I've had relatively few experiences with exotic meats: occasional visits to a fancy sausage stand in Chicago, a regrettable plate of undercooked venison in 2004, and presents from my gun- and game-enthusiast uncle (The pheasant pie I got last Thanksgiving was delicious, though peppered with birdshot.) But since I'm partial to all things ground into patties, I was intrigued to hear that Fuddruckers recently put an elk burger on its menu. It's part of a new line called Fudd's Exotics—a name that summons images of a disreputable zoo—featuring adventurous, lean meats such as ostrich, buffalo, and wild boar.
Kelly Pascal Gould, a spokeswoman for Fuddruckers, said the chain is marketing these burgers to vaguely health-conscious carnivores (who aren't health-conscious enough to stop eating at places like Fuddruckers). They're also banking on the idea that exotic meat seems less exotic when squished between two pieces of bread.
"Taking game and putting it into a mainstream chain restaurant like Fuddruckers makes it accessible. Not scary like an elk dish at a fancy restaurant," said Pascal Gould. " 'Are you game?' That's the tag line." I am always game for eating, so I headed to the nearest Fuddruckers, in Paramus, N.J., to put the burger to the test.
I like Fuddruckers, generally. When I lived in D.C., I would regularly patronize its (recently shuttered) 18th Street location, which had a huge bell near the door that customers could ring if they enjoyed their visit, and which I would ring repeatedly and unnecessarily every time I ate there. Until one day I showed up and they had removed the bell. In short, it's a chain that's known for good ideas that sometimes fall short in execution.
So it went with the Fuddruckers elk burger. The cashier confirmed that a lot of people were ordering it but offered no advice on how it should be prepared. So I asked for it plain, cooked medium, then selected a few pickle chips from the condiments bar and filled some clear plastic cups with ketchup and spicy mustard.
When it arrived, the elk burger was completely grey. Flavorless and dry, it looked like it had been pressed as it was cooked, squeezing out all the juices and leaving a drab, depressing interior and a crust that resembled road tar. Although they're called Fudd's Exotics, this elk burger tasted familiar, like something out of an unsatistfying childhood barbecue, with frozen patties charred to disfigurement by lazy grill-minders who live by the (plainly false) maxim that anything tastes good with enough barbecue sauce. The bun was delicious, but that's sort of like complimenting a salad for its croutons or drafting a baseball player based on the way he wears his hat. This burger actually made me angry as I ate it—angry at Fuddruckers for serving me such a horrible product, and angry at myself for nonetheless being hungry enough to eat the entire thing (plus two cups of cream soda).
Back home, a little research put the experience into context. First, according to the Internet, this was a particularly disreputable Fuddruckers. "From the moment I walked in, there was a stench that I couldn't get away from. I even changed tables 3 times thinking it was something around me or the curtains, but I couldn't get it to go away," wrote one reviewer. "This particular Fuddruckers is dirty, loud, slow, and annoying. Burger was burnt to boot," wrote another. I didn't think it was particularly smelly or dirty, but it was certainly depressing—a big warehouse space right off the highway, the sort of place where unpopular children hold their birthday parties.
Secondly, I probably shouldn't have ordered the burger cooked medium. Elk is an extremely lean meat, which means there's no real margin for error in the cooking. Put it on the grill too long and it'll dry out to a place of inedibility, which is exactly what happened to mine.
And so I went back to Paramus a week later—disreputable or not, it's really close to my apartment—to try the elk burger again. This time, I specified that the burger be cooked medium rare, and I ordered it with Swiss cheese and mushrooms, as per the recommendation on a card on the table that I'd overlooked the first time.
When the burger came out, it was bleeding rare, not medium rare—tasting slimy and metallic, like a wastewater oyster. The Swiss cheese and mushrooms helped disguise the taste, but the closer I came to the center of the burger, the closer it came to complete inedibility. I left it half-finished on my plate, not willing to risk potential food poisoning for the sake of journalism.
With Five Guys going national, and other fast-food chains stepping up their games, Fuddruckers is facing real competition in the "better burger" market. (A "Bobby's Burger Palace," run by television chef Bobby Flay, opened last year right around the corner from the Paramus Fuddruckers.) And so their efforts to diversify their menu make sense. Game is on track to become an 84 million-pound industry in Great Britain; with boutique meats in ascendance across the United States, Fuddruckers has good reason for wanting to jump in front of a trend.
But they need to look before they leap. Elk is a meat without much give; it has to be cooked just right, or it won't taste good. Unfortunately, I don't think the grill cooks at Fuddruckers are up to the challenge of competently executing an elk burger. This might just be a problem with the Paramus location, or it might be a function of visiting the restaurant relatively late at night each time. According to Pascal Gould, the Fudd's Exotics idea has been well received both on social media platforms and in the real world. So, yeah, maybe I should've gone to another Fuddruckers.
But I shouldn't have to do that. The entire point of a chain restaurant is standardization—the promise that you'll get the exact same thing every time, no matter where you order it. A Big Mac in Chicago should taste the same as a Big Mac in New York; an elk burger in Paramus should taste the same as one in D.C. If Fuddruckers can't guarantee the quality and edibility of its game burgers across the entire chain, then they'll end up being just as scary as something you might order in a fancy restaurant—except they'll taste a whole lot worse.
This month, Fuddruckers will unveil the third burger in its Exotics line—a wild boar burger. Me, I'm sticking to my uncle's pheasant pie.