Monday, 7 April 2014



meGeoff’s Guide to the Big Three and a Half Fast Food Burger Joints


I know. I know. You can’t get kale or quinoa. There’s those disgusting cyber myths about pink slime and anti-nausea medication mixed into the cereal bulked beef patties. Every ingredient is processed right down to the Boris Karloff Frankenstein green pickle garnish, they must be. The burger, once out of its wrapper, box or bag, never even remotely resembles its picture on the back-lit store menu or its portrait on the cover of that coupon-rife unaddressed ad mailer. Overseas there may come a soul-crushing moment that reminds you of a relationship gone sour. You will see that North American mega-brand sign shining down on a square or roundabout where it should never be and shake your head: I came all this way to get away from you.


Assembly line burgers are assembly line burgers. Nothing special. And yet, that craving hits and you know you want to. Perhaps the trigger is partly nostalgia. As a kid a visit definitely constituted a rare treat. As a teen the restaurants were places to hang out. Later on, a long after dark order of half the menu was thought to be sufficient enough to prevent bed spins. Or not.


Let’s all go to A&W/Food’s more fun at A&W/Hop in your car/Come as you are/To A&W! My enduring memory is sitting in the front seat of our maroon Beaumont beside my newly divorced mother, orange plastic trays hanging off the partially rolled down passenger windows. It is Sunday. We are skipping our parish’s 11 o’clock Catholic mass because Mom is now technically excommunicated. She got the bell, book and candle, and Mama Burger. I’m munching on a Teen Burger and a Whistle Dog, chasing bites with orangeade from a heavy glass mug. This is making the best of a bad situation.


Saturday night Ann and I had options. Take the downtown train to hear Pepperland, a Beatles tribute outfit at The Rose & Crown or head to the local A&W to try the new Uncle Burger (we make our own Whistle Dogs at home). Shakespeare dubbed music moodie food. Real food won out. The restaurant was clean though weirdly all of the chrome stools were upside down on the tables so the place appeared closed from the sidewalk. Bad for business on a Saturday night. The burger was well presented in its wax paper pocket and all of the toppings were crisp and fresh. Ann’s root beer was served in the heavy glass mug of memory. I kept hoping the balding TV campaign store manager would wander by to engage in some witty banter. The Root Bear mascot’s long gone, but A&W, you’re still the best there ever was.


Years before Homeland Security was even a gleam in George Dubya’s eye, we used to drive two hours south to the Pyramid Mall in Plattsburgh, NY wanting things that could not be found in Montreal, QC or anywhere else in Canada. Jacques, behind the wheel of his parents’ Volvo, would tell the US customs official that it was a day trip: ‘Burger King, Budweiser and OTB (Off Track Betting).’ Sometimes I wonder how we ever made it back home alive. Back then drunk driving was like a sport and, anyway, a couple of Whoppers would soak up all the booze. And they did their jobs later on in New York City and in London on the Piccadilly Circus.


The middle-aged Burger King experience has been nothing short of tragic. The chain’s restaurants are universally filthy. The Whopper, their holy grail, is a slimy disk of sludge. These days they sort of taste all right, I guess, but there are no teenaged American girls sliding into your booth entranced by your exotic Canadian cigarette package and impressed you’re able to speak their language good. Fortunately Ann is Canadian so there’s no overt communication barrier. We easily agree that everything is dreadful.


Harvey’s makes a hamburger a beautiful thing. But I’ve always preferred hot dogs; welcome our lone Canadian contender. There was a Harvey’s restaurant on Cote-des-Neiges Road, across the four busy lanes from the new brick mall where I went to buy LPs at Discus Records – the first baby steps of what remains a life-long obsession. I’d go into Harvey’s with my loot and order a hot dog, speaking English. The counter guy would yell over his shoulder: ‘Un penis!’ The fellow manning the grill would shout: ‘Un penis!’ and whap a wiener on the grill. They were literally back-to-back, two feet apart from each other, volume at 11. These guys were years ahead of the Saturday Night Live Cheeseburger skits and the Seinfeld Soup Nazi.


While back east last fall I tried unsuccessfully to pinpoint the doorway of the long defunct location on Saint Catherine Street that fed me while I was in university. These days it’s hard to find a Harvey’s. One might be hidden away in a Home Depot. One might be free-standing in a big box outdoor mall where we won’t go. The destination allure cannot overcome the inconvenience of hunting down char-broiled perfection. This is why our lone domestic chain is the half in our seven month, gut-busting, fast food burger joint survey.


Ann and me tend to hit the one at Edmonton’s International Airport before we pass through the blue-gloved security. The garnishes are still neatly arrayed in steel bowls although sometimes the tomatoes look a little too yellow. The coffee’s not great but the lineups are shorter than Tim Hortons’. I would pay extra to hear someone shout ‘Un penis!’ on the concourse.


Mickey D’s. The first time a friend mentioned that to me I had no idea what he was talking about. God bless McDonald’s, you can’t get much hipper than a gang argot handle. There is no way to orchestrate or manipulate this type of street cred. Just run with it and stick to your core expertise.


The first McDonald’s franchise I remember in Montreal was near the corner of Jean Talon and Decarie Boulevards, between Blue Bonnets race track and the Orange Julep, facing me and my Mom’s A&W across the Decarie expressway trench. It was a long and risky bike ride to get a taste of the American Dream served up in a red cardboard cube. The AM radio advertising back then was voiced by a veteran, long distance trucker with a Brooklyn accent exhorting a newbie to simply Look for the golden arches. These guys didn’t care a whit for in-store playgrounds, limp salads or lattes. Alas, so many lifetimes later, the double decker bread of a Big Mac sandwich still tastes like its container. And you never can quite let go of all those saucy, special topping punchlines.

And what of the other well known burger chains? I believe our allegiances, those secret, deal closing handshakes with brands, authors, sports teams or music and film genres are done forever when we’re too young to know better, curious and open without prejudice, unafraid of spiders. Dairy Queen was always soft ice cream to me growing up; a grape Mister Misty to go for my sister in the hospital and no meat on the brazier. I’ve noticed that Wendy, like Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker and the Export A cigarette girl has been tarted up, Hot and Juicy. However Dave Thomas and his square burgers came too late into my life to generate any brand loyalty or affection. Wendy’s Singles, Doubles and Triples are decent enough while other inferior assembly line burgers become time machines. A bit of a life may be revisited with a single bite.

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