get the plain old cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion, but you can also get the Italian with mozzarella and marinara. Or you can get Criolla with mozzarella, fried egg, and “exquisite” grilled onions. Feel like having something from up north? The Mexicana’s got American cheese, guacamole, and spicy refried beans. You get the picture.

The burgers themselves come either the classic griddled, or for a few hundred pesos more, grilled. I obviously opted for griddled and made sure to get the same toppings that I’d be able to get anywhere: cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and their default sauce.

20081023-colombiavsus-mcd.jpg

McDonald's burger.

McDonald’s, you all know. I go for the Big N' Tasty, because it sports the same lettuce, tomato, and onion topping combo (forgot the cheese—whoops!)

On to the contest.

Size: El Corral’s monster patty has the Big N' Tasty feeling Small N' Wasty. This burger’s a meal before you even get to the toppings or fries.

Toppings: El Corral’s got a slice of cold cheese (to be fair, I could have opted for the “Queso Fundido,” aka Cheez-Wiz), a pretty underripe tomato, decent onions, and watery iceberg. McDonald’s has no cheese (whoops again!), a pretty underripe tomato, decent onions, surprisingly fresh and flavorful green leaf—and here’s the kicker—pickle. Pickles were woefully lacking from every burger I had in Colombia. I’ll have to remember to carry around a jar with me next time. This may be the first time that a McDonald’s burger looked nearly as good as the menu photo! Good work, McDonald’s workers of Miami.

Bun: El Corral’s first major loss: artificial butter flavor. It reminded me of the Country Crock I used to put on my toast back in the days when I was still in my Winnie-the-Pooh pajamas, I still got up an hour early to watch Mr. Wizard, and margarine was better for you than butter. McDonald’s has got no butter, but in my book, no butter is better than fake butter.

20081023-colombiavsus-round1-patty.jpg

El Corral and McDonald's.

Patty: This is the one that seals El Corral’s fate: an almost total lack of sear—the hallmark of a great griddled burger. My fiancée guaranteed me that this was a fluke due to the airport location—and I take her word for it. It’s gotta be the most popular burger in Colombia for a reason, right? But at least in this sampling, Mickey D’s beats it hands-down with their deep-brown (albeit softened from sitting in a warming drawer) patty. By the way, both patties equally lacked 100% beef flavor.

20081023-colombiavsus-elcorralfries.jpg

Fries from El Corral.

Fries: El Corral has two varieties: plain curly ones or seasoned matchsticks. The curlies end up a little greasy and mushy (as almost all curlies I’ve ever encountered have—something to do with the way the potatoes steam in that shape, I’d imagine). The matchsticks are a solid Wendy’s-level entry: slightly under-crisped, but potatoey and tasty nonetheless. I could do without the seasoning, but I guess it takes more than one kind of fry to fast-feed the world. The McDonald’s fries are, as usual, peerlessly hot, crisp, golden showers of delight.

Now all this may seem like it’s leading to a McDonald’s shoe-in, right? Not so fast. My fiancée offers me a bite of her Italian, and I think to myself, “That’s actually a pretty good meatloaf sandwich.” Now I understand why this place is so popular. The trick is not to think of it as a burger joint, but to think of it as a sandwich shop. My advice to those who make it to El Corral? Let them do what they’re good at: Go for the toppings.

So even though toppings and non-burger sandwiches ain’t really my thing, if you’re at this restaurant, presumably they’re yours.

Winner: McDonald’s (Burger + Fries category), El Corral (everything else category)

Round 2: Presto vs. Burger King

20081023-colombiavsus-presto.jpg

Presto burger.

If El Corral is the McDonald’s of Colombia, then Presto is certainly it’s Burger King—the slightly-less-crowded competition you go to when the lines are a little too big. I’m also told by my fiancée’s mother that Presto is for kids and El Corral is for adults. Apparently there’s some kind of ceremony involving gift giving, flowers, and milkshakes when you bring your daughter to a Corral for the first time.

20081023-colombiavsus-bk.jpg

Burger King burger.

Burger King, I also presume you all know.

Size: We got the opposite winner here: The Whopper trounces Presto’s modestly (I say appropriately) sized offering.

Toppings: Presto’s got the usual watery iceberg, sort-of-melted cheese (I wish American were more widely available down there), some damn tasty Presto Secial Sauce that calls to mind Michael Schlow’s famous horseradish-spiked mayo, and (gasp!) ripe tomato! This may be a first in the history of fast food. Burger King is downright sorry compared to this. We got the typical non-lettuce lettuce, a tomato slice that may well have been dyed and molded out of the same lettuce, stinky onions, and way-too-much mayo and ketchup. The only redemption it gets is the melty American cheese and pickles.

Bun: Let the pictures do the talking. Burger King was memorable for being unmemorable. Presto’s, on the other hand, stood tall but squished small, and featured a perfect golden-brown toast job. The combination of squishy bun, mayo and ketchup gave this burger a distinctly Wendy’s-esque flavor. Another one up for Presto.

20081023-colombiavsus-bk-patty.jpgMeat: Starting with Burger King: They supposedly flame-grill their patties, but the flavor of the grill is completely lost on me. As you can see in the photo on the right, it’s got a bit of charring around the edges, but not much color to speak of in the center. Burger King’s meat has always been bland and dry to me. Of the four burgers I had between airports, Presto’s easily had the hardest sear and the meatiest meat—the two most important things in a griddled burger—which you can tell from the crispy, brown, almost Shake-Shack-quality crust on the patty pictured above. (Disclaimer: This burger—and none of the others, for that matter—came close to touching the Shack burger in terms of overall flavor. Or in nerd speak, a hard sear and meaty meat are necessary conditions for a perfect burger, but not sufficient conditions.)

Fries: Presto’s weak spot. The fries were the totally forgettable Roy-Roger’s type: floury, soft, under-seasoned, and under-fried. On the other hand, here’s a message to Burger King: A batter-like coating on french fries is good for two things:

1. Keeping fries extra crispy and keeping them that way.

2. Making fries not taste like fries.

So two big fails in this category, but Burger King committed the bigger sin by trying to hide their lack of frying skill under a starchy sheath.

Winner: Presto (by a landslide).

So who would win in a McDonald’s vs. Presto matchup? I’d have to try them both again in quick succession. Unfortunately, someone else is going to have to eventually resolve that issue, because if there’s one thing that eating burgers in Colombia made me realize, it’s that I don’t want to eat more burgers in Colombia. Not because they’re bad, but because why would I want to eat this:

20081023-colombiavsus-bitten.jpg

When I could be out eating this:

20081023-colombiavsus-food1.jpg

This:

20081023-colombiavsus-food2.jpg

Or these instead?:

20081023-colombiavsus-food3.jpg

¡Yo soy muy stupido! Bring on the arepas!