Great Advancements in Fast-Food Science
Taste-testing BK's Stuffed Steakhouse Burger.
Like most male eaters of my generation who care little for cardiac health, I am a sucker for things that are stuffed: doughnuts stuffed with jelly, dumplings stuffed with cheeses, a turkey stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a duck. I have long embraced the logic that anything tastes better if it is filled with another thing. So, in January, when Burger King unveiled its limited-time "Stuffed Steakhouse Burger" as a jalapeño-studded sibling to the existing Steakhouse XT burger, it felt like a long-overdue step for a chain that had already introduced the world to Whiplash Whoppers, funnel cake sticks, and the chicken fry. "When beef meets flame, flavor is born. When beef meets cheddar and jalapeños, flavor gets a crazy cousin," promised one ad. All this for $3.99?
I headed to the sleek, modern Burger King Whopper Bar in Times Square, all high counters and vented chairs with chrome legs. The Whopper Bar—which, despite its name, does not actually serve alcohol yet—is undoubtedly one of the nicest Burger Kings in the entire chain, for better and for worse. Much as at a real restaurant, it took 14 minutes to get served. When the burger came out, it was ostentatiously charred with too-perfect grill lines, as if it had been cooked on the bars of a jail cell, and accessorized with lettuce, tomato, and a light orange "poblano sauce." But it was worth the wait.
The patty itself was thicker than I expected, with cheese and jalapeños studded throughout in tight little balls, as if machine-extruded—which, undoubtedly, they were. Stuffing the burger with toppings works to distribute them evenly, such that you're consistently tasting cheese, pepper, and meat flavors in equal measure. This is a remarkable innovation in the fast-food sciences. The problem with toppings is that toppings can fall off. If you are a sloppy eater, like I am, they may easily land on your shirt. Stuffed inside the burger, though, the only way toppings will miss your mouth is if you physically pry them out of the patty.
Of course, since I fancy myself an investigative reporter, I tried to do just that, digging a couple of half-melted cheddar globules out of the burger and eating them speared on the end of a french fry, to see what they would taste like solo. In fact they had no taste, and should have been left to congeal in peace.
I was least impressed with the poblano sauce, which tasted suspiciously similar to every other creamy pepper sauce that Burger King throws on its special-edition burgers, and I used my disappointment to justify a second test. About two weeks later, I went to a weird Burger King on 7th Ave decorated with vintage movie posters, including one advertising the Polish version of the Sergio Leone movie "Once Upon a Time in America," and ordered a sauceless Stuffed Steakhouse Burger. The edges were black, the inside was tan—and yet, surprisingly, the cheese and peppers were moist enough to compensate for the patty's dryness. It all worked together, even though it shouldn't have, in some weird bit of fast-food magic. I liked this one even better than the first one, and I liked the first one quite a bit. The burger doesn't need the poblano sauce at all.
The trendsetters at Yum! Brands, the company that licenses Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, among other chains, have paced the national stuffed market up to now. Taco Bell sells beef, chicken, and steak "Grilled Stuft Burritos"—no time to spell words right, there are burritos to stuff!—primarily differentiated from the chain's other burritos by the inclusion of "three real cheeses." Pizza Hut's Stuffed Crust Pan Pizza, with extra cheese hidden inside the crust, got a lot of (mostly bad) press in 2009. (The ads featured a photo of a pizza with huge arrows pointing helpfully to the pizza's crust, just in case you were unable to locate it yourself.)
It was only a matter of time before Burger King, which deliberately cultivates a reputation as the most "extreme" of the major hamburger chains, entered this market. It's no secret that all of Burger King's add-ons and transformations are designed to detract attention from the flavor of its substandard ingredients. Ideally, the meat is supposed to be the flavorful part of your food. In fast-food dining, though, the meat is just a vessel for the conveyance of condiments. Burger King has a few smoky, spicy sauces that they'll slap on anything and various permutations of vegetables and fried starches. Occasionally they'll get creative and slice things into unexpected shapes. But the fact remains that their ingredients suck, and that studding a greasy frozen burger with cheese and peppers is just a newly clever way to hide the fact that the burger itself is greasy and frozen.
Which isn't to say Burger King hasn't gotten remarkably good at the art of concealment—it has. With my public service announcement out of the way, I'll reiterate that the Stuffed Steakhouse burger was perfectly enjoyable, and the fact that it was "stuffed" made it all the more attractive. It's not fine dining, and it's not good for you, but it's certainly a worthwhile contender for best fast-food stuffed item, and I'm sorry that it's only around for a limited time.
Justin Peters is Slate’s crime correspondent.