Burger King's new menu plays catch-up -- and kung pao -- with McDonald's

Burger King issued a battle cry yesterday. In order to help boost its sluggish sales -- the chain has slipped to third, behind McDonald's and Wendy's -- the company rolled out the heavy artillery: ten new menu items, including specialty salads, chicken snack wraps, smoothies, flavored frozen coffee drinks, some slightly revamped burgers and a chicken-strip reboot. Some of these items sounded suspiciously like what McDonald's started introducing back in 2003. Has BK learned anything in the decade since then? I decided to find out.

At dinner last night at the Burger King at 32nd Avenue and Downing Street, I ordered the new BK Strawberry Banana and Tropical Mango smoothies; the BK Mocha Frappé; a Ranch Crispy Chicken Snack Wrap; the Chicken, Apple & Cranberry and Chicken BLT Garden Fresh Salads; the new BK Chef's Choice bacon and bleu-cheese burger; and four of the new BK Toppers burgers: BBQ, Mushroom & Swiss, Bacon & Cheddar and Deluxe Cheeseburger. And for dessert, I had the new-recipe chicken strips, with the new Kung Pao dipping sauce.

Are any of these new BK items cheaper and/or tastier than the versions at McDonald's? Are the remade burgers better than the old BK burgers? And do those chicken strips justify plopping your ass down in a hard, plastic seat? Here's my assessment:

BK Strawberry Banana and Tropical Mango smoothies and the BK Mocha Frappé

I was expecting BK to have those imposing metal, frozen-beverage makers that just splurt the drinks into plastic cups, but the employees actually have to make the frozen drinks to order in industrial-sized blenders, one by one. That's a pain in the hinders for counter-side employees, and even with the restaurant almost empty and the drive-thru business sporadic, none of the frozen drinks I got were blended long enough, resulting in some seriously ice-hunky beverages.

The strawberry-banana smoothie was less syrupy sweet than I expected -- far less so than the McD's version -- but weak on flavor, and too ice-heavy. Same story with the mango smoothie, which had some tiny bits of fruit sleeping at the bottom of the cup that clogged up my straw when I woke them up.The frappé tasted like cold, scorched milk -- not much coffee or mocha -- but the thick, fudge-sauce garnish on top of the excessive amount of whipped topping was delicious. I ate that and left the rest. Verdict: I'm not unrealistic enough to expect fresh fruit and fresh coffee from Burger King, but I've bought pre-made smoothie mix/iced coffee mix from the Queen Soopers for less money per serving that create drinks that taste far better than these sad, chunky, scorchy drinks. Nor are they better than the McDonald's versions. But since the McDoo's drinks are loaded with staggering amounts of sugar, BK's are slightly less likely to cause your kidneys to shut down. Ranch Crispy Chicken Snack Wrap

Burger King couldn't even come up with a different name for this than McDonald's? BK's marketing team is apparently as constipated as the chain's sales, because I would have named it something interesting like "Cluckerolls" or "Faux-Healthy-Ranch-Drippers." The uninspiring, single chicken strip on a white flour tortilla decorated with a pinch of shredded cheese and greens differs from the competition in only one way: BK has spring mix, whereas McDoo keeps using and abusing iceberg lettuce like its personal bitch.

Verdict: Meh-h-h-h. Chicken, Apple & Cranberry and Chicken BLT Garden Fresh Salads The Chicken, Apple & Cranberry salad was surprisingly easy to like. There was almost no iceberg lettuce, the greens were crisp and clean, the apples were juicy and not too sweet, and there was just enough bleu cheese to taste but not overwhelm. The grilled chicken was dry but non-offensive, and the apple cider vinaigrette was a bit sweet, but better than I expected -- and there were plenty of dried cranberries. The good ones. Yes, there are good dried cranberries and bad dried cranberries, and BK was smart enough to know that since people eat them at home, they will notice the difference.

The BLT salad was all right. Unlike the cherry tomatoes at McDonald's, the ones in this salad did not look or taste like sour, rotten plums. The honey mustard dressing is above average: Ken's brand.

Verdict: Although BK's salads are smaller than McDoober's, they are much, much better. But then, the McDonald's salads are so abhorrent, it wouldn't take much to make better ones. Still, I'd order these again. BK Chef's Choice bacon and bleu cheese burger; BBQ, Mushroom & Swiss, Bacon & Cheddar and Deluxe Cheeseburger Toppers

Burger King has staked its money on its burgers from the jump, and since its overt "bro-mance" marketing campaign has apparently been flushed, it is now trying to give its burgers a broader appeal rather than just shamelessly exploiting male meat lust and bacon fetishism. I was kinda hoping BK would careen too far to the other side by marketing lady burgers to the female population using gender-stereotypical dreck like Gardenburgers with no condiments, a Tab cola and a Yoplait light, but alas, BK is not quite that desperate for sales -- yet.

BK gains the advantage over McD's with its actual meat patties -- which do taste better with their gently-flame-licked flavor -- but Mickey's has better buns and more uniform toppings. Until now, anyway, since BK is using a soft, dense, eggy bun for the Chef's Choice burgers. It's a damn good bun. And while this burger is a total ripoff of the McDonald's one-third-pound Angus Burger, which in turn is a total ripoff of the Carl's Jr.'s Six Dollar Burger, apparently the tertiary replication fade hasn't made BK's burger any less tempting.

"Toppers" is a really brain-stoopid idea. We expect burgers to have toppings, and pointing out that they do -- without making the touted toppings anything out of the ordinary -- is a lot like marketing water as being wet, or foie gras as being made with liver. The Deluxe Cheeseburger Topper is a Jr. Whopper without tomatoes; the Bacon & Cheddar Topper is the Whopper Jr. with bacon and minus tomatoes.

The Mushroom & Swiss appeared to have neither of the advertised toppings: I got a combined total of one mushroom; the cheese was that ubiquitous white processed goo; and there was also some chilly, sloppy sauce that tasted like French onion soup mix. Meanwhile, the BBQ Topper was noticeably lacking in any sauce -- to the point of parching my mouth like an onion-scented desert. Considering that BK glumps mayonnaise on its burgers as if it were frosting birthday cupcakes, a dry burger is both rare and unexpected.

Verdict: The Chef's Choice burger is worth the money, but if BK tries to swap out the new bun with its regular bun, then that dog won't hunt, Monseigneur. The Toppers are nothing more than a transparent gimmick to charge more for a Whopper Jr., and BK needs to go back to sauce school if the best it can come up with for an American classic like a Mushroom & Swiss burger is something that soccer moms make as a potato chip dip for a church potluck. BK's new recipe Chicken Strips

I had to make sure I understood the difference between BK's chicken strips and chicken tenders, so I asked the nice counter person what the difference was.

"So -- the tenders are chicken nuggets, then?" I asked her.

"Yeah -- like McNuggets," she said.

This is a fine example of why BK will never win the chicken nugget war against McDonald's. McNuggets are a household name, like Kleenex or Kotex, and the most delicious item in the fast-food-cognitive-dissonance universe. We don't give a farina fart what parts of the chicken they are extracted from, or even how they are constructed to resemble fowl-flavored particle board. After a night of drinking and smoking up like a reggae band, we find that those little golden discs are the only food in the world that will satisfy -- unless there is a Taco Bell nearby, anyway.

But Burger King is winning the chicken-strip battle. The new strips are coated with a light, crisp, tasty breading that's not too crunchy, and the Kung Pao sauce is like a garlicky teriyaki sauce, complete with the requisite red-alert level of sodium. McDoo's strips are hard and unwieldy, like little wooden clubs, and come with no Kung Pao sauce -- just the Sweet Chili Sauce that used to be my favorite.

Verdict: Well-played, BK. You have earned my chicken-strip loyalty with your new breading recipe, and you have trumped McDonald's by offering a far better pseudo-Asian dipping sauce. Having to choose between a sauce with too much sugar and one with enough salt to preserve your internal organs is one of the many, many reasons that living in this country is so freaking great.

Final Jenni-food analysis: The new BK menu items aren't going to help the company's bottom line, because they aren't really new and, for the most part, aren't really better-tasting. BK's doppelganger items need to be either cheaper or tastier -- or both -- in order to even ride McDoo's greasy coattails, let alone surpass the Golden Arches in sales. Otherwise, the chain will become like White Castle, confined to peddling ranch-dusted "Chicken Rings" in lackluster Eastern/Midwestern enclaves.

Innovation is the silver bullet for fast-food chains interested in killing off their competitors. If BK really wants to grab customers by their wallets, then it needs to make real changes to its menu and brand image.

Dialing down the mayo and murdering that creepy mascot would be a good place to start. This is the first in a semi-regular series of fast-food reviews by Jenn Wohletz.

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