Reality Check: Memphis BBQ Thickburger from Hardee's and Carl's Jr.
Oh, those wacky guys at Hardee's and Carl's Jr. are at it again. At least I assume they're all guys; who else decides to promote their new sandwich with a Twitter hashtag of #meatembrace? (And yes, there's a new TV ad to go with that. Keep reading.) Late last month, the closely-aligned chains introduced its new Memphis BBQ Thickburger, the latest in the chain's long-running tradition of multiple-meat burgers.
"Jay Leno first joked that we were using 'meat as a condiment for other meat' in a 2006 monologue on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to describe Carl's Jr. Pastrami Burger," Chief Marketing Officer Brad Haley actually seemed to boast in a press release. "Since then, we've introduced several meat-on-meat burgers, including the Philly Cheesesteak Burger, the Prime Rib Burger, and the French Dip Thickburger at Hardee's and/or Carl's Jr. Following in those delicious footsteps, young, hungry guys and gals will surely love the new Memphis BBQ Burger just as much."
That's what my Memphis BBQ Thickburger (the third-pounder; there are also quarter-pound and Six-Dollar versions available) looked like: a sad, sad imitation badly in need of a food stylist to do some primping and plumping. "Smoked, pulled pork and a charbroiled beef patty [that have] come together in BBQ bliss with crispy onion strings, melting American cheese and Memphis-style BBQ sauce atop a sesame seed bun." That's how Hardee's/Carl's Jr. describes this new item. But that sub-Black Angus layer of pork, so lustily prominent in the PR pic, was all but absent from the burger I was given. It's only when I pried up the patty that I finally got a glimpse—and I immediately wished I hadn't.
I'll accept the inevitable compression that's bound to take place during the burger's assembly and wrapping; that pulled pork is sure to get smashed down considerably. But my right-out-of-the-box, free-association, Rorschach-test, knee-jerk impression was, "That looks like cat food." Shredded into superfine strands and tiny bits, it bore no resemblance to the big, meaty, just-pulled-from-the-pig hunks I had been led to believe I might see. And forget about any pieces of "bark," the crisp edges of blackened skin that barbecue fanatics treasure; this was commercially uniform in color and texture.
And while it doesn't appear at first glance that the pork is swimming in obscene amounts of sauce, that's precisely how the Memphis BBQ Thickburger tastes. As much as I love good 'cue, I find barbecue sauce on a burger to be way too overpowering. There's never any balance. From the first bite, the heavy vinegar content causes that familiar mouth pucker, an oh-crap-I-should-have-upsized-my-soda sensation, but it totally negates all of those other flavors that a cheeseburger is supposed to bring to the party. The burger's overall sensation: generic meat that tastes like barbecue sauce, with nondescript shredded meat that tastes like barbecue sauce, with some melted cheese that tastes like barbecue sauce, and some vaguely crunchy things that taste like barbecue sauce...and bread.
The sauce is Sweet Baby's Ray's, which is apparently the barbecue sauce of choice for the major suppliers of the fast food industry; it's what Burger King used on their BK Toppers and Chef's Choice LTOs. And while a Serious Eats taste test determined that Sweet Baby Ray's features that "ubiquitous BBQ flavor," it does make me chuckle a little bit that they're using a sauce born in Chicago to sell the quintessential Memphis experience.
As for the other components, there's not much going on. The "crispy onion strings" did provide a slight crunch, but not much in the way of onion flavor—maybe because they were doused in more sauce. Besides, why go overboard with toppings when you're using meat as a condiment?
And we're back to the #meatembrace thing. Hardee's/Carl's Jr. is as much about their racy ads—called everything from "sophomoric" to "softcore porn" by haters—as the sandwiches they promote. So yes, there's another babes-and-burgers TV spot out there. Titled BBQ's Best Pair (real subtle, guys), it stars models Sara Underwood and Emily Ratajkowski sharing a 'cue pit at a cookoff and doing the whole, "You got your chocolate on my peanut butter" thing, only with burgers and Boston butt...and lots of gratuitous T&A. (How gratuitous? YouTube made me sign in with my birthdate before showing me the "content flagged as inappropriate for some users.")
I have no problem with the tongue-in-cheek "what guys want" approach to fast food. But, please, have the burger to back it up. Kate Upton's Southwest Patty Melt was really good. The Memphis BBQ Thickburger is really...not. Unless you really, REALLY love barbecue sauce.
About the author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.