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The Real Value of the Fast Food ‘Dollar Menu’ in a Recession

At Salon, Sara Hepola performs a true public service by personally testing the value menus of several fast-food restaurants, in an attempt to present the culinary reality of eating low-budget meals in a recession. As Hepola points out, Whole Foods is hurting these days as consumers cut back on spending, while business at fast food chains is picking up. Note, of course, the recent Kentucky Fried Chicken marketing debacle, in which the chain paired with Oprah on a free coupon promotion and found its stores nearly overrun, forcing it to issue rain checks to unhappy customers.

So how bad is it out there, dining on on the dollar menu?

First, McDonald’s:

My Dollar Menu choices had been whittled down to the following: four-piece Chicken McNuggets, a hot fudge sundae, two baked apple pies, a fruit and yogurt parfait and a small soda. It was like a 5-year-old’s last meal request.

I added a $1.09 hamburger onto the pile for curiosity’s sake. I hadn’t tasted one in decades. And though it arrived pale and pathetic — a thin, grayish patty of spongy meat, which appeared to have been gnawed on one corner, tossed carelessly between a bun — I was surprised to find that, contrary to appearances, it was not completely terrible, with its familiar tang of onion and pickle. That’s the thing, right? Odious as it might be, most fast food is not completely terrible. Can’t say that for the Chicken McNuggets, however; they were stale and lukewarm, and even gobs of barbecue sauce couldn’t drown their mediocrity. (As for the soda, the low-carbonation, high-syrup Diet Coke at McDonald’s has long been my favorite Diet Coke, even in my high-snob years. Yes, I have a whole taxonomy of Diet Coke, and no, I won’t mention it again.)

Wendy’s fares a bit better:

Years after I last stepped inside a Wendy’s, I found that its still churns out the most dependable fast food burger fare this side of In-N-Out. Despite the over-the-top Baconator promotions and the gaggle of trendy mixed-in swirl dessert treats, Wendy’s understands what it does well. For those who would slag the chain, I have but one word of defense: Frosty.

Those 79-cent nachos at Taco Bell remain quite a bargain, but you really do get what you pay for:

There is something unsettling about the audaciously punctuated “Why Pay More!” Taco Bell value menu. I don’t mean health concerns — though those are aplenty — but the confounding question of how a restaurant could possibly profit selling nachos at 79 cents. The nachos come covered in refried beans and goopy fluorescent orange cheese drizzled with red sauce, a wan imitation of Tex-Mex that made me weep for my years spent in Austin, Texas, but still … 79 cents! Even for recession prices, that feels low.

I was glued to every word of this story, possibly because in the past few years I’ve become so accustomed to reading about high-end food trends that, unlike most of the food Hepola tasted, the idea was so fresh. So go ahead and try to enjoy that dollar menu. And if it’s really that bad, don’t forget to spring for a Frosty.

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