Carl’s Jr. is probably best known at the moment for its recent TV commercials featuring Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Kate Upton, but like many fast food giants it had a fairly modest beginning. The company got its start in 1941 when founder Carl Karcher started selling hot dogs from a one-man cart in Los Angeles. Success led to more carts, and after about 5 years, the first drive-thru restaurant, Carl’s Drive-in BBQ. The name “Carl’s Jr.” arose a few years later when a smaller restaurant, sans drive-in was opened.
The company grew and grew, with Carl’s Jr., soon becoming a familiar part of the Southern California landscape and then growing to the whole southwest. In the early 1990′s, they expanded the menu at many locations by partnering with the small Southern California based Green Burrito chain, which they eventually took over in 2001.
The company took steps towards becoming national in 1997 with the acquisition of Hardee’s, a fast food chain in the midwestern and eastern seaboard states with a similar menu and demographic. The original Hardee’s menu was initially maintained, but the two menus have been converging ever since. Today, the combination of Carl’s Jr. And Hardee’s is the 5th largest fast food restaurant chain in the US with over 3100 locations in 47 states.
I’ve been eating at Carl’s Jr. since I was in elementary school. My family didn’t really consume a lot of fast food in those days, and when we did it was usually a quick trip through the drive thru at Jack In The Box or maybe McDonalds. But when I started playing sports, Little League baseball and Parks & Rec basketball, we started going to Carls’s Jr. sometimes after my games. There was one close to the baseball park where I played and it had the virtue of ALMOST being on the way home.
I remember that the inside seating and decor was a major step up from most fast food places. When we first started going there you had to go inside because there was no drive-thru in place. One was added at that location a few years later when I was in high school, but it was always a pain because the store’s layout meant the drive-thru window had to be placed on the passenger side.
What I remember of the Carl’s Jr. menu back was that it was fairly straightforward. Burgers. French fries or onion rings. Shakes & soda. They had a really good steak sandwich that I miss. They may have had a basic fish sandwich or chicken, but I never had either. My main choice was usually either the Famous Star burger or the two-patty version, the Super Star.
The introduction of the Western Bacon Cheeseburger in the mid-80′s was really the first step towards a major expansion of the menu, and today there are several dozen burgers, chicken sandwiches, turkey burgers, and more. Not to mention the Green Burrito options at many stores.
One new addition a few years ago was the Six-Dollar Burger (SDB). The name referred to the idea that it was comparable to the more expensive offerings from upscale sit-down restaurant chains. While there is a basic SDB, it’s really more of a style of burger where the traditional CJ quarter-pound beef patty is replaced by a single large, double-thick Black Angus beef patty. The basic SDB is similar to the Famous Star in preparation and condiments, but there are SDB variations of most CJ burgers.
When I first heard of the SDB, I thought it sounded interesting and I looked forward to trying one. However, when I got that chance, I found myself disappointed in it, and not quite able to articulate the problem. I didn’t hate it, but I just didn’t love it either. I didn’t try another right away, but over the next few months I did eventually try it a few more times, including other variations. However, it didn’t get any better. On the the other hand, I did get a handle on why I didn’t like it.
It’s the meat.
I know… Duh. No big surprise, since that’s really the only difference from the non-SDB versions, but I figured out the specifics of the matter.
CJ’s regular patties have always been cooked well-done, but not so much that they get dried out inside. They’re always nice and juicy. The SDB meat patties, on the other hand, always seem over-cooked and dry. I didn’t really notice this at first because there’s always plenty of sauce on CJ burgers, but after trying the SDB a few times I realized I had never seen any juice from the meat. The meat doesn’t seem burnt… It’s more like they never really had much juice in the first place.
I think the way the SDB is cooked must be somehow different from other CJ patties. The flame-broiled regular CJ meat patty is typically nicely seared on the outside, but still somewhat juicy inside. The SDB patty seems to be both less seared on the outside, but also more well done and dried out inside. If these were going through the same flame broiler setup, I’d expect about the same searing outside, but the inside to be less cooked since the patties are thicker. Maybe CJ is doing something extra in the cooking process to avoid that and it’s not quite working? It’s almost like the SDB patties are… I dunno… Baked? Flame-broiled first, then baked? Vice-versa?
The texture of the SDB meat patties also seems off. The regular CJ meat patties appear to be made from finely ground beef, firmly packed when formed into patties. The meat is finely ground, but not so tightly packed that there’s no room for juices to flow during cooking. The SDB patties, on the other hand, don’t seem to be made from finely ground beef so much as maybe molded from some kind of meat powder. The usual texture of ground beef seems missing from the interior of the patty. Maybe this ties into the over-cooking idea? Maybe a freezing issue?
Some may want to point out that Angus beef is somewhat different in texture and suggest that’s what I’m noticing. I don’t think so. I’ve had plenty of “Angus Beef” hamburgers at other restaurants and they did not have these issues. There’s more to it than that.