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.