What’s wrong with fast food burgers? The lettuce, that’s what!

Dave Single

Dave’s Single from Wendy’s

I have been holed up after foot surgery which for some reason has given me an unnatural desire for fast food burgers. With a bit of scheming I was able to procure the Dave’s Single shown above. It’s not bad, thanks to my wise decision to leave off the mayonnaise (yes, the sandwich comes stock with mayo which can add nothing but grease and heaviness) and replace it with mustard. But while I was eating it, I had a revelation about why so many fast food burgers are so un-foodlike.

Mis En Place Wendys

Mise en place at Wendy’s

But let’s back up a minute, because we need to define fast food burgers. Compton’s and Triangle, two diners in Saratoga Springs, New York, can put an excellent burger on my table faster than my order was filled at Wendy’s on Congress Street. But it’s not fast food because it’s made by an actual short-order cook. Fast food places, by definition, are staffed by employees who don’t need to know how to cook, and in some situations (because of age, for example) may not be allowed to cook. McDonald’s is the most obvious and extreme example that comes to mind, and I do think Wendy’s is a lot better, but hear me out.

Daves Deconstructed

Random, horsey lettuce slice on my Dave’s Single

It does not require any particular skill or artistry to slather dressing on a bun and stack the ingredients (in this case a cheeseburger, slice of onion, pickle and tomato). But then we get to the LETTUCE. I like iceberg lettuce on my burger: it adds loft and crunch. But when we leave it to the untrained counterperson (or someone who does the prep earlier) to make decisions about how to tear up and deploy the lettuce section or sections, splayed over the top of the meat and condiments, disaster can result. The whole sandwich can be thrown off kilter. If there’s an unevenness to the lettuce slice, it can create a lump in the top of the sandwich which causes it to shoot out when you take your first bite or, worse, break open the usually fragile bun.

burger House Shredded Lettuce

Shredded lettuce on a Burger House double cheeseburger*

One has to wonder: why don’t they SHRED their lettuce, like they do at Burger House in Dallas which makes the best burger that I’ve found? Now it becomes a willing partner to the other components, instead of antagonist. And no skill is required other than the ability of the employee to tear open the bag (I’m assuming the shredded lettuce can be made available pre-packaged) and grab a handful of the proper volume.

However, I also know the answer to this question: they use the irregular, messy lettuce leaves precisely because they make the preparation seem more like real food. So this isn’t going to get better. Unless you are able to get to In-N-Out, where they seem to treat their lettuce deployment with the same artistry that applies to everything else.

*Photo by Ewan Macdonald on Serious Eats. Hopefully they will not get mad at me if I link to their review of Burger House.

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