Meat, but Not Much Else
Arby's Big Game Burger
Arby's is known for their roast beef. They are, basically, the only major roast beef chain, with other shops like Roy Roger's all but disappearing from the map. When you think of Arby's the vision you'll get is a bun topped with sliced meats, some kind of flavorful sauce, some dripping cheese, and the top bun. That's the Arby's meal, it's pure essence, the item everyone wants when they're thinking Arby's. And while, sure, they do serve chicken, and occasionally fish as well, roast beef is their bread and (beefy) butter.
Within the last year or so, though, Arby's had ventured into the territory of so many other fast food joints: burgers. The question everyone has is why? Arby's kitchens aren't setup to do grilling, relying instead of hot vats and friers for all their food. Doing burgers requires new setups, a new way to handle their meats, a new experience. If Arby's is going to put in all this effort then you think the end result has to be something special. When you've already cornered the market on one kind of experience, and no one is really able to compete with you, then any venture you take outside that experience better be worth it.
I had this in mind when I went to Arby's to try their new Big Game Burger. Arby's has added a variety of sliced meats to their sandwiches as special items here or there. Elk or venison are a couple of examples, with special sandwiches featuring these meats in place of the default roast beef having appeared over their years. The Big Game burger takes that same concept and applies it to Arby's burger foray. It's a burger made from equal parts ground beef, ground elk, and ground venison, they topped with Big Eye Swiss cheese, crispy onion strings, sweet garlic and dill pickles, and cheery steak sauce. It's a whole lot pilled onto a brioche bun, made for those, one would assume, craving a big game experience. I'm not sure that that experience might be, but the burger promises it all the same.
Here's the thing: elk, deer, and beef are all dark red meats. Make no mistake, I love venison and, when I can get it, I enjoy the hell out of eating it. It's rich and flavorful, a fantastic steak experience that I honestly prefer over beef. But when I have ground venison, I don't tend to notice that much of a difference from ground beef. In a brain, burger is burger, especially once you put toppings on it. A patty made from elk, deer, and cow might be slightly different than one made from only cow if you have them right next to each other to truly analyze them, but in the mouth, while you're eating, a burger patty is a burger patty. That's it, end of the day.
The Arby's Big Game burger patty is a solid burger. It's big a thick, a hearty burger puck all on its own. But did I notice anything substantially different about this burger over other big burger pucks I've had in the past? No. It's moist and solid and tastes like burger. The combination of elk and venison and beef might get people in through the doors, but, end of the day, a burger is a burger and this is a burger. Nothing about its meat combination -- which, again, is the big selling point of the burger -- really screams, "hey, wow, this is an exception burger." And just to be sure, I had my wife and my sibling try the patty as well, and their unbiased and unprompted opinions were, "yep, that's a burger."
Once we get past the flashy three-meat combo in the advertising, we have to address the rest of the items on the burger. And in this regard what we have is, well, something we've seen before as well. It's a Western Burger, as I've seen it made elsewhere: fried onions, melted cheese, and barbeque sauce. That's the vibe I got while eating it when I turned my brain off from the ingredients as I knew them and just tried to experience this as your average person. It's a solid Western Burger if that's what you're craving, but it's not a particularly special burger despite it's ingredients.
For starters, the Swiss isn't particularly flavorful as Swiss. This is not a complain on my part, per se, as I tend to thing that Swiss cheese flavor is is overpowering. But without the holes in the cheese I would have been hard presses to know this was Swiss and not, say, a standard white bread cheese, like mild white cheddar or even white American cheese. It's a pretty mild and inoffensive cheese that, frankly, gets lost in the mix of all the other ingredients. It does ass some grease and moisture, which the experience needs, but as far as feeling like an essential part of the experience, the Swiss fails. It could have been any cheese and it would have felt the same.
Surprisingly, the fried onions and the pickles absolutely get lost in this burger. In pictures the onions looking almost as dense as the burger patty, but in practice (at least for the burger I ordered) they took up far less space. They weren't flavorful at all, just existing as filler on the burger. And despite being told there were sweet garlic and dill pickles on the sandwich, I absolutely didn't even realize they were on there until I looked back at the list of ingredients. "There were pickles? Huh."
All of these flavors, which might have stood out more on a different sandwich, are lost on this burger because of one other special inclusion: the Cherry Steak Sauce. Now, Arby's can call this what they like, but there was nothing particularly screamed "steak sauce" about the condiment for me. There was a bit of cherry flavor, yes, but also a cloying sweetness and only a little bit of pepper. This tasted like a fairly basic barbeque sauce, and not even a good one. I actually think the standard Arby's Sauce would have been better on here as its more subtle, less cloying flavor might have let all the rest of the ingredients sing. The cherry sauce dominates and overloads the sandwich.
That is, in large part, because the burger I got was absolutely soaked in the sauce. It wasn't just on the burger, but it flowed down the sides and pooled around the bottom. It was everywhere by the time I was done, including all over my hands. It was all cherry, all the time, on this Big Game Burger. Maybe the store I bought it from put too much on, but even the promotional shots of the burger show it dripping with sauce, so I have my doubts. My guess is that this is how the burger is meant to be served, and Arby's wants that cherry sauce right up, front in center, above everything else.
In that case, this burger is a failure. It's big, yes, and does the Western thing like you'd expect. But for an experience that screams "Big Game", this burger fails. And when you consider that at $9 for the burger, or $13 for the combo, it's also one of the most expensive things currently on the Arby's menu, it just doesn't seem as luxurious as it needs to be for that premium price. I like what Arby's has on offer and I find myself going there far more often than I should. But then next time I'm feeling the meats from Arby's I'm going with the standard Beef 'n Cheddar and ignoring the Big Game Burger entirely. It's just not worth it at all.