Just like your rich but aimless freshman-year roommate, McDonald’s is taking the summer to go abroad and find itself. Last week, the company debuted four limited-time menu items imported from its international franchises: There’s cheesy bacon fries from Australia, a tomato mozzarella chicken sandwich from Canada, a stroopwafel McFlurry from the Netherlands, and a Grand McExtreme Bacon Burger from Spain.
But it’s kind of like the student who boasts of his formative and culturally inspiring time studying abroad, but who only hung out with Americans. With the exception of the stroopwafels, what do any of these standard fast food ingredients have to do with any of the countries with which they are associated? And how are they any different from anything that would appear on the regular American McDonald’s menu? “Listen,” you can almost hear McDonald’s sighing exasperatedly, “I know it’s hard for you to understand because you haven’t been to Madrid,” a city where McDonald’s spent its time drinking cheap beer, clubbing and hooking up with a girl named Christine who goes to Ohio State, instead of seeing the Reina Sofia and trying cocido Madrileño.
McDonald’s tweaks its menu to suit regional tastes abroad. That’s why there are chicken, not beef, burgers at McDonald’s in India and no pork products sold in franchises in Muslim countries. But even abroad, McDonald’s is still McDonald’s, and it reflects a distinctly American taste. These four selections were chosen because they are popular in their respective countries — and maybe they’re popular there because they’re quintessentially McDonald’s and represent quintessentially American fast food. McDonald’s international menus tell us more about what citizens of those countries think about American food than they tell Americans about local flavor.
The Grand McExtreme, for example, has a nice, smoky Gouda on it. But Gouda is … Dutch. The tomato mozzarella chicken sandwich is like a distant relative of the chicken Parmesan, which is from Italy, not Canada, the last time I checked. When I think of fries with lots of toppings, I think of Canada, not Australia.
There’s nothing in the Grand McExtreme that will make you think of Spain. It’s a pretty typical burger: sesame seed bun, quarter-pound patty, slivered onions, bacon, a tangy McBacon sauce (kind of like special sauce, but without relish) and the aforementioned Gouda. It is pretty one-note and needs some sort of acid or crispy element to save it. Pickles would pull a lot of weight here. (You know what would make it Spanish? Sub the Gouda for Manchego, and add some piquillo peppers. But then it would not be a McDonald’s burger). The name “Grand McExtreme” is, however, pulling a lot of weight. It’s the kind of name screenwriters come up with when they’re doing a parody of McDonald’s. It would have been a good name with either of those words, but it’s great with the two put together. Especially considering it describes a pretty normal and not-at-all grand or extreme bacon cheeseburger.
If the tomato mozzarella sandwich is a cousin of the chicken Parm, it’s several generations removed. It comes on an “artisan roll,” with crispy chicken and a tasteless slice of mozzarella. There’s also tomato, onion and lettuce, which actively sabotages this sandwich. Pick that limp, warm lettuce leaf off, Canadians! The one thing that distinguishes this sandwich is the herby tomato sauce. Made of sun-dried tomatoes, it’s like a very sophisticated special sauce. But if you were not told that this was a special “international” menu offering when you tried this sandwich, you’d think it was a pretty good riff on the classic McDonald’s crispy chicken.
As for the bacon cheesy fries — well, what’s more American than bacon cheesy fries? These were on Australian menus before they came here for a limited test run in January, and maybe this means McDonald’s will keep them around. They get limp very quickly, and you might want to eat them with a provided fork. The cheese sauce is on par with the kind you find on nachos in stadiums.
But the stroopwafel McFlurry. Oh, the stroopwafel McFlurry. If you aren’t familiar with stroopwafels, they’re thin, waffle-shaped cookies with a caramel filling. Crush those cookies up and toss them in a McFlurry — drizzled with a caramel sauce — and you have a combination that’s not only a winning flavor, but one that feels international. Stroopwafels are distinctly Dutch, and at the very least, this menu offering feels more special than the others. It is better than the M&M’s McFlurry. It should absolutely stick around.
There are so many other, more interesting choices that McDonald’s could have pulled off its international menus. Like the Supreme Shrimp Burger with onion sauce, from Korea, or the cherry and rhubarb pie at the Russian McDonald’s, or the Halal McArabia chicken sandwich with garlic sauce, from locations in the Middle East. They could have given us Shaka Shaka Chicken, a side dish found in the Japanese McDonald’s, where you’re given a bag of chicken and a small pouch of spices, and you can shake them around together. In another cross-cultural experiment, there is something called a Mexican McAloo Tikki burger on the Indian menu — it’s a fried patty of potatoes and peas, with Mexican condiments.
Instead, we got sandwiches that are pretty similar to the ones we already have.
Maybe the whole point of these international menu items is that they’re branded as exotic but feel familiar — making them more likely to sell. As curious as some Americans would be to try a Maharajah Mac or a Korean Bulgogi burger, they’re not likely to capture a broader audience. Better to keep people firmly in their comfort zone. It’s kind of like when people travel abroad and see all the interesting and unfamiliar restaurants they could visit, but decide to go to McDonald’s, instead.
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