Hamburger Diaries: Carl’s Jr.
I visited the only Carl’s Jr. within the city of Austin at 609 W. Slaughter Ln. The grounds are well kept and overly spacious. The interior of the restaurant is a bit busy, and they are trying too hard to embrace the legacy of namesake Carl Karcher who was ejected from the company, CKE [Carl Karcher Enterprises] Restaurants, Inc. in 1993. My only awareness of Carl’s Jr. before their acquisition of Hardee’s and subsequent expansion, was the venom left-leaning causes in California expressed for the company. This may have been a reaction to Karcher’s notorious hard-right activism no doubt inspired by his strict Catholicism. Karcher may have been the first catholic member of the John Birch Society.
I suspect Karcher and I would not have enjoyed one another’s dinner conversation. Even so, the spirit of his enterprise and the idea that if you’re willing to bust your hump you too can have at least a little piece of The American Dream makes me wish I were born a few decades earlier. Like the McDonald brothers, the original Carl’s was a barbecue restaurant while the little hamburger joints he started to build were called “Carl’s Junior” to differentiate them. I enjoy the eccentricity of that name, possibly because I wasn’t raised around it. To be clear the trademark is “Carl’s Jr.”, with the apostrophe and period.
An additional point of agreement between the late, esteemed Carl Karcher and myself would be that a quick-service restaurant must be, first and foremost, a nice place to have a nice meal and not an investment opportunity, a branding exercise or cause for actions on the stock market. CKE acquired Hardee’s in 1997 thus bringing the legacy of Sandy’s, Burger Chef, Dee’s, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., and Tacos de Carlos under the same structure. From 1996 to 1999 CKE was the corporate parent of Rally’s Restaurants. They kept Rally’s alternate brand The Green Burrito following the sale to Checker’s. With this brand they opened the first dual-branded restaurants following Rally’s brief and ultimately unsuccessful dual-brand experiments in the early 1990s. Oddly, in Rally’s original territories, The Green Burrito is known as The Red Burrito. The same restaurants are called Carl’s Jr. in the West and Hardee’s in the East with minimal menu variation. Austin, Texas is now a Carl’s Jr. territory, although Hardee’s restaurants were open and operating here at least until 1997.
The television ads I’ve found for Mr. Karcher’s namesake are offensive to his conservative values, and to your reviewer’s hippie-lib-pinko oriented respect for human decency.
Recently I’ve consumed materials regarding Hardee’s fiftieth anniversary, which occurs in the month of September 2010. When you see the history of that company laid bare before you it is difficult to avoid the impression that once Wilbur Hardee sold his nascent enterprise so many people wanted to make their mark things readily spiraled out of control. Fried chicken, roast beef, sliced turkey, Li’l Chef Hardee’s, Hardee’s wanted to be all things to all people and what I carry away with me when I think about them at all, is the biscuits. I mention this only because you may now purchase Hardee’s-branded breakfast biscuits, and they really were the best in the business, at Carl’s Jr. If it were not such a pain to travel several miles to Carl’s Jr. I’d have breakfast there as often as I once had a magnificent Hardee’s biscuit breakfast.
The dining room is cramped and busy, but by no means unwelcoming. There are two six-spout fountains, with eight beverages each. I can’t even remember them all, but Dr Pepper, Diet Dr Pepper, Coke Zero, Fanta Orange and Strawberry, and Powerade were all available.
The counter was uncommonly low, maybe only 24 to 28 inches. On six feet of counter there were four stations, two of which were open during a not especially busy Saturday afternoon. The busy layout of the counter was such that the exchange of currency and a table tent was awkward. However, the service was quick, friendly, get you in and out, everything you need and some of what you want. The staff was pleased to be there, and I got nothing of what football coaches in stereotype would call “attitude”.
After the incomprehensibility of the McDonald’s menu, Carl’s Jr’s menu is a revelation. It is a series of photographs properly characterized as Burger Pr0n. Each sandwich presented in a way that all of its component parts are conspicuous in a way that even a blatant list of ingredients would not make more plain. To the right of each picture is the name of the creation and below the price for a sandwich or combo. Waffle fries are not available in my market, to my disappointment. I didn’t ask about the fried zucchini. If I can get fried zucchini, I’ll over look the absence of … oh wait, they have onion rings as well.
My order: the Famous Star in a combo. I am handed a cup and table tent, and pour a cup of Coke Zero. I get to a table, notice the quasi-retro decor and tributes to the company’s history on the walls. I did not think to look at the time. Before I knew it and in an amount of time I would have gladly stood at the counter the same confident young chap who took my order delivered my Famous Star.
Something about the skin-on fries attracts me. In fact, I very nearly overlooked my sandwich for these fries which are thick, obviously previously frozen but savory and with just barely too much salt. These may be the fries P.Terry’s aspires to emulate.
If I may state plainly: Carl’s Jr.’s fries are the best, most satisfying frozen fries I’ve ever had. This is what you’re going for. I am a sucker for Ollie/Rally fries, but honestly these uncoated fries hit every high point. Crunch, texture, heat retention, actual flavor …
The sandwich was a standard, dressed not-quite-quarter-pound burger on a four-inch seeded bun and its description would be wholly unremarkable. The Famous Star is flavorful, rich, just sweet enough and the dressings are richly flavored. I really enjoyed my Carl’s Jr. meal. In fact I specifically remember thinking how I’d choose Carl’s Jr. over my current default quick-service restaurants if only they had more locations. I was fully prepared to gush all over Carl’s Jr. Just to be sure I stopped on my way out of the restaurant to get a Big Carl to go. This is an analog to the Big Boy, but without the center bun.
The patties were more conspicuous in the Big Boy analogue. While the Famous Star was a wonderfully adequate sandwich; the Big Carl was not. The differential here being the flavor of the alleged-beef patty. In fact the Famous Star would have been a perfectly satisfactory burger had something not distracted me. Every element, including well chosen condiments, rich cheese, cool and flavorful veg, of a magnificent burger was in place with the exception of the actual beef patties.
When you go to Carl’s Jr., don’t waste your time ordering a burger from the menu. Order whatever you want, prepare to enjoy the best, most novel combinations in the business but hold the beef patties. Upon tasting the Big Carl I could not believe how bad the beef was. I’m not even certain it was beef. When I return to Carl’s Jr. I may have a Famous Star, “hold the beef”, or perhaps the guacamole Six Dollar Burger, whose trademark is outdated. Every element of the restaurant is superior with the exception of the alleged beef on the burgers which is so poor and flavorless you may as well order your sandwich without the patties. On my next visit to Carl’s Jr., and I assure you I will return, I need not bother with the pathetic, flavorless and fried patties.
I can’t imagine where I got the idea my sandwich would feature grilled, or perhaps “charco-broiled” beef. The total of three patties I encountered came from the processing plant of the damned. I say without exaggeration that I had a wonderful meal in a wonderful restaurant with something not unlike table service with the exception of the truly pathetic beef on offer.
Enjoy Carl’s Jr., but please do so without the regrettable, alleged beef.