Public health advocates loathe it. Barbecue purists are appalled. But legions of McDonald's fans await Tuesday's nationwide return of the McRib sandwich, a pressed pork patty with no ribs, 26 grams of fat and a committed cult following.
The McRib has been on and off McDonald's menus for years, showing up just a few weeks a year in selected markets across the country. As part of a new promotion, the company will offer the sandwich at all of its U.S. stores for six weeks, starting Tuesday. Die-hard McRib lovers are salivating.
"Whenever they bring them around I'll go get one," said Mark Mueller, 30, a Costa Mesa hotel manager. "The fact that you can only get it every so often makes you crave it all the more when it does come around."
McRib returns as Americans are in the midst of a nationwide debate on nutrition and obesity. It reappears on McDonald's menus nationwide on the very day that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the so-called Happy Meal ban, which would forbid restaurants from handing out toys with meals that contain too many calories or excess grams of sugar, fat and salt.
Nutritionists and other health experts recoil from the McRib as they do other fast food, seeing it as yet another threat to the nation's expanding waistline. Some epicureans swear it tastes like rubber and complain that no actual ribs are included.
But fans are buzzing.
"Waited all night to get out of work to get a McRib," a hungry fan posted on Facebook, where there are pro-McRib pages and anti-McRib pages.
"McRib can't be that bad for you," wrote another on Twitter.
At a McDonald's restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, a placard declaring "McRib Joy!" is displayed next to menu signs offering the chain's new healthful salads along with the regular fare of burgers and fries.
The restaurant started serving McRibs a couple of weeks ago, ahead of the nationwide launch, and has sold about 150 a day since, said manager Ismael Herrera. In one hour Monday, he said, customers ordered 58 McRibs.
Tommy Ahn, on a break from his job as a medical device inspector, was one of them. Despite a persistent feeling that the sauce was too sweet (he'd prefer ketchup), Ahn is smitten. Like many of his fellow pork lovers, he's already worried about what he'll do when McDonald's takes it off the menu again.
"Sometimes you feel like you really want a McRib," the 28-year-old said, "but it's not there."
Brian Goodman, 27, of Grand Forks, N.D., had his first McRib in about 10 years Monday after his wife, Chilly, bought one at a McDonald's that offered the sandwiches early and drove it to him at work.
"I am a huge fan of the McRib, and I am glad to have it back," Goodman said. "I just happen to find this really gross, deformed pork patty to be delicious."
While some U.S. devotees would like to see the sandwich join the McDonald's lineup permanently, store operators have found that sales are strongest for about four to six weeks, said McDonald's Corp. marketing director Brad Hunter. Thus the McRib has taken on a cameo role. Elusiveness heightens its appeal.
"Absence makes the heart grow fonder," Hunter said. "The quest for McRib happens throughout the country every year."
The sandwich consists of a pork patty pressed into the shape of ribs. It's served on a hoagie-style bun with onions and pickles. McRib has 500 calories — 240 of them from fat — and 980 milligrams of sodium, according to the McDonald's website.
The nationwide promotion marks the first time in 16 years that the sandwich has been available at every U.S. McDonald's at once. The company is also holding a contest for the best tale (tall or otherwise) about hunting for or eating McRibs. The winner will get a free trip to Germany, where the sandwich is always on the menu.
Neal Ruby, who owns seven McDonald's restaurants in Orange and Los Angeles counties, said he started serving the sandwiches last week. Customers are already flocking to order it, he said.
"We've already got a lift in sales," said Ruby, who has sold McRib on and off for decades in his stores. When his daughter, now 31, was in high school, a friend wrote in her yearbook, "Tell your Dad to bring back McRib," he said.
McRib mania is a stick in the sides of some public health advocates, who say it's just another example of how fast food feeds the nation's obesity epidemic.
"It's junk," said Michael Jacobson, head of the watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest. A single sandwich contains half the daily recommended intake of saturated fat and sodium.
And then there are the barbecue snobs.
"I used to eat them when I was a kid, and I thought they were amazing," said barbecue chef and blogger Neil Strawder, of Bigmista Barbecue catering in Long Beach. "Then I had real barbecue and I thought, 'The McRib doesn't have any bones!'" He is no longer a fan.
The popular website BBQ Brethren has challenged its members to create their own, ostensibly better versions of the McRib. Ron Lewen, of Batavia, Ill., bought one Sunday and made a stuffed bacon-wrapped jalapeño with McRib pieces inside.
Devotees have been known to drive hours for a McRib, and one, Minnesota computer programmer Alan Klein, developed an online map where aficionados can plot the locations of restaurants that serve them.
McDonald's decision to serve the McRib in every U.S. restaurant means fans won't need Klein's help finding the sandwich — if only for the next six weeks. He couldn't be happier.
"The good times will be rolling here again — for a while," Klein said.