Reality Check

Reviews of fast food burgers and a look at how the real life version compares to the advertised beauty shot.

We Try the Philly Cheesesteak Thickburger (and New Buns!) from Hardee's and Carl's Jr.

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[This photo: CKE Restaurants; All others: Todd Brock]

So first, an admission. AHT covered the Philly Cheesesteak Thickburger from Hardee's and Carl's Jr. when it came out the first time, back in late 2010. Damon didn't love it, yet didn't exactly hate it, either. But something's different about the 2014 iteration. And while I wouldn't go so far as to use an eye-rolling corporate buzzword like "game-changer," the sister chains have quietly made a subtle shift behind the scenes that, to my palate, could have a seismic impact on the taste of all their burgers.

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But let's get this burger itself reviewed. To paraphrase my colleague Mr. Gambuto, the Philly Cheesesteak Thickburger ($4.99 for a third-pounder at my store) basically plops "the entire contents of one iconic sandwich" onto the standard Hardee's/Carl's Jr. Thickburger. And while my store-bought version wasn't as piled high or professionally primped as the ad-ready model, the basic elements were all present and accounted for. Thinly-sliced steak? Check. White cheese? Check. Onions and green peppers? Check—with even a slight bit of blackened blistering if you look closely.

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If I'm nitpicking (and that's sort of what I do), the cheese that Hardee's and Carl's Jr. is using isn't exactly what I'd find on Broad Street. Most Philly 'phicionados will tell you that the sandwich should sport white American, provolone, or Cheez Whiz. (Okay, maybe the yellow American is supposed to approximate a "wiz wit," but it's not the same.) This is Swiss. And Swiss does not belong on a real Philly.*

*This is a notion that John Kerry can vouch for. When he famously ordered a cheesesteak with Swiss during a South Philly campaign stop in 2003, he was crucified for it by the locals and branded a blueblooded snob. In fact, the Washington Post theorized that it was perhaps the moment that lost Kerry the 2004 presidential election.

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That under-bun shot is admittedly pretty unattractive, and actually makes the Philly phixins on the burger look a little skimpy. I wanted to see how much cheesesteak had actually been added to this burger. So I scrubbed in and performed a Phillyectomy.

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After scraping off all the steak, Swiss, onions, and peppers within sight, I had two full ounces of Philly material. More than I had expected.

Taste-wise, it's all there. I have to admit, this thing tastes remarkably like a true Philly cheesesteak. With a burger thrown in. Granted, most of it gets amalgamated as you chew into a warm, gushy, melty, generically-meaty fast food mouthful. But there are times when that's precisely what you're after.

But I'm convinced that a huge part of my positive Philly experience came from the new bun. Late last year, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. announced that they'd be baking their own buns in-house every morning at every location. Replacing the seeded bakery-style bun used previously, these new buns arrive at each store as frozen balls of raw dough. They're proofed and baked on-site, and, after an egg wash, used on all of the menu's Thickburgers, and Six Dollar Burgers. (They'll stick one on a smaller quarter-pounder for a slight upcharge.)

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I loved it. It's dense and squishy and just slightly sweet. With the cheesesteak notes already dancing on my tongue, it wasn't hard to liken this fast-food bun to a Philadelphia-born Amoroso's roll (which many claim is the real thing that makes a Philly a Philly). Buns have become big business, a part of how the fast-food giants are trying to differentiate themselves; just look at how Wendy's has hitched their wagon to a pretzel variety.

Is a new bun baked in-house enough to get the average carnivore to choose Hardee's or Carl's Jr. over another establishment? Maybe not. (Although I'm telling you, these buns are exceptional. So maybe it should be.) But it adds to the overall experience and enjoyment of a Carl's Jr. or Hardee's burger. And maybe that's how you start to gain ground on the place across the street: one bun at a time.

The Philly Cheesesteak Thickburger may be a limited-time offer, and a guilty pleasure at that. But I hope the new store-baked buns at Hardee's and Carl's Jr. are here to stay.

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, pizzas for Slice, and desserts for Sweets, 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 The Gaslight Anthem. Or both.

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