Big Tasty, McDonald’s UK, Oldham

Big Tasty with Bacon – McDonald’s

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The Rustlers experience from McDonald’s. Yes, that is an actual plate.

Burger Source 

Conceived in the meeting rooms of an office on the edge of Belgravia, this burger blog usually covers whatever edgy opulence London’s trendiest burger joints are churning out. Today, however, we’re going back to basics and shifting the focus somewhere a little more down to Earth: McDonald’s (in Oldham). Specifically, we’re here to sample a regular ‘guest’ burger I’ve been avoiding for years: The Big Boring (I mean Big Tasty) with Bacon.

It seems to me that the Big Tasty is kind of like the Liberal Democrats of McDonald’s menu items. Never trusted enough to be considered worthy of a full time position on the menu, yet fostering enough support to hang around in the background and trot out in public from time to time. This is usually whenever there’s a dearth in the planning team’s creativity in between more interesting limited edition burgers and promotions.

This has been the case since it first appeared on these shores back in 2003, and I’ve always avoided it on the menu. Perhaps it’s simply because it takes up precious promotional space on the menu where something a little more exotic could be trialled (hello, Pico Guacamole burger at McDonald’s USA), but I’ve slightly resented this burger for a while without actually trying it.

Sure enough, I cast my eyes skyward when I recently saw that the Big Tasty would once again be returning for the couple of months, in between the festive menu and whatever actual promotion is coming up next. Come on guys, isn’t January dull enough? But then I realised that it was probably worth, y’know, trying the damned thing before knocking it completely. So here we are.

The order

Upon entering my local branch, I immediately marched straight towards the shiny (or greasy… depending on how closely you’re looking) new touchscreen self-ordering kiosks.

If, like me, you’re a terrifyingly anxious OCD-driven control freak then the customisation option provided by these kiosks is an absolute godsend. Gone are the days of awkwardly approaching your server (aggressively eyeballing you over the till and bidding you to just hurry up pick something simple off the menu and order right now) to ask if you could possibly please have a burger without any gherkins, if it’s not too much trouble.

Now it’s all in your hands, and you can discard any ingredients you want (although I note actually adding a different ingredient seems to be totally out of the question, which would appear to jar with the idea of true customisation… but that’s a thought for another day).

That’s why I opted to remove the standard two slides of tomato when ordering my Big Tasty with Bacon. I understand these are here to add a little moisture and possibly present more of a premium option, but I just feel like tomatoes have no business being inside a burger (or sandwich). Their watery complexion and usually weak flavour can ruin a decent burgery bite, so out they went.

Convention requires that I must state that I also ordered a bag of Cheddar Melts, the current moreish cheesy bite side option available at McDonald’s.

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New simple packaging. I quite like it. No tomato.

The meat of it:

What they say: “What makes our Big Tasty so tasty? 100% British & Irish beef with cheese made with emmental, sliced tomato, lettuce, onion, and – of course – that Big Tasty sauce.”

The first thing that struck me was that McDonald’s have recently refreshed their product packaging with a stripped-down, slightly old-school based on white boxes with large, colourful text. This replaces the previous long-serving design with little illustrations of fresh ingredients and some vaguely whimsical copy to while away the time for lonely diners. But you probably don’t care about that. What’s inside?

Let’s be honest, nobody expects a piece of artwork from a McDonald’s burger. While my Big Tasty had more of a backseat Rustlers look than something you’d be served in Hawksmoor, I’ve definitely seen much, much worse. There was none of the dreaded topping slide, everything was distributed fairly well and – yes – my tomato removal request had been honoured.

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Lost in the box

The first thing that jumps out about this burger (when you’ve taken it out of the box) is the size. It’s big – much bigger than the other regular burgers at McDonald’s, but still just as flat. The result is a slightly awkward eating experience that requires you to balance the burger with two hands (well, if you have freakishly small hooks like me anyway).

Biting in, it’s a hefty beef flavour that hits you first. That might sound pretty obvious from a burger, but this seems to pack more of a pure ‘BEEF’ punch than, say, a Big Mac. Afterwards, the salty, slightly smoky taste of the bacon kicks in. I’m not a huge fan of the bacon at McDonald’s, which is usually a little rubbery, but this was fine and definitely adds to the experience. The bun is pretty unremarkable by design – nothing to see here.

Now let’s talk about *that* Big Tasty sauce, since it’s present in every bite. There’s no official description of what’s actually in this, and the ingredients list just contains a bewildering array of preservatives, so I was guided by my taste buds. I picked up a little garlic, some smokiness and some generic ‘background spices’. The overall effect is pleasant, without leaving the same kind of impression of the similarly cryptic Big Mac sauce. It’s nice, but largely forgettable. A bit like the Big Tasty itself, really.

It’s definitely worth having a good mix of sides and plenty to drink with this, because my word, the Big Tasty’s sheer size means that this burger takes a while to tackle. The flipside is that after a while, it all becomes a bit samey and you’re just chowing on for the sake of it.

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Under the hood: a very consistent spread

That’s why it’s pleasing that the Cheddar Bites on the side are a reliably solid effort. Simultaneously crunchy and chewy and featuring a very decent cheesy flavour, they’re great value for money. It’s a shame the staff forgot to throw in the accompanying pot of rich tomato dip, but I got over this with some ketchup.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 3/5
Build – 4/5
Burger – 3/5
Taste – 3/5
Sides – 4/5
Value – 3/5.

Burger rating – 3/5 As a recurring guest star on the McDonald’s UK menu, the Big Tasty needs to have mass appeal, and that’s why it’s all very safe and generic. I’m glad I tried it, but (particularly in light of increasingly creative promotional offerings from KFC) I’m much more interested to see what other, more interesting limited edition burgers McDonald’s has in store for 2018 and beyond.

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Fat Hippo Jesmond, Newcastle

Fat Hippo Jesmond – St George’s Terrace, Newcastle

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Burger Source 

A small disclaimer before we begin. Fat Hippo Jesmond is located a mere stone’s throw from my family home, and while I haven’t lived in the city permanently since the place first opened its doors back in 2010, I have been quietly admiring its prosperity from afar. Everyone loves to have a successful home grown neighbourhood restaurant on their doorstep, after all. At a time when NIMBYs still have a disturbing level of influence in blocking anything remotely interesting from setting up shop in this part of town, small restaurants like Fat Hippo are a great example of how good Jesmond can be away from the Osborne Road strip – when they’re allowed to launch.

I’d also been told by a reliable and well-travelled ‘sauce’ that Fat Hippo serves the best burgers in Newcastle, and popular local opinion seemed to support this. It is worth noting, of course, that a sizeable proportion of the Fat Hippo’s regular clientele are the guffawing students with more money than sense that have long colonised this corner of Jesmond. So, do the burgers stand up to the reputation?

The order

I’ve developed a fairly terrible habit of fully poring over menus online hours (if not days) before I arrive at booked restaurants recently, which does dampen the whole eating out experience somewhat. This was no exception – a full five days before I returned to Newcastle, I’d already scoured the Fat Hippo’s menu from my desk at work. There’s plenty on offer here, and pleasingly the menu balances the fine line between offering safe and basic items and the over-the-top ridiculousness that many burger places are adopting, as they desperately chase ‘innovation’ and the novelty factor.

For me, the choice was clear. The Ranch: double 4oz patties topped with cheese, chorizo and garlic mayo. I’m an absolute sucker for anything food–related that says Ranch on it. ‘Ranch’ as a sauce concept has taken its time becoming a menu staple in the UK, but like its classic US junk-food cousin Buffalo Wings, most places over here that claim to serve it can still only offer a pale imitation of the real deal. So what was in store here? Rich and creamy goodness slathered liberally around the sandwich, or a teaspoon of Hellmann’s with the ghost of some garlic hidden amongst the cheese? Make no bones about it, this was a big test.

As I’m rarely satisfied with a simple order of plain ol’ chipped potatoes these days, I opted for a side of the ‘Dirty Fries’ (topped with bacon pieces and Fat Hippo sauce). Well, everyone needs a break from onion rings once in a while. As if this wasn’t enough to clog my arteries for the evening, I also kicked proceedings off with a starter of mac n’ cheese balls.

The meat of it:

Let’s begin with the starters and get this out of the way. The mac n’ cheese balls were far and away the most disappointing part of this meal. I was absolutely ravenous by the time they arrived and couldn’t wait to get stuck into what would surely be a few dead-cert globules of comfort food splendour.

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The mac n’cheese balls (apologies for blurry image – my hands were shaking with anticipation)

My anticipation took a slight hit when they arrived – although the breadcrumbs were a pleasant golden colour, the balls had simply been lumped on top of a couple of plain lettuce leaves, served with a side of Alabama White BBQ sauce. Given that we’re talking about indulging in a beige feast here, a little bit of colour wouldn’t have gone amiss (you know, something like brown – like conventional BBQ sauce?). Sorry Fat Hippo, but to me this whiffs a little bit too much of another hipster joint trying anything to be different.

Mac ‘n cheese balls aren’t exactly gourmet cuisine: all I was really hoping for were gooey, cheesy bits of pasta encased in a crispy breadcrumb shell. Hell, isn’t that all anyone ever wants? Instead, once I’d cut into them I was faced with a stodgy, clumped up mess.  Across four balls, I only found a couple of bits of what was discernibly macaroni. The rest was just a sort of half-baked mulch, all too dry and stodgy with no real flavour. A shame.

I should point out that most of my fellow diners started with ‘Freddie’s Fingers’ (southern fried chicken strips with buffalo hot sauce), which looked fantastic and seemed to go down a treat.

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Freddie’s Fingers

Fortunately, it’s also better news for the main event. Fat Hippo’s Ranch is a well-packaged, no BS burger. It doesn’t have time for any pretence, like a token salad. It just does exactly what it promises: two patties, cheese, chorizo and garlic mayo.

To the bite – and what a bite it was. I’m not normally too fussed about burger buns (unless they’re too big or the patty-to-bun ratio is off) but my, this was a good bun. Soft, fluffy yet sturdy, with just the right kind of sweetness and a precise fit for the contents. Bun perfection has been achieved.

Onto the patties themselves, which were simply delightful. They were nicely cooked throughout, wonderfully juicy with a good thickness. The flavour was solid without being outstanding. This was packaged up with an (un)healthy smothering of melted cheese that was similarly succulent and warm without just being dried out.

Despite being this particular burger’s main event, the chorizo was just so-so – it added a little extra texture and a smoky flavour, but I could honestly take it or leave it. We’re talking about the thin-sliced, wide slivers of cured pork here (that most people simply accepted as ‘pepperoni’ for the last 30+ years until the foodie revolution insisted on rebranding every food item to appeal to pseudo-hipsters) rather than the small, fat garlic-infused oily chunks of meat that I regularly fantasise about when someone mentions chorizo. But that’s probably just my fault really for having unrealistic expectations.

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And what about those dirty fries? Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the genuinely outstanding ‘bacon bacon’ fries at Almost Famous in Manchester, with their bacon mayo and ‘bacon rain’, but I found these to be a bit weak. The chips were a little underdone and definitely under seasoned, while the thin shavings of bacon were chewy and lukewarm, rather than hot and crispy. The tangy fat hippo sauce redeems these a little, but overall this was an average side.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 5/5

Build – 4/5

Burger – 4/5

Taste – 4/5

Sides – 2/5

Value – 4/5.

Burger rating – 4/5 A good all-round burger, slightly let down with a few small issues on the side. At just under £19 for the whole lot though (excluding drinks), this is certainly good value.

The deets

Fat Hippo is a genuine North East institution, with three restaurants across Newcastle and Durham.

The Jesmond restaurant is right in the heart of things, just off Acorn Road in part of a converted house. Upon entry, it’s possible to immediately tick off a good number of hipster joint clichés: exposed brickwork, low-hanging mason bulbs, deliberately mismatched ‘old’ furniture and food served on novelty trays are all part and parcel of the experience. However, the Fat Hippo is infinitely more interesting than any of the predecessors on site that I can remember since moving to Jesmond in 2000, so ignore me.

In addition to the generous range of burgers and sides on offer, the menu also features a good selection of beers from the local Allendale Brewery. In a prime case of ultimate hipsterdom, these include the Fat Hippo IPA and Fat Hippo Hillbilly (both brewed exclusively for Fat Hippo’s restaurants) but again, I’ll get over this since they were pretty tasty.

Surfin’ BIRD – BIRD Restaurant, Camden

One of the greatest pleasures in a week night activity like a gig is the chance to roll up one’s sleeves and unashamedly indulge in a new greasy restaurant experience.

So it was when Little Comets performed at Dingwalls in London, prompting my housemate and I to roam Camden in search of some pre-gig warmth and fatty food. The many restaurants of Chalk Farm Road appear particularly toasty and enticing in the evening at this time of the year, and none more so than the orange shades of BIRD.

Burger source:

BIRD is the brainchild of Canadian husband and wife team Paul Hemings and Cara Ceppetelli. It opened its doors a couple of years ago, as the bargain bucket-shunning duo sought to reinvent the classic greasy-fingered fried chicken experience for a grown up London audience.

So, everyone knows that the bird is the word, but what do BIRD serve, in their own words? “The best free range fried chicken you’ve ever tasted.” A brave statement indeed for an establishment in Britain. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you…

The order

I opted for the Bacon & Cheese, which aside from the obvious ingredients, comes slavered in BBQ sauce & house kewpie mayo. Hold on, house what mayo? Call me ignorant, but I have to admit that I hadn’t come across this variant of mayonnaise before – and I was too busy drooling over the menu to investigate there and then. For the similarly uninitiated, Kewpie mayo is actually a wildly popular Japanese condiment, made with rice wine vinegar (rather than distilled). This results in a pathway to mayonnaise that some consider to be smoother, creamier and more flavoursome than your usual white stodge. Personally, there wasn’t enough here to reach a satisfactory judgement, but I’ll happily take it to the test again when I visit Japan in a couple of months – ideally in a quiet room with just a full jar, a spoon and a couple of idle hours.

But enough about the mayo. I’ve overlooked one of the critical selling points of BIRD’s Bacon & Cheese burger: it’s made with thigh meat, rather than breast. If you know your chicken, you’ll appreciate that thigh meat presents a significantly juicier bite than the average breast. On the flipside, this also results in a generally smaller, thinner cut of meat (more on that later).

I also opted for the Cheesy Korean fries on the side, along with a Coke and a healthy pot of buttermilk ranch sauce for dipping/swigging/downing (because somebody stop me).

The meat of it:

BIRD’s Camden venue is a recent addition to this growing chain, and the sheen was still evident even underneath the requisite thin layer of grease that you’d expect in such an establishment. Many of the standard British ‘hipstery’ small-chain paraphernalia were present: long wooden benches and stools, an excess of tiling and exposed brickwork, low-hung bare lighting… you’ve been here before, even if you haven’t. Putting personal prejudices to one side, however, the venue was undeniably tidy, warm and comfortable.

Despite warnings to the contrary from easily-offended TripAdvisor reviewers, we were quickly greeted and seated with a warm welcome. Orders followed swiftly, and all in all the food was with us in under twenty minutes. There was one heart-stopping moment when it appeared they may have forgotten to bring out the buttermilk ranch, but these fears were undone when a pot of the stuff was plonked on the bench shortly after the mains arrived. Otherwise, the staff were in that idyllic zone of appearing friendly and attentive – without being overbearing.BIRD 1

The main event arrived well presented, with BIRD’s decision to serve their mains on genuine plates being particularly well received. The brioche bun was a rather sturdy affair, which will undoubtedly please many but I found it to be unnecessary chunky (there was no beefy juice to soak up here) and a little dry, but not offensively so. The bacon was suitably hot and crispy and I was pleased to note that it had already combined well with the cheese (there’s nothing worse than still fridge-cold cheese ruining a burger). But what of the chicken itself? First, the coating. This isn’t your usual spicy breadcrumb or batter affair: the clearly Asian-influenced* approach to frying results in a pleasant and intriguing coating that was impressively crispy and flavourful. This gave way to the incredibly juicy and tender meat to produce some of the best fried chicken I’ve tasted. Unfortunately, as noted the thigh meat does mean that the burger felt smaller than it should have. Or perhaps I’m just greedy.

I have mixed feelings about the Cheesy Korean fries. The chips themselves were nothing particularly special, just your standard perfectly acceptable thin-cut crispy strips of potato. But no one ordering this dish came for the fries alone: it’s all about the topping. That said, the cheese sauce was fairly run of the mill while the gochujang glaze was really more of a spicy tomato paste. Altogether the result was certainly pleasing and fairly unique, but not enough to bring me back in itself. Marks have also been deducted for serving the fries in a mini frying pan.

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Finally, a word on the buttermilk ranch: this was disappointing. Perhaps I’ve become accustomed to the rich gooeyness of the likes of Newman’s Own Ranch, but I found this offering to be watery and strangely lacking in flavour. Given that BIRD offer a veritable smorgasbord of side sauces and glazes (including blue cheese – hello, blue cheese), I wouldn’t order this again.

Monkey finger rating

Bun – 3/5

Build – 4/5

Burger – 4/5

Taste – 4/5

Sides – 3/5

Value – 3/5 – The burger, sides, sauce and soft drink came to a princely £18 (including tip). Personally, this is fairly de rigueur for this kind of restaurant but some may baulk at such a sum for what is essentially glorified fast food.

Burger rating – 3/5 A very solid fried chicken burger, in a world packed to the rafters with chicken burgers.

The deets

BIRD is expanding and now lays claim to three restaurants across London. I say across London, but somewhat predictably they’re located in Shoreditch, Islington and Camden. Influential folks at BIRD: if you’re reading this, we’d love to see you and your ilk south of the river too! Until then I’ll just stick with trusty old Sam’s, thanks.

They Tweet here, and if looking at glossy, overly filtered photos of fried chicken and doughnuts is your thing then you can follow them on Instagram too. Want some Facebook with that? Sure, they’ve got you covered.

*BIRD insist that its product is “not Southern fried chicken.  It’s not Korean fried chicken.  It’s BIRD Free Range & Fried.”