During the first several decades of our glorious and persistent fast-food era, America’s low-end, high-speed restaurateurs relied almost exclusively on the cow for protein. And why not? Beef tastes good, and cows are huge, plentiful, and otherwise useless (except the cheese cows, those are cool). But while the industry is still held together by a sturdy bovine backbone, other, lesser meats have been slipping between the buns lately.
Chicken was the first big meaternative, with heretical operations like Chik-Fil-A, Popeye’s, and KFC building their entire businesses around frigging edible birds. Weird, but it worked, which is part of the reason all of the major beef-centric chains now serve at least one and often several versions of a chicken sandwich, not to mention all manner of nuggets, strips, and wings.
Other reasons for chicken’s rise include health benefits, both real and imaginary, as well as the crucial and mundane commodity-pricing factors that govern the entire industry. Plus now there are chains dedicated almost solely to making better hamburgers—who needs that kind of competition? And then there’s the environmental stuff. Cows have become officially problematic.
So I understand why traditional fast-food hamburgers might need a nap, and I don’t even mind chicken, but it’s high time we mix it up a little bit. How about some lamb or rabbit or goat or, I dunno, what’s that other food-animal people never shut up about? Oh yeah, PORK. We need more fast-food pork, and I don’t mean just a couple limp strips of bacon soaking up mayonnaise and praise atop a fried chicken sandwich. And with all due respect to the granddaddy of fast-food pigmeat, I think the nation’s pretty well McRibbed-out. McDonald’s now only offers it at intermittent times and locations; these days there are eight social-media posts for every bite taken, turning the McRib into more of a vehicle for self-indulgent, forced nostalgia than a functioning foodstuff.
But enough of that talk, because we came here today to celebrate the fact that our major fast-fooderies are finally starting to embrace pork in its highest form: pulled, sauced, and bunned. Burger King trotted out an adequate pulled-pork sandwich this summer, and now Wendy’s and Subway are prominently featuring limited-time-only versions. I recently ate one of each.
Wendy’s BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich
The best pulled pork relies on slow-cooking and simple presentation, making it an unlikely choice for an industry that typically introduces new sandwiches on the “You give us five bucks and 30 seconds, we’ll give you six layers and 31 condiments” model. But Wendy’s pulled pork starts out on the right track in this regard, at least conceptually. The most notable nod to the purists is the remarkable restraint they showed in the adjective department. When’s the last time any new fast-food product was introduced without a single extraneous modifier? One might reasonably expect this pork to be Zesty, Bold, or Memphis-Style, but instead it’s just BBQ and Pulled, both of which actually mean real things.
Of course, some of that goodwill is squandered by delivering the pork on a brioche bun, which is a bit too uppity for the pork pedants who insist on gummy, Wonder-like rolls. Those folk will be relieved to learn that Wendy’s iteration of brioche is dull, thick, and sweet, differing from a standard hamburger bun mainly in appearance, as it leans to the darker side of khaki.
When you pop the bun, you’re greeted by a thick pelt of disconcertingly green slaw that looks like a spot of vomit from a cat who’d washed down shredded cheese with milk and Midori. But fear not, it’s just broccoli-studded mayo. It’s bland and mushy and objectively repulsive, but the blandness makes it easy to ignore, and the mushiness blends in with the sandwich’s overall texture, rendering it largely harmless as long as you’re smart enough not to look it in the eye.
So we’ve dealt with the bread and the slaw, which leaves just the pork and the sauce. That’s right: no bullshit lettuce, tomato, pickle, or onion on this straight-forward number. You do, however, get your choice of barbecue sauces: smoky, spicy, or sweet. A true bon vivant would have ordered all three sandwiches, but I just went with the smoky, which is the default. I considered trying to cadge side splorts of the other two, but that seemed undignified, so instead I’m left to speculate that they are very similar to the smoky, with one leaning slightly more toward sugar and the other a bit heavier on the pepper dust. Anyhow, the smoky sauce is quite sweet, not at all smoky, and completely underwhelming.
Boring bun, sloppy slaw, and lame sauce. Bad start, but it could have been salvaged by really good meat. Alas, Wendy’s pulled pork is merely decent. It looks the part, with chunks and shreds intermingled in a manner that suggests it was actually pulled rather than simply extruded, but it’s nearly flavorless. The texture and appearance are there, but the taste is far too muted to pull the endeavor back from the grave. It brings to mind a turkey or even vegetarian version of pulled pork, sorely lacking in honest, meaty character. It’s rubbed with salt, sugar, “spices,” and paprika, but the sauce provides more than enough of that sort of pigless distraction. It’s not a bad sandwich, but it’s a dull one. You can do better for $4.99 at Wendy’s.
Subway Ranchero Pulled Pork Melt
It was a rough summer for Subway, what with all the diddling and the dying, to say nothing of sliding sales. But autumn’s a new season, and the Ranchero Pulled Pork Melt is a new rendition of their occasionally available, moderately successful Applewood Pulled Pork.
I don’t love melts, and no one loves Subway, but I’ve got a kind heart and a medium-fond memory of the Applewood PP, so I went into this lunch cautiously optimistic. I may even have approached it with a pro-Subway agenda: You know how sportswriters say they don’t root for teams, they root for good stories? Well, “Guess what: It turns out the sandwich shop that smells like feet and sells cold cuts by the inch isn’t great at pulled pork!” isn’t the most compelling headline. So with those cards on the table, let’s get to it.
The poster above the meatball tank called the Ranchero “Applewood pulled pork seasoned with traditional Mexican flavors and spices,” and suggested augmenting it with Monterey cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, and chipotle southwest sauce. So I did, on six inches of wheat bread, for $4.75.
The meat was buried beneath mixed shards and yellow and white cheese, four slices of moderately hot jalapeño, three useless disks of tomato, five paper-thin slivers of red onion, several hundred thousand cubic feet of lettuce, and some slightly smoky orangey-pink goo. There’s nothing much to say about the vegetables; I recommend you go goo-less.
As for the pork: It’s fuckin’ good! It looks like mistreated ground beef more suited to a discount taco than a pulled-pork sandwich, but this ain’t a fashion show. The little pig nugs are intensely seasoned with a nice, peppery dry rub, but their porky essence still shines through. The texture’s a bit uneven, with some patches rubbery and others charred (presumably by the reheating device), but the flavor is very good.
Look, I swear I’m not trolling my fellow Wendy’s fans when I say that Subway makes the superior pulled pork sandwich. I’m just as surprised as the next low-rent glutton that Subway’s combination of more flavorful meat and easy customizability makes for a better pulled-pork experience, expectations—and logic—be damned.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Art by Sam Woolley.