Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Arby’s new burger is a big, beautiful and beefy blunder

Arby’s new steakhouse burgers use a blend of 52% American Wagyu and 48% ground beef. It is available in deluxe, left, and bacon ranch versions.  (Emily Heil/Washington Post)
By Emily Heil Washington Post

The headline “fast food chain sells new burger” has all the excitement of the famously predictable “dog bites man.” But if the purveyor of the patty is Arby’s, whose specialty has always been sliced roast beef, the message hits a little differently.

In the chain’s 58-year history, it has never served a burger. So, this is kind of a big deal, and after so much scrambling among the big chains on the chicken sandwich side of the menu, a little action in the burger-sphere is welcome.

Arby’s dipped a hoof into the burger game, debuting a menu item it says is bigger and higher-end than many of its competitors, a $5.99 steakhouse-style concoction that mixes 52% Waygu beef with its more pedestrian ground beef.

At first glance, the Arby’s burger is a thing of beauty.

The deluxe version (there’s no regular, but there is a bacon ranch one) is my platonic ideal of a properly composed cheeseburger: In addition to the meat, it boasts substantial slices of pickles and red onions, a ruddy slice of tomato, shredded iceberg lettuce, melty American cheese and a pink-tinted “burger sauce” that looks to be mayo-based.

The glossy brioche bun is big enough to wrangle the contents without overwhelming them. And the brawny thick patty itself enticed, with a ring of appealing char hinting it had taken a spin on a grill. I was feeling optimistic about this handsome guy. But biting into it, I got conflicting signals.

The combination was what I had been hoping for, with the tang of the pickles and onions not getting lost but playing backup, the strands of green offering crunch, and a well-seasoned patty that actually tasted like something that hailed from the meat aisle of the market. The interior was the as-promised pink of a medium-rare burger, a rarity in the world of gray-brown fast food patties.

But as much as I liked its flavor, there was something off-putting about the texture of the Arby’s patty. It felt a little gummy. Overly compact. It didn’t pull apart to the tooth like other ground beef discs. And here’s where Arby’s aspirations, while admirable – hey, we should all dream big and ignore anyone telling us to “stay in our lane!” – went awry.

The chain just isn’t built for burgers. Unlike most other fast food purveyors, Arby’s kitchens are not equipped with griddles or grills often used for burgers, so the chain developed a workaround. It uses a sous-vide preparation for the burger, it said in a statement.

That technique, in which food is placed in a vacuum-sealed bag and heated to precise temperatures in a water bath, is used by high-end chefs, fast-casual chains and airlines. I’m surmising that Arby’s grills the patties before sealing them, and at the store locations, they’re finished with a dip in the fryer (I witnessed the latter step).

Perhaps this process is what resulted in the unappealing consistency. I tried the burger at a second location, since I had neglected on my first outing to notice and try the bacon ranch version. The patty there was a little crispier on the outside, which probably meant it hung out in the fryer a little longer. But the result still couldn’t mask the puck’s rubbery feel.

And the bacon ranch? The crunchy, overly smoky strips of bacon helped further distract from the patty’s disconcerting texture, but the combination and an extra slick of ranch added up to an overall messier sandwich – both literally and in terms of the too-much-all-at-once flavor profile.

On my way out, having finished neither version of the burger, I ordered the chain’s classic offering, a plain sandwich of sliced roast beef, with a few packages of its horseradish sauce thrown into the bag. Later, I took a bite and came to two conclusions.

The first was that this was a darn satisfying sandwich and a refreshing change of pace from the usual drip-on-your-lap fast food burger fare. The second was a little more existential: Not all dogs need to learn new tricks.