Friday, July 15, 2011

My Fast Food Condiment Adventure

Two months ago, when I read about the "new" sauces McDonald's was coming out with, I considered trying them all and writing about it, an idea I quickly discarded for two reasons: 1) several other people did it, too, and 2) there really wasn't anything new about the sauces. I'd tried them all before over the years. They were just packaged differently.

Then, while texting with a friend about the sauces - the Angels weren't playing that day so we didn't have anything else to talk about - I got an idea: why not try all the fast food sauces I have enjoyed in the past and see if I can come up with my favorite?

Two years ago, on the third Friday in July, I wrote about trying all the chili cheese fries in Pasadena. Last year I wrote about trying every value menu chicken sandwich. This year, it's fast food condiments. I rounded up several of them for a tasting.

Arby's sauce - their "signature barbeque sauce - is better than almost any fast food chain's barbecue sauce in that it is not overly sweet. It is on the thin side and has a nice peppery kick to it. At the Arby's closest to me, in Alhambra, they have it in a serve-yourself pump. My friend Zach and I have often joked about filling a Mason jar with it when no one is looking, but we've never actually gotten around to trying.

I love horseradish, but most horseradish sauces I find to be too heavy on the mayo and too skimpy on the horseradish - they are basically just a slightly-spicy mayo. Arby's Horsey sauce bucks this trend, though: it is full of spicy horseradish flavor. Not as spicy as I make horseradish sauce at home, of course, but then again I can't judge fast food condiments against the standard of how I would make them or this whole adventure is pointless.

McDonald's Spicy Buffalo sauce is surprisingly good. It is spicy - I know it seems silly to applaud a Buffalo sauce for actually tasting spicy, but I am often shocked at how many of them are not - and full of pepper flavor. Often a comparable sauce will taste quite buttery, but this one does not. Of the "new" McDonald's flavors, this one is my favorite. (I have to admit I did not try the ranch; I have never had a ranch sauce that I found to be anything other than boring.)

I actually went to Jack in the Box intending to get a honey mustard - which I've enjoyed before. The girl behind the counter informed me they don't order honey mustard at that particular location. She seemed genuinely sorry about it.

"I would totally give you some if we had it," she said. "I'm not lying."

It had never occurred to me that she might be. She gave me a sweet & sour sauce, something I hadn't even asked for. It was exactly what I've come to expect from sweet & sour sauces: all sweet, no sour. I can see how this would complement one of Jack's delicious egg rolls, but other than that I have no use for it.

It's hard for me to say any particular fast food condiment is my favorite, but if I tried to, Church's creamy jalapeno sauce would be a strong contender. It is most definitely creamy, but there is certainly the spice of jalapenos present. This goes beautifully with Church's fried chicken entrees.

Jack in the Box's barbecue sauce, while not being nearly as good as Arby's sauce, is still better than the average fast food barbecue sauce. It has a slight smoky flavor to it and, while it is certainly sweet to me, it is not cloying.

Popeyes used to carry Delta sauce, which I always suspected would win a showdown between fast food condiments. It was spicy and went perfectly with their fried seafood. But they stopped carrying it - yes, I went to three different Popeyes to check - as well as their horseradish sauce. Why, I don't know. But they still have their spicy honey mustard, and it is damn good. This is what I want honey mustard to taste like: a touch of sweetness, but mostly spicy, vinegary mustard.

McDonald's has offered sweet 'n sour sauce with their nuggets as long as I can remember. I imagine I liked it as a kid - particularly as part of the Shanghai McNuggets that I have longed for for years - but it just doesn't do anything for me now.

Once, when I was a kid, my grandmother picked up a Honeybaked ham for a holiday, as well as a jar of their honey mustard. I ate way too much of the condiment - I believe at one point I was taking the croutons off my salad and dipping them in it - and got sick to my stomach. That was twenty years ago but I still get a little queasy when I taste similar honey mustards, those sweet-tasting sauces that leave a film on the roof of your mouth. And that describes Burger King's honey mustard. I must have remembered it differently or I never would have included it here. It was the only sauce I tried here that I strongly disliked. 

McDonald's honey mustard, on the other hand, is delicious, probably my favorite fast food honey mustard. There is a slightly-spicy bite of whole grain mustard, balanced very nicely by the sweetness of honey. It goes well with fried food, which is all I really like from McDonald's.

I tried McDonald's sweet chili sauce when it debuted in 2010 during the Winter Olympics. I liked it. It was too sweet up front but I tasted a little bit of spice on the back end. This container, however, was all sweet and no chili heat. Disappointing.

I got a container of McDonald's barbecue sauce simply because I was there, but in truth I've never been a big fan. I have always found it too sweet - as you can probably tell, I much prefer spiciness to sweetness - and this occasion was no different. I don't hate it, but I don't like it very much. It's been years since I've tried it and I'm sure it will be years since I try it again, if I ever do.

There is a reason why I rarely try any of the sweet sauces from McDonald's: because I love their hot mustard. That's all I ever ask for. I once stopped at a McDonald's in Oregon for breakfast on one gorgeous autumn morning. I had a sausage biscuit and I asked for some extra hot mustard. The girl told me they were 15 cents each. I bought ten - then had a thought:

"Do you have like a case of it I could buy?" I asked her. I don't know where that came from. Road trips give me strange ideas.

She checked with her manager.

"We can't do that," she said.

I wish she had, though. I really love this sauce.

I've made it pretty clear that I'm not a Burger King fan, but I have to say, their Zesty sauce is very good. When I first tried it, I expected it to taste like a mayo with a little ketchup thrown in, but there is an unmistakable horseradish taste to it. It actually is a bit spicy. (After oil and water, horseradish is the third ingredient.) There isn't really anything on the BK menu that I like, so I rarely get this sauce, but perhaps I should stockpile some to eat with other restaurants' items.

Five years ago, Wendy's came out with some new sauces for a limited time: Sweet & Spicy Hawaiian and Wild Buffalo Ranch. I thought they were on the right track; the former was pretty tasty. But then the sauces went away, never to return. So all we have now are three sauces that are all too sweet for my taste: honey mustard, barbecue, and sweet & sour. Of the three, honey mustard is the one I usually get. I wish it had a little more bite to it, but for a creamy honey mustard, it's not too bad.

Well, that was kind of gross. Fun, though. Originally I had planned to rank the sauces, but that idea gave way to simply ranking my top 5 favorites. But I'm not even sure that's possible. I will say, however, that the Church's creamy jalapeno, McDonald's hot mustard, and Burger King Zesty sauce are the three that stand out for me

I wonder what I'll attempt next year.


Stephen said...

In the end, does Taco Lita hot sauce trump them all?

JustinM said...

Stephen, originally there were four additional sauces: Taco Lita's hot sauce, the salsa verde and fire-roasted hot sauce from Taco Bell, and Panda Express's hot mustard. But it's just didn't seem right to test them using fries as a vehicle, because those are not things I would ever eat with fries.

But... I don't see any reason why I shouldn't do a hot sauce tasting, right?

Stephen said...

I think that a hot sauce tasting would be awesome. You will need to find tiny, quarter sized tacos to test them on! I have a good friend who has sworn by Taco Bell's hot sauce since high school. We have an annual event over the 4th of July, and this year we brought Taco Lita sauce for him to try, which he really liked. He did mention the new Taco Bell sauces that you cite above. Have you ever tried McDonald's packaged salsa? Years ago, some stores had two versions, the red (current version), as well as a green jalapeno version that was shockingly hot. It was very hard to find though, and has since been relegated to non-United States stores from what I understand.

Fritos and Foie Gras said...

I love the idea for a hot sauce test, and would also throw out the suggestion for a frozen/premade dumpling test...just because I like dumplings! PS, this is my FAVORITE post you have ever done. I'm tweeting it - it is awesome.

JustinM said...

Stephen: I tried McDonald's hot sauce once with a breakfast burrito or something and it was like watery ketchup - it was red, I've never seen the green. It's on the blog somewhere but it was so unremarkable I don't even want to search for it.

Maybe next week I'll grill pollo asada tacos and do a tasting. I have to come up with more ideas for sauces.

Fritos: Your favorite? I mean, thanks, but it's not even in my top 50 favorite!

Michelle said...

I agree with Fritos and Foie Gras - this was awesome. And McD's hot mustard is totally my favorite.

Liz said...

I love the Delta sauce. And I also really like the creamy jalapeno sauce. Delicious!

Tony Jaguar said...

Given your affection for Del Taco, I am shocked they were not included. Inferno sauce is a favorite.

JustinM said...

Michelle: Thanks. The hot mustard is great.

Liz: Wait 'til you try the Church's Southern Style Chicken Sandwich.

Tony: I agree - inferno sauce is great. It's so nice to see a fast food place offer a hot sauce that is actually hot. But, like I explained to Stephen, I chose not to have hot sauce as part of this. Now, for the hot sauce tasting, it will definitely be involved...

Anonymous said...

Jack in the Box has packets of "special sauce" that tastes quite a bit like Big Mac sauce.

mindful mule said...

Fantastic! Great post idea… even if the photos are a little perverted.

As for the HoneyBaked Ham mustard, I could never get enough of that.

The World Famous Andrew said...

I have often considered going into mcdonalds with a ten dollar bill and seeing if I could just buy as much sauce as that would get me. Just to see if I could. I'm very sad that it isn't possible.

JustinM said...

Anon: I was not aware of that. I know In-N-Out has packets of their spread, but I was keeping this to things that I've tried before.

Mindful: That's what I thought about the mustard until I ate that much of it.

World Famous Andrew: Well, I couldn't do it five years ago at a McDonald's on I-5 in Oregon... it's possible that the McDonald's in California are less protective of their sauce and more willing to exchange it in mass quantities for currency.

Cafe Pasadena said...

I think you got something here. Something new in the collectibles arena. Save those, there could be big money in them, if not taste.

Banana Wonder said...

This is true blogger due diligence. Nice work here. I will swing by church's in the near future :-)

ben wideman said...

This might be your best post ever. And I know I'm late on this, but I like the new blog banner at the top.

I have a question - where did you get the fries that you used in your tasting? Or were they homemade?

And I'd also love to see hotsauce being tasted.

JustinM said...

Cafe: You're a strange one sometimes.

Anna: It's definitely worth trying the sauce. I'm sure you could make something better, though!

Ben: Thanks man. Have you ever seen the bags of frozen fries they have at Ralph's? Usually they are on sale, priced at 2 for 5 bucks. These are the steak fry variety of that brand, and I fried them myself.

Anonymous said...

Some Wendy's still do carry the Wild Buffalo Ranch. I think it's only corporate stores though, not franchise.

Anonymous said...

Hey, just wanted you to know I love your blog. Got into it through going to The Impulsive Buy. Not a big blog reader, but I find myself checking yours out often. Keep up the good work.

JustinM said...

Cool, glad you enjoy it. Thanks for the compliments.

Hunter said...

I really like the wendy's bbq. It complements the nuggets well.