It's been a little over two weeks since Gotham got its first Dairy Queen, fully 74 years after the chain was founded in Joliet, Illinois. The nearest DQs had been in southern Jersey City and Staten Island. In Manhattan, our own first example is situated on busy West 14th Street. They went right to the belly of the beast, head-to-head against many of the city's upstart national franchises, perhaps reflective of Warren Buffett's philosophy. He's the guy that controls the wildly diversified Berkshire Hathaway, the parent company of Dairy Queen.
Chances are your experience of the franchise was garnered in the suburbs or in vacationland, where DQ Braziers predominate, with a drive-in window, a menu of burgers, fries, and chicken, and a fuller menu of frozen treats, with a serve-yourself routine that finds you ordering, waiting by the counter for your order, then sitting in a well-lit dining room surrounded by parking lots. Well, our branch is the more modern Grill and Chill concept, which emphasizes comfort, décor, and savory selections, with the frozen treats somewhat curtailed (no low-rent Dilly Bars or DQ Sandwiches).
When our branch first opened, lines of customers had been waiting for several hours, and for the first week long lines made dashing in and copping a Blizzard impossible. Now the queues have dwindled and the frenzy has petered out. I went to compare DQ to the other fast food franchises that have flourished in the city during the last decade, but also to relive my childhood, since I hadn't tried Dairy Queen for a very long time.
The set-up is rather odd, reminding me of the dosa houses of Jersey City. You stand in line at a counter to order, and are given a red plastic number, which you take with you in your search for a seat. Once you find a seat, you plant the number on the table and wait for the dish runners to bring your order. Unfortunately, your food arrives piecemeal, so that a milkshake may arrive first, onion rings five minutes later, and your chickens strips five minutes after that. On one occasion, my cone never arrived, and I had to go in search of it. You're also likely to feel sorry for the runners, who must wander aimlessly through the abyss looking, sometimes in vain, for a number, which can be hidden behind a purse, or otherwise put in some disadvantageous location. Over the last few days, the runners have learned to ask the customers, "Are you expecting anything else?" Still, the ice cream treats often arrive half-melted.
On my three visits, plenty of seating was available on the ground floor, and also in a loft outfitted with comfy couches. How urbane! Such was the hubbub throughout the premises, that you could make cocktails out of Blizzards up there, or take a pull on your vape as you relax. Both spaces are decorated with DQ nostalgia, including a historic photo-mural of Orange Julius locations — a franchise specializing in orange-flavored frozen drinks that was founded in the 1920s and gobbled up by DQ in 1987. Monitors on one wall of the ground floor are tuned to news stations, as if New Yorkers give a rat's ass what's going on in the world as they wait for their chocolate shakes. Or is it simply an attempt to distract customers from the bumbling food distribution system?
My first item was presumably formulated for this auspicious Manhattan DQ opening, a so-called Big Apple Blizzard (medium, $4.59). It contained a dice of some apple product, impregnated with a spice mixture like those red candied crabapples that were once the bane of every Thanksgiving relish tray. There was something crunchy in the creamy and foamy mass, too, but it wasn't till I looked again at my receipt that I figured out what it was. On my tab the product was referred to as a "pie crust Blizzard," suggesting that in other markets the product may not be promoted as something uniquely formulated for New York City. It was awful.
The ¼-pound bacon cheese grillburger ($4.79, raised to $5.29 in the last few days) was the high point of my meal, not only because the patty had a slight smoky flavor, but because of the plethora of pickles, lettuce, and raw onions haphazardly stacked inside the bun, and the thickly sliced tomato. The bacon and cheese were of predictable quality, the bacon slices thin and truncated. The fries were not good, pale and tasting of wonky fat, and undersalted, too. The grillburger reminded me of Five Guys — there happens to be one right next door, which has been visibly suffering since DQ moved in.
The chili cheese dog was the authentic junk-food article, though the grated cheese was almost cheddary. A friend from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin raved about DQ's hot dogs. "I ate those all the time when I was a kid, and still have cravings." They're "skinless" franks, which are something we rarely get in New York, where natural-skinned, smaller-bore wieners are the rule. And at $2.79, it wasn't a bad deal, certainly on par with Papaya King and its ilk. Still, the case can be made that a New York style frank is by its nature — the skin pops when you bite into it — is much better than supermarket franks, which, to their credit, are often a bit smokier. [Note: by my third visit yesterday, the price of the chili dog had zoomed to $3.19. Sneaky bastards!]
While stepping on Five Guys' toes may have been inadvertent on the part of DQ, two other savory offerings seem to take direct aim at other franchises. The popcorn shrimp will remind you of Popeyes, and the chicken quesadilla is virtually indistinguishable from the product at Taco Bell. I tried the DQ rendition, served with plastic cups of salsa and sour cream, and found it mind-numbingly bland. Like Taco Bell, it has two colors of finely grated cheese food product, some chopped onions, and a notable dearth of actual chicken. Sliced, canned black olives provide the only real jolt, and it's almost pure salt.
Now for the ice cream stuff. I had to get a dipped cone ($2.59, small), because those were what excited me most about Dairy Queen when I was a kid. While the butterscotch dip is long gone, the choices are now chocolate and cherry. I perversely picked the cherry — the coating tasted like cough syrup. The ice cream, btw, is at about the same level as Mister Softee, only a bit yellower. It functioned better in the hot-fudge sundae I tried, which was a bare-bones version with no whipped cream, nuts, or cherry, and less hot fudge than you might wish.
The second best thing I tried, better than the chili cheese dog and the hot-fudge sundae, but not quite as good as the bacon cheese grillburger, was the Orange Julius, a sort of creamsicle-flavored frosty, with the solider parts floating on top and something intended to resemble orange juice underneath. The DQ version seemed pallid, more smoothie than real Orange Julius. Yet, it was refreshing and who knows if they were as good way back when as I remember them?