by Tony Ponce
Konnichiwa, everybody! My name is Tony – part-time games writer, full-time slacker. More importantly, I am currently an English teacher in the Land of the Rising Sun. Pretty baller, right?
There’s a lot to see and do in Japan, but in my heart, soul, and stomach, the highlight is definitely the food. If you’ve never been out here, you probably envision an endless parade of seafood and rice, accompanied by a hefty helping of more unusual entrées (raw horse meat, anyone?). While that mental image is not inaccurate, it doesn’t come close to encapsulating the wide range of taste sensations, from more traditional fare to foreign dishes that have been appropriated to the country’s unique sensibilities.
To demonstrate just how incredible the local delicacies can be, let’s turn our attention toward a place that typically never enters the conversation when discussing fine dining: McDonald’s.
Yes, despite its status as the largest fast food chain on the planet, those Golden Arches don’t inspire much confidence amongst the discerning American diner. But in Japan, McDonald’s – or “Makku,” as the kids say – is all about quality ingredients, prep, and service. I can’t remember the last time I dared step into a McD’s back in the States; here, I can barely go two weeks before popping in for a bite.
What endears “Makku” to me the most are the frequent seasonal items, which squeeze onto the menu at a lightning pace. It’s here where the restaurant truly gets to flex its Japanese-ness, either by injecting regional tastes into otherwise familiar sandwiches or by making adorably naive attempts at approximating foreign flavors.
Enter the “American Deluxe” promotion, which purports to whisk patrons to a backyard cookout in the ol’ US of A. Seems rather redundant that an American burger chain would have to introduce explicit American branding, as though the Japanese aren’t drilled since elementary school English class that “hamburger” is traditional American cuisine.
Even more curious, the face of “American Deluxe” is Atsugiri Jason, an expat IT specialist-turned-comedian who bewitched the the nation with his signature catchphrase: “Why, Japanese people!?” If McDonald’s wanted to convince the public of these sandwiches’ Western authenticity, why did they hire a guy whose entire shtick is highlighting how what the Japanese consider typical is often seen as maddeningly bizarre by foreigners?
Never mind all that, though! All that matters is how these puppies taste!
The campaign kicked off on November 1st with the Deluxe Cheese Beef and the Deluxe Cheese Chicken, each at ¥490 (about US$4.30) alone or ¥790 (about US$6.92) for the medium-size combo, then on November 22nd, a second round of two mystery sandwiches will appear. Aside from the hamburger patty on the one and the fried chicken fillet in the other, the sandwiches are identical constructions: Bacon, lettuce, pickles, onions, pepper steak sauce, and a cheesy trifecta of sliced cheddar, cheddar sauce, and cheese-dusted buns.
As a side note, bacon here is a basket of lies and disappointment. Instead of the crispy, savory goodness you are used to back home, the Japanese serve up a different cut of pig that’s more like limp, flavorless lunch meat. Keep that in mind if you ever decide to go on a pork bender during your next trip to ol’ Nippon. But I digress.
I went with the Deluxe Chicken for my first venture last Wednesday. Upon close inspection, I admired how much closer sandwiches in Japan resemble their promo shots than do the pressed pucks back in the States. The chicken itself was a nice golden brown, and the cheese atop the bun was toasted to perfection. So I took a bite and BOOM! A glob of cheese sauce plopped onto my tray. That’s okay, I figured, since I needed to dip my fries in something, anyway!
I managed to keep the rest of the cheese where it belonged as I continued to devour that bad boy. Far from being overpowering, the triple cheese triad was quite nice and subtle, allowing the juiciness of the all-white meat chicken to shine through. What really elevated the sandwich was that steak sauce. It was just the right amount of spice to give the entire sandwich a kick into song-and-dance territory. That’s one of the things I love about McD’s in Japan: They don’t drown their food in sauce, preferring just a dash to enhance flavors, rather than mask them.
Along for the ride was an item off the “American Deluxe” side menu item: American Cheddar Potato tots for ¥190 (about US$1.66). Rather than typical tots, these are fried mashed potatoes injected with some of that cheddar sauce. These were alright, though a bit too mushy for my tastes. I’d stick with traditional fries if I were you.
Fast forward to Friday, half an hour before Thor: Ragnarok was set to throw down, and I was in the mall food court ordering the Deluxe Beef. As I said before, the construction of both sandwiches is identical, so a lot of what I said before holds true here as well. The major difference was how the pepper steak sauce paired with the burger – it did wonders for the chicken, but this stuff was made for beef. “Makku” patties are already a step above their Western brethren in the flavor department, so it only makes sense to treat it like actual steak!
Capping off my culinary homecoming was an item not actually part of the “American Deluxe” line but I will chat about anyway: The Panapp Grape McFlurry for ¥290 (about US$2.54). The dessert, a cross promotion with the Japanese ice cream brand Panapp that kicked off on October 25th, consists of soft serve with grape sauce and waffle cone crumbles.
I was excited for this little guy, considering it’s been nearly two years since this PB&J addict has enjoyed grape jelly, but I was rather underwhelmed by the overly sweet and artificial flavor. Plus, Japanese McFlurry cups are several hilarious sizes smaller than what we get in the West, so it’s hard not to go into the McFlurry experience with a cloud of disappointment already brewing.
So while my side (menu) quests didn’t bear fruit, I have to say the American Deluxe Beef and Chicken were home runs, with the ever-so-slight edge going to the burger. Are they American? Not as long as that sad sliver of ham they pass off as bacon is hanging around! But it is a testament to just how strong Japan’s fast food game is that even that sour note was not enough to make a dent in my overall enjoyment. You can bet I’ll be returning in a few weeks for the new sandwiches!
If you happen to be cruisin’ and perusin’ the sights and sounds of Japan this month, and you want a little greasy taste of home, pop into “Makku” and help put bread in Atsugiri Jason’s jar!