A Visit to Tulare's Tweaked-Out McDonald's Triggers Memories of when McD's Didn't Suck

Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

The Tulare McDonalds off the 99 North was nothing less than a scene from Beyond Thunderdome. A war zone like Fallujah or Aleppo, but instead of RPGs and burkas, it was vape pens and trucker hats. A barely lucid tweaker chick sprawled on the sidewalk clutching a half=eaten cheeseburger. Dirtbags on bikes peddling who-knows-what. Wailing sirens in the background added a nice garnish. But, strangely, the heat, stench and soggy McDouble brought me back to a simpler, happier time. One when McDonald's didn't suck.

McD’s is perfectly fine road food—hence my meth-enveloped dive off in the Central Valleys garden spot—and I’ve had a soft spot for the Golden Arches since my youth. My graduation from cheeseburgers to Big Macs was a big deal. I remember climbing trees as a kid and my buddy’s Mom asking me if I wanted a Big Mac. “Good golly, Mrs. Haskell! Me?!?! A little kid being offered a Big Mac?!” That was a rite of passage like high school graduation, getting a learner’s permit, and your first backseat blowjob all rolled into one! Little did I know that ten years after consuming my first Big Mac, I'd be slinging them myself at my first stint in The Biz, sweating it out in my smelly blue polyester uniform while pulling at the McD oars in the belly of their Roman slave ship with Ronald himself at the other end of the whip.

Things have changed a lot since then and if you peek behind the counter of a McDonald’s today, you see a sterile environment akin to a critical care unit, with more machines beeping than the busiest combat zone triages. Each component of their fare is now transported via color-coded trays, like patients being shuttled between operating rooms. To be fair, I get the theory and new practices. It may be more impersonal, but it does make for a “fresher” product. It’s called “assemble to order.” That means all the individual parts are pre-cooked and the final product is built as each guest places an order—just like Henry Ford envisioned.

But, in my day, sandwiches were ordered by a “production caller.” They were built and put into warming racks with time-coded placards indicating how long they had been sitting there and then would either be sold or thrown out. This led to a back of house experience closer to In And Out, where the food was prepared in a more conventional manner. We grilled and flipped patties on a regular flat top, toasted buns on a double level toaster, and dispensed sauces from caulk-gun contrivances straight from a construction site. I fondly remember the Chicken McNuggets rollout and the advent of the McRib, which both fascinated and horrified me at the time. Back then it was hardly “fresh,” but everything was prepared in a more traditional sense.

That all started to change in 1999 with the introduction of the first impingement toasters for the buns (looking and sounding like a giant, clanking conveyor belt) and the “hot holding units” in 2000. These monoliths comprised of multiple tiny drawers hold individual burger and other ingredients at temperature for preparation with corresponding timers for each — hence, all the beeping. For the burgers, said patties are seared between a griddle and heavy platen that lowers to cook both sides simultaneously, the burger and Big Mac patties taking a blistering 35 seconds from frozen to cooked and the behemoth quarter pounder taking a breathtaking 150 seconds. Even the fresh eggs for the McMuffins are given the same treatment and the sausage patties go hot in a mere 72 seconds. Sadly, the good ol' days of hotcakes fresh off the griddle (cooked on the extra one in the kitchen we only fired during breakfast) are long gone. Nowadays, they come pre-cooked and frozen, heating in a microwave in 22 seconds. McDonalds says they are the same as before – I’m not buying it.

The Quarter Pounder is the most true to form from the old days, but I do miss the McDLT. “It keeps the hot side hot and the cold side cold! How do we know?!” It was a total failure and doubled the amount of packaging, but it did have a certain kitsch factor. I was also enamored with their biggest flop back in 2011: the Southern Style Chicken and Biscuit. All good things do come to an end – that not only goes for some of the Golden Arches silliest concepts, but also for the last of their conventional cooking methods.

So, what it once was is long gone and most every fast food chain has gotten equally lame and prefab. Quick service has turned into something none would have guessed possible 20 years ago. It’s a changed beast and I mean that in the sense that everything is different. When human beings are reduced to Tinder swipes, sanctimonious culinary egoism is par for the course, and what you eat in our click through society defines you for better or worse, we should expect nothing less. The dumbing down of our fare and consumption habits are just a natural result of our external experience. Garbage in. Garbage out. But I remember when McDonalds was more soulful and, to be perfectly honest, I miss it.

But I don’t miss working there. I hated it so much, in fact, that upon quitting I burned my uniform down to a blob of volcanic polyester slag and mounted it on a piece of wood to be displayed on my bedroom wall.

At least the fries haven't changed.

Chef, writer, bartender, photographer and overall bearer of mirth.

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