Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Arby's Jr. Buffalo Chicken Sandwich & A Brief Personal History Of Bars

I have been lucky enough to spend time in some truly great bars in America. Running through them in my mind, a comedy of errors, misadventures of a person I used to be, I can't help but smile.

Like the time at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop when my friend Kevin got kicked out for bringing in an outside drink, the only time in half a dozen trips to New Orleans that I've ever seen that happen. Buried somewhere in a photo album is a snapshot of Kevin outside the window, nursing a slushy drink while my friend Hatcher and I sat at the bar drinking beers, wondering if the legends of Jean Lafitte's treasure being buried behind the bar could possibly be true.

More than once I've spent a pleasant afternoon in McSorley's Ale House, drinking ale in the summer heat, relishing the relative quiet before the crowds show up.

On a blisteringly hot September day in San Jose, my best friend from high school and I sat in a bar with no windows, drinking cold bottles of Budweiser. A man played air fiddle to "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." It was the middle of the afternoon. The bar was full of people who obviously paid no attention to the time of day, nor to little things like the fact that the pool tables no longer were covered in felt.

Johnny Cash had passed away five days earlier. "If I play 'Folsom Prison Blues,'" I asked, "how many people do you think will raise their glasses?"

My friend did a quick count of the room; there were 19 customers. "Four," he said."

"I say 5."

I put the song on the jukebox. 17 people wordlessly raised their glasses in tribute.

I once visited an absolute dive in a suburb of Philadelphia where purchasing a beer and a shot cost less than a beer by itself. I was not surprised to use the restroom and find the door had been kicked in and dried blood crusted the floor. The bartender was such a dead-ringer for Allen Iverson that I might have sworn it was him, had he not actually been wearing an Iverson jersey. (I couldn't imagine A.I. actually wearing his own jersey in public, however I had no trouble believing he tended bar in the offseason on the outskirts of Philly.) Obviously, I loved the place. Later that night at dinner at the house of a friend's parents, when I said where I'd spent the afternoon, their jaws hit the table: "We've lived in this town 26 years; you're the first person we've ever known who has gone in there."

And many others whose names are lost to me, if I ever knew them at all: The bar in Missoula, Montana where every woman who walked through the door was beautiful enough to break your heart. The double-wide trailer in the woods in Alabama with the charmingly succinct menu: Beer, $1. The tumble-down bar in Minneapolis where my friend Dave and I downed a few post-baseball game beers on a summer night in 2005 and watched a 1987 Mike Tyson fight on ESPN Classic.

"I can't believe what good shape Mike Tyson is in these days," one of the customers said.

"I know," echoed another, "he looks like a kid again."

I could probably write a book just on my stories (though I doubt it would be a good one).

But there has never been a bar I have loved more than The Dark Horse in Boulder, Colorado. More than a decade ago - wow, has it really been that long? - I spent most of my nights there. It was like an amusement park - three bars, two floors, room for hundreds of people though I never saw more than 50 there. You had your choice of dozens of different things to do on any given night: sit at the bar and watch sports, shoot pool, watch a band, sit out on the patio, play trivia upstairs, wager on how many people in a given period would enter the wrong restroom (the signs are misleading, especially if you've had a few), scavenger hunt for the most random item hanging from the ceiling....

Most of my female friends never understood what I saw in the place. "The Dork House," they would call it, though it took me years to realize they meant it as an insult. I've been back to Boulder several times in the years since I lived there, and lots about it has changed in ways I do not like. But the Dork House has always been great. I've taken people there who love to drink and I've taken people there who don't drink. Everyone has loved it.

And one of my favorite things about it, more than even those nights when beers were 75 cents each, was the Atomic Chicken Sandwich. There was nothing particularly special about any of the ingredients - a breaded chicken breast dunked in hot sauce, a smear of mayo, a piece of lettuce, a buttery soft bun - but together they formed the best chicken sandwich I have ever eaten.

For the last decade I have tried Buffalo chicken sandwiches in lots of places outside Boulder, hoping I would find one that tasted as good as the Dark Horse's. But I never did. I even tried making them myself, to the exact specifications, but with no success. I just figured my only way to get that sandwich was to travel to Boulder, something I have done with less and less frequency over the years.

And then one day in the fall of 2008, I went through the Wendy's drive-through and decided to try one of the "flavor-dipped" chicken sandwiches being promoted. There were two options: barbecue or buffalo, and I opted for the latter. I parked my car and unwrapped the sandwich.

As soon as I smelled it, my interest was peaked: something about this smelled awfully familiar. And then I took a bite. F**k me, I thought. This tastes just like an Atomic Chicken Sandwich from the Dark Horse. I ate that thing with such joy: It's back in my life.

I went back the next day to get another.

"We don't have those any more," the woman over the speaker told me. I was not happy. God, how I wished I'd never tried it the day before. A moment of joyous ecstasy and the expectations of more such moments, all taken away. A glimpse of perfection and now a lifetime to deal with the consequences.

It occurs to me I may be exaggerating my devastation a bit here. It's possible I just said "That sucks" and went on with my day. But I will tell you that I have been wanting another one of those sandwiches for more than two and a half years now. I even wrote to Wendy's twice, asking them to bring back the sandwich. But Wendy's never wrote back.

Then the other fine morning I heard a rumor, a mention that Wendy's was bringing back the sandwiches in limited markets. Could mine be one of them? I wondered. I headed down to Wendy's. They did not have it. So I drove around for hours thinking of something else to eat. Well, maybe it was just fifteen minutes. I passed by Arby's.

There was a sign in the window advertising a "Jr. Buffalo Chicken Sandwich." I'd read about that but had not felt any strong desire to try it. But given the circumstances, and the fact that all morning I'd been thinking about a Buffalo chicken sandwich, I decided to give it a shot. It was packed inside but did not take more than a few minutes to get my sandwich.

They had asked my name and written it on the receipt to call out when my order was ready, instead of just calling out a number. I've never experienced that before at a fast food joint. It made me feel special, like I'm not just a number to Arby's.

Actually, that's not true. I didn't care.

The sandwich was small. Not that I expected anything different from something called a "Jr." sandwich, let alone something that cost one dollar. 

So, how was it? 

Well, judged against the Atomic Chicken Sandwich from the Dark Horse, it was not very good. The sauce was surrounding the sandwich as if it had just been squirted on. Which, of course, it had. The Atomic Chicken Sandwich used to taste as if it had not only been dunked in sauce, but as if it had been born in the sauce, as if its only reason for existing at all was to be covered in hot sauce. This sandwich was just... I mean, it was just chicken and Buffalo sauce. Anyone could make one of these. 

On the other hand, judged for what it is, scored with a system devoid of mawkishness, I have to say it was pretty damn good. The chicken was the typical tasty Arby's chicken and the sauce was indeed spicy. I would not hesitate to eat one of these again should the situation present itself.

Look, I didn't think this would be as good as the Wendy's sandwich. And I don't expect, should I ever try that Wendy's sandwich again, that I will like it as much as I did back in 2008. And, to be completely honest with you, if I ever get back to the Dark Horse to eat that sandwich I miss so much, I would not be surprised to find that it's not at all what I remembered. "No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart."

So this sandwich was good for what it is, great for the price, and under most circumstances I would have been very happy with it. But not on this day. I still haven't found what I'm looking for.


Street said...

Thanks for the read man, nice way to start the morning.

SuperLarge said...

"scored with a system devoid of mawkishness" - I think many things would see their ratings improve if this were the case in the world.

mindful mule said...

Write the book. It’ll be good, even though it doesn’t have to be. You can call it 72 North American Bars.

Liz said...

I would read your book!
I have faith you will find the flavor-dip sandwiches again.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe no one has said anything about the receipt. What did you order???

Julien said...

Back in 2006/2007 (it had to be because my first year of college was the only time I had a meal card, and I can remember charging quite a few to it), Carl's Jr. had a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. Well, since, like I said, I recall order more than one, you could say I at least found at a touch on the tasty side. It wasn't incredibly hot, but it wasn't a bad sandwich.


Did you ever try it? If so, what did you think?

JustinM said...

No, I never tried it. I remember the signs for it, I just never did. I've never been a Carl's Jr. fan. I did try their buffalo chicken strips in the spring of '07, and I hated them.

BTW, where did you go that allowed you to charge CJ's to a meal card? That interests me. My freshman year of college, the meal card options were nothing short of terrible.

Anonymous said...

Just had the Wendy's sandwich here in Mass based on your story. Never had the ARby's or the Boulder one but this was a mighty fine sandwich

JustinM said...

Nice. I'm jealous. I hope they make it back to California.

Julien said...

I thought I commented on this, but I remember buying quite a few Buffalo Chicken Sandwiches from Carl's Jr. back in 2006/2007. I only know the date from charging them to my college meal card (only had it the first year). Since I got more than one, I'd say it wasn't bad, not amazing, but not bad.

Did you ever try it?

JustinM said...

You did comment on it, Julien, and I responded to you... unfortunately Blogger has been a little messed up the last few days. It was shut down for a long time yesterday, posts from earlier days were deleted, and lots of comments - including yours - were lost. I don't know what's up with Google. They said no data was lost and it would be replaced, but none of the comments have returned.

To answer your question, no, I never tried the CJ's sandwich. I tried their Buffalo strips, and I disliked them.

Also, where did you go to school that enabled you to use your meal card to get CJ's? That interests me. What other options did you have?

Julien said...

Well, yeah, their buffalo strips weren't exactly prime. Then again, who knows how the buffalo chicken ranked considering that I may have been slightly buzzed a couple of those times.

As far as the meal card, I was up at UC Davis at the time. If you lived in the dorms, you had a meal card, and there were different levels, with different amounts of dining hall meals and different amounts of discretionary cash for on-campus eateries. There was a Carl's Jr., Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Creperie and a few other places. CJ's and Taco Bell had pretty complete menus. Plus, you didn't have to bust out another dime of your own money or leave campus (which would be hard considering not being able to have a car on campus as a first-year).