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Ranking Fast Food/Fast Casual Versions of Smokehouse Style Burgers, Sandwiches, Meat on Bread

By Mike Thayer

I recently wrote about what to look forward to in 2019 from fast food.  Trending, are smokehouse/steakhouse style burgers and sandwiches and the meat of the year is predicted to be brisket.

Consumers are clamoring for something more, creations beyond the ordinary realm of classic burger and sandwich flavors.  People want smokey, they desire more than just ketchup and mustard, folks are calling for cheeses with deeper flavors and buns with a little more tease than run-of-the-mill sesame seeds.  And it's no different when it comes to other meat on bread options, a.k.a., pizza, consumers are looking for more, something beyond the traditional flavors.

Before we get into the worst to first rankings, here are a four non-starters.  Four popular restaurants that don't have a horse in this race.....  That's unfortunate, because with the smokehouse trend a reality, they'll fall farther behind their competitors who are in that race and winning market share.

A&W:  No offerings of smokehouse flavors.  The closest they get is with a classic bacon cheeseburger.  It's a good burger, but not smokehouse.

Little Caesar's: They have a Smokehouse pizza in their arsenal, but unfortunately it's a promotional item and was not available during the time of this challenge.  The pizza is described as follows:  Large round pizza with beef brisket, pulled port, Applewood-smoked bacon and BBQ sauce, plus a smokehouse-seasoned crust. It sounds good, hopefully it will be brought back in another promotion soon.  That smokehouse seasoned crust intrigues me. 

Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers:  Freddy's has what they call an A-1 Chophouse Burger which is two lean ground beef patties pressed thin and topped with grilled onions, sautéed mushrooms, and white cheddar cheese. The burger is drizzled with a zesty A.1.® and garlic sauce, and served on a home-style bun.  Unfortunately, my timing was off, the restaurant has just recently taken the limited time offer item off the menu.  It's an annual thing and will be made available again later this year.  My bad with the timing, sounds like a darn good burger!

Hardees:  Just recently taken off the menu was The Memphis BBQ Thickburger®.  Here's the description:  Features a 1/3 lb. charbroiled 100% Black Angus beef patty, smoked pulled pork, Memphis BBQ sauce, crispy fried onions, and American cheese on a Premium Bun.  The sales must have not been there because it sounds like a great burger.  It was still listed on the company website menu on the day I ventured out to try it in pursuing this challenge, but my local franchisee had already pulled the sandwich.  I had the Monster Thickburger instead.  

And now to the rankings....

Here's my list of national chain fast food/fast casual joints and their version of smokehouse style offerings, starting with the worst thing to try, or after reading, NOT try....  Listed worst to best, considerations in conducting this challenge were price, portion, whether or not the item is a repeat buy and of course the most important factor, TASTE!  Click the restaurant name for the full burger/sandwich/meat on bread review....

20190201_115447#15 - If you are in a burger mood, don't go to Dairy QueenTheir KC BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger is less-than-stellar.  Here's the description from their website:  DQ’s 100% all beef patty topped with melted American cheese, Applewood smoked bacon, pickles, onions, and a Kansas City-style BBQ sauce on a toasted light and airy bun.  It sounded so good I upgraded and made the sandwich a double.  Yes, I was hungry!  So, "How was it?"  you ask.....  It looks great unwrapped, does it not?  That 'toasted, light and airy bun'....  those beef patties breaking the edge and dripping with sauce, some melted cheese peeking out the side.....  It's almost food porn....  Almost.  That's where the excitement ended.  Nice bun, but let me cut to the chase, while the burger to bun ratio was good, the patties were dry, the sauce was run-of-the-mill ordinary, more sweet than twang and when a cheeseburger is upgraded to a double, why isn't a second piece of cheese included?  It's called a "Double Cheeseburger," right?  The portion of bacon was less-than-generous.  I'm sad to report that the pickle and onion saved this burger.  That's NOT a good thing. 

20190221_121131#14 - Crispy fried chicken and BBQ sauce sounds pretty good together right? That's what KFC is offering with their Smoky Mountain BBQ.  Here's the description from the website:  Our Smoky Mountain BBQ brings the sweet, smoky flavors of Southern BBQ to Kentucky! Available in tenders, Chicken Littles™, and Extra Crispy™ chicken, it’s crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and delicious on every side. Try it in a Smoky Mountain BBQ basket today with your choice of Extra Crispy™ chicken or Extra Crispy™ tenders, mashed potatoes, biscuit, and pickles! Making a little sandwich with one of the tenders, the pickles and the biscuit, I enjoyed all the flavors that were brought together. The chicken was indeed crispy and the sauce was sweet and smoky as advertised. The pickle provided the tart you want to offset the sweet and what can you say about the biscuits that hasn't already been said, KFC makes some of the best biscuits in fast food. Dressing that biscuit with a packet of that KFC butter before slapping it all together, I have to say it was a pretty tasty little sandwich. When I got to the tenders by themselves though - particularly the one sitting entirely flat on the bottom of the tray - that sauce, without the marriage with the bun and pickles was now too sweet and the grainy-texture of that oil-based sauce became quite noticeable. It wasn't off-putting enough to put the tenders down, but the grittiness of it did put a bit of a downer on the remainder of the meal.

20190129_185236#13 - If you are in a non-burger mood, Schlotzsky's offers what they call a Spicy Brisket Flatbread.  Here's the description from the website:  Hickory-smoked brisket with Swiss cheese, basil pesto, jalapeño chips, Schlotzsky’s hot sauce, blue cheese dressing and basil. Served on artisan flatbread. Sounds good right?  And it is.  All the flavors Schlotzsky's puts together in this flatbread presentation are on point.  The brisket was seasoned nicely, it's tender and pairs well with the Swiss cheese.  The combination of the basil pesto, blue cheese dressing and hot sauce dances on the tongue, the jalapeno chips provide a nice texture element and that flatbread was baked to perfection.  Whoever crafted this concept knew how to partner flavor pairings.  My only problem with this 'meal' is that it's not enough.  While the flavors are there and overall it's a nice flavor profile presentation, it's more of a 'light lunch' kind of thing rather than a hearty meal.  The flatbread - while tasty - is on the thin side and the portion of brisket is less-than-generous.  You don't get brisket in every bite.  That's kind of Schlotzsky's M.O., less-than-stellar on the meat portion, which is unfortunate. 

20190131_162422#12 - Papa John's, which in my humble opinion is a maker of average pizza, takes BBQ flavors and makes.......  An average pizza.  Here's the description of their BBQ Meats Pizza from the company website:  Smoky Southern-style BBQ sauce topped with pepperoni, sausage, beef, bacon, and Canadian bacon.  Sounds like it's loaded with meat right?  "Eh."  All those meats are indeed present and flavorful and my first bite was pretty darn good, but as I got into it, none of those meats were exactly generous in portion.  The meats were ample in the center of the pizza, but grew sparse as I worked towards the outer crust.  I will say I've never had pepperoni in a BBQ dish before or Canadian Bacon for that matter and they were both quite nice.  The BBQ sauce while descriptive in name was nothing special, the cheese was ample, golden, brown and delicious but that crust, it's still the Papa John's crust - it needed to be dressed with that complimentary garlic butter - making this.....  An average pizza.  It was good, don't get me wrong, but nothing wow about it.  In dealing with the leftovers, I dressed the remaining slices in some buffalo sauce before heating.  That kicked things up a notch!

20190301_123029#11 - Five Guys:  This was my first visit to a Five Guys joint.  They've got some great reviews online and I was in the mood for a burger so I figured it was time to see what this place is all about.  And while they don't have a Smokehouse/Chophouse specific option on the menu, you can order BBQ sauce and/or A-1 as a topping, making any burger choice one with some smokehouse flavor.  I went with their bacon cheeseburger, making it a double.  Here's that description from the restaurant website:  Two hand-formed patties, grilled to order - with two strips of crispy bacon and two slices of Kraft American Cheese - all on a soft, sesame seed bun.   I went with their "All the Way" topping option, which means the burger was to be topped with mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, mustard....  Along with my additional add-on:  A-1 sauce.  So how was the burger? Lousy. I took two bites and put it down. This burger was SO over-sauced that it made the sesame seed bun totally fall-apart, soggy, wet. Whoever put the A-1 on went overboard and just drenched it. I should have suspected as much when unwrapping the burger, the wrapping being wet with A-1 (which itself seemed to be watered down and not full strength), but I really didn't think much of it until I took that first bite. The bun just fell away, I was grasping lettuce, tomato and burger in taking that second bite. 

20190301_123337#10 -McAlisters: I like McAlister's but is their Grilled Chicken Club smokehouse trend worthy?  Here's the description from their website:  Why’d the chicken get seasoned and grilled? To be topped with bacon, cheddar, Swiss, spring mix, tomatoes, mayo and McAlister’s own Honey Mustard. It’s a party between three pieces of sliced wheat bread.  So how was the sandwich? Good but not great. The seasoned, grilled chicken was under-seasoned. The bacon was a bit under-cooked, very thin and lacked the crispy factor. It had some decent smoke to it when eaten on its own, but that smokiness got lost with all the other flavors going on in the sandwich bite. Perhaps a thicker cut of bacon would have driven the smokiness through. The cheddar and Swiss cheeses were a nice compliment to the meats, the spring mix and tomato provided some nice balance, the bread was toasted perfectly but the creamy mayo and honey mustard was over-the-top. The sandwich was over-dressed.

20190109_182818#9 - Arby's talks a big game with it's Smokehouse Brisket sandwich but it falls short of the hype.  Here's the description from the Arby's website:  We set out to make a sandwich with layers of smoky flavor, and this is the result. Our brisket is smoked for at least 13 hours in a pit smoker. We top that delicious smoked beef with smoked gouda, crispy onions, mayo and BBQ sauce and serve it all on an artisan-style roll.  I expected far more for a sandwich that boasts of brisket smoked for 13 hours, but this is a very average sandwich and the preparation fell into the typical fast food preparation mode - LAZY. This sandwich has SO much flavor potential but totally failed to live up to the marketing hype. First, there's no way this brisket was truly smoked for 13 hours, yes, it was tender and seasoned well enough, but it didn't carry all the smoky notes you would expect from a meat being in a bonafide pit that long. I'm calling B.S. on the smoking process. The meat to bun ratio was good, the gouda cheese is a nice pairing with the brisket and was melted nicely, so no knock there. The 'crispy' onions however were almost non-existent and lacked a true crunch, being almost mushy. The sandwich was sauced well with the mayo and BBQ sauce - a nice BBQ sauce - and the 'artisan' roll, while that sounds good in the sandwich description, doesn't really deliver any special flavor or texture to the dance. 

20190221_173141#8 - Pizza Hut: Pizza Hut doesn't have a BBQ version for a Meat Lovers pizza on the menu, but you can customize your own pizza to create one.  Here's what I crafted using their online menu for a carry-out order:  Thin & Crispy Crust brushed with garlic butter, a honey BBQ sauce, extra cheese, beef, pork, grilled chicken, bacon and red onion. The pizza was baked to perfection, the garlic buttery thin and crispy crust was the perfect platform for the BBQ meats, which were nicely portioned and seasoned well. The grilled chicken was a tad dry, the red onion portion was a bit sparse and the honey bbq sauce was really nothing special, but over all, every bite of this pizza was enjoyable, tied together nicely by that golden, brown and delicious cheese.  It was a superior pizza to what Papa John's calls a BBQ Meats pizza.  The problem with this meat on bread option for BBQ/smoky flavors is price. 

20190225_182200-1#7 - I'm on record as saying Domino's pizza sucks (read that review here), but this particular pizza - The Memphis BBQ Chicken - was a pleasant flavor surprise.  The pie was baked to perfection with that crust nice and crispy with each bite.  The chicken was seasoned well, tender and juicy.  The onions are a nice add and the combination of cheeses were perfectly melted, golden, bubbly brown and delicious.  Tying everything together is that sauce, it has a nice slight twang, balanced with the sweet of molasses.   My knock on the pizza is the usual for a Domino's pizza, they are so skimpy with the toppings.  I did not get chicken or onion in every bite, in most bites just getting crust, the sauce and cheese.  It still made for a pleasant bite, but I didn't order a cheese pizza with BBQ sauce.  That blend of cheeses by the way, was a little shy on the cheddar.  When a restaurant boasts of a blend of cheeses, it should be balanced.  Overall, this pizza has a very nice combination of flavors. 

Wendys BBQ Cheeseburger#6 - In early February 2019, Wendy's announced what they're calling the "Made To Crave" menu featuring three new burgers, the S'Awesome Bacon Cheeseburger, the Peppercorn Mushroom Melt, and the Barbecue Cheeseburger.  With my Smokehouse/Steakhouse style challenge in mind, I ordered the Barbecue Cheeseburger, making it a double.  Here's the promo write-up from Wendy's.....  Barbecue Cheeseburger:Wendy's has long understood what makes barbecue taste so great. Now, the Barbecue Cheeseburger finds that backyard balance of sweet and heat, with a touch of smoke. The cheeseburger is complete with two slices of American cheese, crispy fried onions, three juicy pickles, and fresh, never frozen beef. To top it off, it's smothered in a sweet and smoky Kansas City-style barbecue sauce that delivers familiar and comforting flavors, making it a top-contender for craveability.  This was a good burger, but not something I've going to crave moving forward.  It satisfies all the basic BBQ elements, the beef was cooked nicely, the crispy fried onions provided a nice texture element, there's the classic tartness of the pickles and I will say that BBQ sauce had a nice twang to it, it's NOT run-of-the-mill stuff.  It's a notch above what Wendy's competitors are serving. The toasted bun was nice as well but nothing extra-ordinary.  This sandwich is missing something to truly make it a top-contender for craveability.....  BACON! 

20190103_111839#5 -Sonic has responded to the call from consumers who have been demanding those smokehouse/steakhouse style burgers and sandwiches. The company's response, unveiled in late November 2018 and what looks to be a good seller for them in 2019: The Sonic Steakhouse Bacon Cheeseburger.  Here's the description from the company website:  The SONIC Steakhouse Bacon Cheeseburger is made with a quarter-pound 100-percent pure beef patty; creamy cheese; crisp, savory bacon and aromatic grilled onions. The Steakhouse Bacon Cheeseburger is topped with a smoky black pepper mayo and served in a fluffy, bakery-style brioche bun.  It's a good burger, not great, but good. It hits the steakhouse style notes, the beef was seasoned well, the cheese melted nicely, the bacon was crisp and those grilled onions and black pepper mayo brings it all home. But I could do without the toasted brioche bun. It was a bit on the dry side and the topper was actually too much bun. Perhaps the bun wasn't as fresh as it could have been, but even if fresher, it's still too much bun. A regular bun would have been just fine and would actually make for a better burger to bun ratio. Put this sandwich on a regular butter toasted bun and you have a 5 star sandwich. With the brioche, it's a 4 star sandwich. I know fast food joints are trying to upscale their burgers and sandwiches in responding to consumer demand, but sometimes, restaurants try to do too much. 

20190104_115029#4 - Chick-fil-A has a darn good sandwich that should be on everybody's "I've got a craving for some smokehouse flavors and this sandwich will satisfy it" list.....  It's called the Grilled Chicken Club Sandwich, it's actually been around since 2014 and here's the description from the company website:  A boneless breast of chicken, marinated with a special blend of seasonings and grilled for a tender and juicy backyard-grilled taste, served on a toasted multigrain bun with Colby-Jack cheese, applewood smoked bacon, Green Leaf lettuce and tomato. Served with Honey Roasted BBQ Sauce.  As I was thoroughly enjoying this sandwich, I was asking myself why I haven't ever tried this sandwich before now. Shame on me! The chicken was perfectly cooked, seasoned well and juicy. The bacon was generous in portion and crisp, the lettuce and tomato was a nice complement to all the flavors, the bun was toasty warm yet soft and a perfect match for the sandwich. The only knock I've got is the sandwich was under-sauced. The Honey Roasted BBQ Sauce is delicious, I wanted more

20190124_120240#3 - Next time you're at Firehouse Subs be sure to check out their Smokehouse Beef & Cheddar Brisket Sandwich.  If you've never been to a Firehouse Subs shop, this sandwich should be a motivator to go.  Here's the description from the website:  USDA Choice beef brisket smoked for up to 16 hours, melted cheddar, mayo, and Sweet Baby Ray’s® BBQ Sauce.  The description is short and to the point.  Firehouse knows exactly what they're doing in prepping their brisket.  It was tender, seasoned well, delicious and generous in portion.  In fact, it was falling out of the bun in portion.....  And while the Sweet Baby Ray's BBQ Sauce is a fairly standard sauce across the Fast Food Spectrum (nothing special about it), but it's a good pairing with the mayonnaise, providing a nice creamy finish.  The toasted bun was on point and overall I enjoyed every bite of this sandwich.  The only knock I've got on it is the cheddar cheese.   While I did get the cheese note in the sandwich, it was a tease of cheddar.  I wanted more. 

20190208_122335#2 - Why Burger King does not promote their Rodeo King burger is a bit puzzling. It's really quite good, but you won't find it on the restaurant's board menu, you have to know about the sandwich (it's on the online menu) and ask for it. In fact, the lady taking my order had trouble finding the sandwich on her register. She even told me initially that she didn't think they offered the sandwich, but she found it and placed the to-go order. Burger King was ahead of the Smokehouse/Steakhouse curve with this sandwich, unveiling it in 2017, but the sales must not be there, otherwise it would have a prominent place on restaurant menu boards. It's a shame it's not getting promoted now, it's a darn good burger. Here's the description from their website:  The RODEO® KING™ Sandwich features two savory flame-grilled beef patties totaling more than ½ lb.* of beef, topped with 3 half-strips of thick-cut smoked bacon, our signature crispy onion rings, tangy BBQ sauce, American cheese and creamy mayonnaise all on our sesame seed bun. Get one, you'll be glad you did.

20180715_210440And the #1 Fast Food/Fast Casual restaurant delivering big time on smokehouse flavors believe it or not is McDonald's.  Their Bacon Smokehouse Burger as described on the company website:  Smoky, sweet & savory flavors on a juicy, fresh beef burger Bacon Smokehouse Burger. A burger made with unexpected flavor combinations, including crispy Applewood smoked bacon, smoky bacon-onion sauce, real white cheddar, mild sweet mustard sauce and in-house fried onion strings.  This is a pretty darn good burger folks!  The quarter pound burger is fresh as advertised and it delivers on smokehouse flavors.  The bacon was crisp, the white cheddar cheese was melted to perfection, the onion strings provided another level of crunch and that slightly sweet mustard is what put this burger over the smokehouse top.  Whoever put these flavor combinations together knows what they're doing.  Welcome to the New American cuisine scene McDonald's and it's about damn time!

In all, I attempted to try the smokehouse offerings at 19 different restaurants, finding something in that 'genre' at 15 of them.  Considering the many meat on bread options available, burgers and sandwiches dominated the top of the rankings.

Restaurants offering smokehouse/chophouse style flavors to pass on:  #15 Dairy Queen, #14 KFC, #13 Schlotzsky's, #12 Papa Johns, #11 Five Guys, #10 McAlister's, #9 Arby's

Borderline:  #8 Pizza Hut, #7 Domino's, #6 Wendy's

Restaurants offering smokehouse/chophouse style flavors you'll enjoy trying:  #5 Sonic, #4 Chick-fil-A,  #3 Firehouse Subs, #2 Burger King, #1 McDonald's

$pend Wisely My Friends.....

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