Editor's note: Please welcome longtime Serious Eats reader and occasional fast food fan John M. Edwards—no known relation to the recent Enquirer star.
"You went to McDonald's for lunch?" my coworker asked incredulously—in that tone of voice people normally reserve for smokers. ("But you're an athlete!" "I never figured you would smoke!") In my defense, it's not as if I have a daily Big Mac habit. But I have a soft spot in my heart for those golden arches. So when A Hamburger Today asked me to review the Mac Snack Wrap, I jumped at the chance.
Why I'm the right man to do it? I love fast food, and thus can evaluate its merits. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's: I'm there. That's not to say I can't be a discerning eater; years living in France and Italy left me with an appreciation for the finer things in life. I can taste the difference between American prosciutto and its Italian counterpart; I'm more than comfortable with a menu of escargot and terrine de campagne—when it suits me. All that aside, other sorts of delicacies—like, say, the McRib—are a different sort of pleasure. That's right, folks: I went to McDonald's, and I loved it.
I looked forward to it all week, as I planned my lunch hour around a trip to the franchise near my office, in Wakefield, Massachusetts. I fully anticipated the stares that might come from the denizens of Senator Scott Brown's hometown, as I ate a Big Mac with a camera in my hand. Hell, he might even drive by in his truck and get an apple pie. (Half-naked.)
My first problem? Terminology. Lest you get confused by the Mcs and the Macs and the Snacks: the new Mac Snack Wrap is essentially a Big Mac in a tortilla. The Snack Wrap, on the other hand, is a choice of grilled chicken or crispy chicken, lettuce, cheese and sauce on—wait for it—a tortilla.
I ordered a #1, a Big Mac with fries and a drink—to quell my hunger and get my palate in fast-food mode. Consider it the control of this Mc-speriment. That would warm me up for the Mac Snack Wrap. (Initially, I ordered a McSnackWrap. The young woman behind the counter instructed me to revisit my terminology. The McMenu is tricky.)
I also tried a Grilled Chicken Snack Wrap with Honey Mustard, and one Crispy Chicken Snack Wrap with Chipotle Barbecue Sauce.
The Mac Snack Wrap
Being a Big Mac sympathizer, I tried hard not to get my hopes up high—I wanted a fair and balanced review. But when I tried the Snack Wrap after half my #1, I wasn't that impressed. The Mac Snack Wrap was by far my least favorite of the wraps. The meat is just a burger patty awkwardly cut in two; the lettuce is the same, as are the square of cheese and special sauce. But without the bun, the Big Mac loses its character. Wrapped in a bland tortilla, it just doesn't have the same consistency, heft, or taste. Nor do you have the sesame seeds hitting your tongue (if you eat yours upside down, like I do).
The Other Snack Wraps
What about the other snack wraps, which have been on most McD's menus for awhile now? The Grilled Chicken was by far my favorite meat. I expected the interior of a McNugget pressed into chicken breast shape (would that be a McBreast?). But the meat here looked far more like, well, chicken—it reminded me of the meat you get in the Subway Roasted Chicken Sub. We're not talking organic fall-off-the-bone spit-roasted chicken here, but for $1.49, it ain't bad. The honey mustard, though, was way too sweet—what was probably high fructose corn syrup overpowering an otherwise good mustardy taste.
Finally, the Crispy Chicken with Chipotle. Again, I expected just a long McNugget doused in the old BBQ sauce—but, much to my surprise, it's actually a breaded and crispy strip of all-white-meat chicken. It felt like a Popeye's chicken strip, or a TGI Friday's tender. On top of that, the chipotle sauce had a little bit of kick to it, not just the smoke flavor and sugar of the regular sauce.
Overall, I was more impressed by the original Snack Wraps than the new Mac—and this, from a Big Mac fan. There were some negatives: the shredded cheese was cold, unmelted, and looked like it had a bit of fuzz; the tortilla is really tasteless, more of a delivery vehicle than anything else. But for $1.49, the chicken ones, at least, are small and reasonably tasty items at a great price. It's also a lighter choice—Crispy Chicken and Mac Snack Wraps are 330 calories per serving, with the Grilled Chicken at 260. That's significantly better than the 540 calories of the Big Mac (210 of which come from the bun), at less than half the price.
At the end of the day, it's still fast food. But as Food Inc. showed in the case of Wal-Mart, which has started carrying Stonyfield organic yogurt, retailers and restaurants give people what they want. It's not perfect, but I think the chicken Snack Wrap is a step in the right direction. I could see them grilled on a panini press, for example, to make them warmer and crisper, and to melt the cheese.
For many of us, the appeal of McDonald's is nostalgia. (Like that time when I was seven years old and a friend of mine dropped his pants and peed in a McD's ball pit.) A few years later, I remember ordering the twenty-piece McNugget with 4 BBQ sauces, and thinking that meal was heaven. Granted, I was eleven at the time, and my knees were wider than my thighs. Twenty chicken nuggets is no longer my lunch of choice. But from that perspective, it's nice to see McDonald's toning things down. 260 calories for a grilled chicken wrap? That's not much more than the Kashi Granola bar I just inhaled writing this article. Fast food fans could do a lot worse.