- Carl’s Jr. is arguably known more for its provocative ads than its burgers, but the chain pivoted away from its controversial image in 2017.
- The chain just opened a location in New York City, and I decided to try it for the first time.
- The burgers were underwhelming, but the fries were fantastic.
I’d never been to a Carl’s Jr. before, but I certainly knew about it. Through some rather controversial ad campaigns, the brand has certainly made itself a household name over the years.
Paris Hilton crawling across the soapy hood of a Bentley, a burger in hand. Kate Upton writhing around in the backseat of a convertible, enjoying the chain’s patty melt a bit too much. A (barely) bikini-cladCharlotte McKinney setting up visual double-entendres left and right at a farmer’s market.
Critics slammed the chain’s sex-centric advertising, with feminist groups decrying the objectification of women and the comparison to pieces of meat. For better or worse, it made the chain – and its parent company, CKE Restaurants – pretty memorable.
The company’s former CEO, Andy Puzder, told Entrepreneur in 2015, “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American.”
Puzder was also unsuccessfully nominated as Trump’s labour secretary.
With all that beef swirling about, I was well aware of Carl’s Jr., despite having never seen one in my life.
But starting last year, Carl’s Jr. turned over a new leaf, scrubbing up its image as it began to tackle expansion into the Northeast. CKE currently operates about 3,300 locations of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s across the country. It just opened a new Carl’s Jr. location in Manhattan, so my opportunity to try the scandalous chain had arrived at last.
Do the burgers earn the same buzz that the chain’s titillating image did? I had to find out. So I hopped on the subway and headed towards Penn Station where the new outpost was – and as luck would have it, I was pretty hungry.
The first Carl’s Jr. outpost in Manhattan is on 7th Avenue, right across from Penn Station. Hilariously, considering the chain’s former image, it’s right next to a Hooters.
I went around 1:30 p.m., when I assumed the lunch rush would be over — but the restaurant was packed even then. I waited in line for at least 10 minutes.
During the long wait, I was comforted by Carl’s Jr.’s iconic “Happy Star,” a beaming and benevolent deity smiling down upon us weary, hungry line-waiters.
I noticed this location serves beer and wine as well — a rarity at any fast-food chains, let alone at one in NYC. It’s a smart move, though, especially for urban centres where bars are common and people are constantly on the hunt for cheap happy-hour deals.
The menu seemed to be fairly cheap and standard fare; it’s burger-centric, with combos and the like. There were also chicken tenders and sandwiches — but I left those for another day.
The wait for the food itself wasn’t all that long, taking five minutes at most. I ventured upstairs to the seating area, bag and soda in hand.
I tried to order what the internet told me were classic Carl’s Jr. items: a Famous Star cheeseburger combo with fries, and a Western bacon cheeseburger.
The fries didn’t look like much, but they fooled me. They’re actually some of the best fast-food fries I’ve had. They had the same size and taste of McDonald’s fries, but they’re substantially crispier, which is my number-one priority as a french fry connoisseur.
I tackled the Famous Star first. After all, fame counts for something in this city. As part of a combo, it cost $US6.59.
The burger was wide and flat; it’s quite similar in size and shape to a Burger King Whopper. The taste was similar to BK, too, likely because both chains charbroil their beef. It seemed messy upon first unwrapping it, and it only got messier as I ate it.
Sauces were dripping everywhere, and the flat, wide construction meant it fell apart fast — the patty and the buns were slipping and sliding like tectonic plates. It’s satisfying, but the messiness diminished the experience.
Next, I moseyed on over to the Western bacon cheeseburger, which seemed to be the most iconic of Carl’s Jr.’s burgers.
It’s much heftier than the Famous Star, despite having the same patty as far as I could tell. It’s beefed up with bacon, cheese, onion rings, and barbecue sauce — it sounded pretty heavy, and it was. For $US4.79, it’s a lot for a little.
It wasn’t as smokey as expected — the bacon was lacklustre, and the barbecue sauce had more sweet notes than smoke or sour. The onion rings didn’t hold up well, and I couldn’t taste the onions at all in the midst of the sauce, beef, and bacon. Something more acidic was needed to clear out the heavier elements on the palate.
So at long last, my East Coast taste buds have tried Carl’s Jr. It’s decent, but I wasn’t all that impressed. To me, it seemed like a slightly more refined Burger King with a smaller menu. I wish the chain’s more interesting menu items — like fried zucchini and “crisscut fries” — were available at this location, because the food just didn’t match the chain’s bawdy reputation.
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