Restaurant No. 3: 2.1% of Conway Restaurants Reviewed
220 E. Oak Street
He Said: We vowed to eat at every restaurant in Conway, and that does include fast-food places. Lots and lots of fast-food places. My most vivid memory of McDonald’s is taking my daughter there in Wisconsin Dells when she was about 6 months old and giving her French fries to suck on, which she loved from that moment on. But that’s why fast-food places are important—families with kids can’t afford to take them all to Mike’s Place every week, unless they are independently wealthy, so they need someplace with cheap food that they can get in and get out. The thing that McDonald’s has going for it more than any other fast-food joint is its consistency—no matter where you are in the world, you’ll find a McDonald’s, and you’ll know what to expect there, at least when it comes to the quality and service of the place. I remember finding a McDonald’s just off St. Mark’s Square in Venice and grabbing a Coke on a hot day, and walking along the street sipping it when a couple of ecstatic American tourists came up to me saying, “Mickey D’s! Where is it?” Or ducking into one with my daughter in Tokyo when we decided we were tired of Japanese food, and finding they had a special item on the menu: Teriyaki Burgers. Of course, prices vary widely: In various parts of the world where McDonald’s is a kind of exotic treat, it can get pricey. My wife and I peeked in the door of the McDonald’s in Oslo to find that a Quarter Pounder cost the equivalent of 17 U.S. dollars.
Still, though consistency is the byword, we’re going to plan to hit every McDonald’s in Conway, and see just what the differences are.
She Said: And we’ll eat different things during our various visits. I’ll be honest, I was looking forward to this! I don’t eat at McDonald’s often, unless we’re on a road trip, when I find it irresistible. But, as anyone who has food issues and a whole-foods focus, McDonald’s is not high on my list. If you read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma¸ the fast-food chapter is largely about corn, because corn is a big part of the McDonald’s food chain, including, at the time of Pollan’s writing, grain-fed beef. This is a problem, because cattle are ruminants; they eat grass, unless they are made to eat grain. Recent unconfirmed pokings about on the Internet tell me that the company sources its beef from concentrated animal feeding organizations, which means that while one cow may provide anywhere from 1,000 to 4,500 hamburgers, there may also be many animals in your little burger, not the ideal situation for whole-foods-centric eaters. And there may be up to 30 ingredients in your hamburger bun, which is also not a food situation I willingly seek out.
But I like the taste of McDonald’s. This is why I allow myself to eat it on some occasions. As a kid, I almost never got to have it, so I was pretty focused on getting my hands on a standardized burger like only they make. Part of me is still that 8-year-old from a tiny town in South Dakota who thought Mickey D’s was exotic and a very big deal.
He Said: All McDonald’s do not look alike, though they do have similarities. Like most, this one was bright and clean, a cheerful atmosphere. There is no children’s play area here, as there is at some McDonald’s. They do, however, have WiFi. There are three kinds of seating available: tables with hard chairs in the middle, booths with soft benches along the margins, and in one small area booths with high tables that seem suited for working on a computer.
She Said: Yeah, I thought it looked great, and I recalled the re-do they’d had here awhile ago, though I honestly am not sure I have ever been inside in the 13 years we’ve lived here. Upon entering I thought even with the WiFi, it might be harder to work in than Starbucks because there was a lot of ambient noise, some kind of grinding—maybe a shake machine—and then a pesky timer noise occasionally as well. There was some flotsam and jetsam about on some of the tables and the floor, but it was generally clean and bright. Our booth was definitely comfy and roomy.
He Said: You haven’t been inside, Jones, because you always go through the drive-through, which reminds me, they have a 24-hour drive-through service here on Friday and Saturday nights, which is probably good to know! But I digress: Obviously when we talk about drinks at McDonald’s, we’re talking mainly about soft drinks. And water. But they also have tea, sweetened or unsweetened, which is pretty good. I opted for an unsweet tea as probably the healthiest choice. Well, except for the water.
She Said: Oh, I love McDonald’s unsweet tea, and on my fast days, when my calories are limited, if I need a pick-me-up, this is the drive-through I hit to meet my craving. I don’t like sugar or sweetener in my tea, so it needs to taste great, and this does! But, today, I went for my “ideal meal,” and that meant a chocolate shake. When I ordered, I expected the staffer to say to me, “Our shake machine is broken,” which I swear has been the answer I’ve gotten for the past five years at any McDonald’s I’ve been to nationwide. But, voila! This nice man just punched in my order like no big deal. This meal was getting more and more exciting at every turn! And the shake was delicious, just as great as I remembered before the international shake-machine freeze-out…
He Said: The challenge at McDonald’s has always been finding something healthy to eat. Responding to a public outcry in recent years, McDonald’s has made this task easier of late. Still, as I’ve mentioned before, fat is my nemesis. McDonald’s has in fact made it easy to evaluate their meals, since you can look up their menu online and figure out what your healthy choices are. For example, according to their Website, a Big Mac has 540 calories and 28 grams of fat. Since my goal is to try to stay under 50 grams of fat per day, spending more than half of that on a single item is just not in the cards. A regular McDonald’s hamburger, on the other hand, has 250 calories and only 8 grams of fat—much more doable.
One reason we tried McDonald’s now is that they are currently using Conway as a test market for a new item for their menu, “chef-crafted sandwiches.” This is an item that enables you to choose among three possible proteins—a quarter pound of beef, crispy chicken, or grilled chicken; three possible toppings—maple bacon Dijon, sweet barbecue bacon, or pico guacamole; and two buns—sesame seed or “artisan” (a word that means “hand-crafted” and “made carefully one at a time,” two things I’m pretty sure are not the case with buns at McDonald’s). Since bacon is anathema to me on my low-fat diet, and since guacamole has a lot of fat even though it’s a vegetable, I opted for the barbecue sauce without the bacon, the artisan bun and the grilled chicken. I assume this had about the same number of grams of fat as the regular artisan chicken sandwich, which was only 6 grams. It’s possible the barbecue sauce added a few grams, but it was still a light-fat option.
As for the taste, well, it was not bad for fast food It bore the same relationship to a barbecue chicken sandwich at a real barbecue place as, say, Olive Garden food bears to actual Italian food, but it was a healthy choice and could be a reasonable alternative for someone needing to make a fast-food stop and trying to eat conscientiously.
She Said: As I mentioned, I went for my ideal meal, and this was not the healthiest, though your comments, Ruud, about the relatively low fat grams in the burgers makes me feel better. First, I ordered two hamburgers. You always give me a hard time about this: “Why don’t you get a Quarter Pounder? Or a Big Mac??” Because I like the taste of the burgers! The problem for me with the hamburgers is that one is not enough, and two is too many. I also ordered a medium French fry, which I did in spite of an article I read in the New Yorker on our honeymoon in 2001 that suggested that McDonald’s French fries kill more people a year in the United States than cigarettes.* (That tells you a lot about me, what I read on my honeymoon. God bless my husband’s heart.) And to continue my pursuit of the ideal, I added on an apple pie. Now, I grew up on the cherry pies at McDonald’s, or even the wild berry pies I enjoyed in Prague’s McDonald’s in the 1990s when I could afford to go there on a Czech salary, which was about twice a year. But I really do enjoy those apple pies. The whole meal, true to the McDonald’s brand promise, was exactly what I thought it would be, tasted exactly how I thought it would, and I consumed it all with delight.
BUT… almost immediately afterward, I did not feel good. I am not for one second implying that there was anything wrong with the food, except that it was fast food. My body is not that used to it, and since I’m a little food-sensitive (a sugar soda on an empty stomach equals a headache within 10 minutes), I felt this carb fest before we departed the premises around 4 p.m. I actually thought I would get hangry within a few hours, though, and I didn’t. I stayed full and satisfied, food-wise, the rest of the day, though I did crave more carby-fatty-sugary things even if I wasn’t hungry. And my first words when I woke up the next day were, “I want a healthy breakfast. Now.”
*The article, in the March 5, 2001, New Yorker, by Malcolm Gladwell, “The Trouble with Fries” states, “As many Americans now die every year from obesity-related illnesses–heart disease and complications of diabetes–as from smoking, and the fast-food toll grows heavier every year.” Gladwell singles out trans fats as particularly dangerous, and Google searches indicate McDonald’s still uses hydrogenated oil in making its fries; hydrogenated oils contain trans fats.
He Said: One of the signature characteristics of the McDonald’s franchises is their service with a smile, and that’s what we got. A very friendly server (granted, he seemed to be the on-duty manager), took our order and got it delivered promptly, and made sure we had sugar and salt when there were none of these set out anywhere.
She Said: It did take a little time to get waited on at the counter, but the manager dude immediately apologized for it, so I didn’t mind. (At a recent meal that cost more than 10 times this one, we had to wait awhile for our waiter, so it can happen anywhere.) I also liked the way the manager talked to the staff, task-focused, but humane and respectful.
What We Got and What We Paid: Two hamburgers, medium French fries, small chocolate shake, apple pie, barbecue chicken and medium unsweet iced tea: $13.78.
He Said: Well, I won’t be back any time soon, but I will say that McDonald’s is pretty much what it purports to be: a fast-food place where you know what you are getting, and one that makes some effort, within the constraints of the fast-food milieu, to provide some healthy options for those customers who need or want them.
She Said: It’s complicated. But I will say it’s very good at what it’s good for—even if I personally don’t want that very often. If and when you do, go to this McDonald’s and eat and drink. (Their shake machine actually works!)
So…He Said and She Said: Go Here and Eat This if This is What You Want.