Unless your television viewing is limited to "Nova" and "Face the Nation," you've seen a lot of those fast-food commercials where they sell new entrees the way other companies do cars. Chain land is a happy world, where clowns do handstands and Mr. Beef growls, carefree guys play piano on the back of flatbed trucks and confused young men wax Rod McKuen-style about the sandwich they had for dinner.
People who eat junkfood on commercials are all slim and prosperous, and the food looks delicious. Even if you never eat chain hamburgers it's easy to feel less than hip when you know neither how a Chilito is folded nor how a McRib tastes. But there's no need.
A McRib sandwich may not be the foulest thing I've ever put in my mouth, but it is certainly among the most dishonest, as if Japanese restaurants actually served you those plastic replicas of ramen and tonkatsu they display in their front windows. If the chain's former experiment with the stuff is any indication, the McRib will outsell all other ribs in the country put together by a factor of 10.
The thing appears to be a rib sandwich all right, if a bit genteel, the kind that might be served with a schooner of beer in one of those downtown restaurants with sawdust on the floor. But what look like spareribs seem cast out of dry, gray pork, chopped and factory-pressed to resemble a miniature rack of spareribs: no bones, no taste. The skin of the "ribs" is toughened and brown, and it is impossible to tell whether the meat has been fried, griddled, baked or bombarded with radiation.
Where you expect a crusty French roll, you are given a puff of gummy balloon bread shaped and colored to look just like a crusty French roll, right down to intimations of crisp texture and a "browned" crevice in the top where a real roll is slashed before baking. (Its only real purpose seems to be as a tool to keep your hands clean.)
Where you might expect barbecue sauce, even on the order of that sweet stuff they serve with Chicken McNuggets, there is a syrupy, chemical-tasting mess whose sweet-sulfur top note stays with you half an hour after you have left the restaurant. If it weren't for a sprinkling of minced onion, there wouldn't be a natural flavor in the sandwich.
And McRibs aren't any cheaper than real food--for the $4.09 McDonald's charges for a McRib pack, you could have a tasty home-cooked biryani at a Pakistani cafe down the block from my local branch, or the fish-lunch special at a Japanese grill, or two cheese pupusas and a tamarindo drink at a Salvadoran place, or three courses of Filipino food at any one of three lunch counters within two minutes walk.
Jack in the Box's Sirloin and Cheese Sandwich seems a little closer to its inspiration, if only because the original Philly cheesesteaks were pretty downscale fast-food themselves. There's another gummy simulated roll, this one would-be Italian, and a layer of semi-melted "Swiss" cheese. The heart of the sandwich is paper-thin sheets of beef, browned, tasting strongly of black pepper. The sandwich tastes a lot more like a Jack in the Box Chicken Supreme than it does like a genuine fiery-hot, melty Pat's Steak, but if you're not expecting too much, it's not completely horrible.
Burger Buddies are more innocuous, cheerily packaged analogues to the tiny, steamed White Castle burgers the Beastie Boys used to rap about, two Buddies to the package. (I've always thought the best thing about White Castle was its slogan, "Buy 'em by the sack," but go figure.) They pretend to be nothing but themselves.
Apparently, when Burger King introduced the burgerettes as "Burger Bundles" a few years ago--three to a package!--too many little patties fell through the grill and immolated themselves in the flames below, so the Buddies are joined at the waist, a single dumbbell-shaped patty on a pasty, dumbbell-shaped bun. It's a lot like a mushier version of the regular Burger King cheeseburger--sort of buttery-tasting, dominated by the sharpness of catsup and pickle slices, overlaid with the faint, acrid flavor imparted by Burger King's "flame-broiling"--but configured so you can split the burgers apart like a Popsicle, making the thing ideal for two not-too-hungry buddies in the mood for an average fast-food burger.
Taco Bell has always been better at inventing neologisms than inventing food--I have a friend who never quite got over the death of the Enchirito--and the new items always seem to be recombinations of the same half-dozen ingredients. Taco Bell seems to be competing mainly on the basis of price these days (a huge percentage of their entrees cost less than a buck). The new Chilito turns out to be a burrito with very little stuff in it, so little that it falls in flat folds, unlike the puffy envelope of an actual burrito. This involves wrapping a very small amount of pasty fast-food chile in a very large flour tortilla, the sort of thing an impoverished family might do to stretch a tiny bit of meat. A Chilito may not kill you. But it also won't make you smarter, or better-looking . . . or happy.