When foreign restaurant chains like Tim Ho Wan, Teremok, Nusr-et, Ichiran, and Sorbillo fly into town, they’re greeted with enthusiasm, getting write-ups everywhere. Yet domestic chains also regularly appear and often provoke little interest. Of course, both types of interloper displace our indigenous ma and pa eateries, entrap fellow citizens in low-paying jobs, import many of their raw materials from far away, and presumably send cash out of town in bulging sacks. And, as is the case with Manhattan’s newest entrant Carl’s Jr., the food is frequently not even any good.
Since many New Yorkers may be unfamiliar with this chain, I thought you might need a quick primer: The chain was founded in Los Angeles as a hot dog cart in 1941 by Carl and Margaret Karcher. By 1945, they’d moved to Anaheim and reestablished the business as a drive-in barbecue. The next two branches, also in the LA area, were smaller and thus were dubbed Carl’s Jr. — and the name stuck. Its parent company CKE Restaurants, which also owns Hardee’s, now owns more than 3,000 branches in 42 states and 28 countries.
The branch that recently landed here across the street from Penn Station just north of 33rd Street on Seventh Avenue is Manhattan’s first, following New York’s first outpost over on Coney Island. The two-level restaurant, which opened with both long lines and protestors from animal rights activists, stands on a shabby block where foot traffic is high. On three visits, one in the evening, another during the lunch rush, and a third in the morning, the place was nearly empty despite being open for a month. Why hasn’t it caught on?
Upon entering, there’s a large empty space in front of an order counter that looks into a kitchen tightly packed with employees and equipment. Upstairs is a windowless dining room that seats perhaps 35, decorated with black and white photos of surfers and skateboarders, establishing a California theme that doesn’t quite jibe with the menu.
That menu is relentlessly hamburger oriented, with 15 choices. These burgers, made with 100 percent Black Angus beef said to be flame grilled, are available in three types according to patty size, priced from $1 to $6. All are available in combo deals that keep the prices low, while allowing the calorie count to soar up to around 1800, which is nearly a day’s caloric allowance. It’s your typical unhealthy hamburger chain, unless you eat only one meal a day.
The menu is daunting, and the burgers I tasted were uniformly awful. Do you want guac on your burger? Or jalapenos? Or teriyaki sauce? The current flagship of the fleet is the Western bacon cheeseburger ($4.90), flogged around the premises on colorful placards and napkin dispensers. The burger is described on the website as “charbroiled all-beef patty, two strips of bacon, melted American cheese, two crispy onion rings, and tangy BBQ sauce on a seeded bun.”
This is one of the medium-sized burgers and the patty is curiously curlicued along its circumference, with little protruding spots on the grayish surface that look like warts. It doesn’t taste much like smoke and is dry as dust. The bacon is good, though the two strips amount to one in actual size. The onion rings taste like they were fried long ago. The barbecue sauce is just what you’d expect, but the whole effect is like eating autumn leaves: colorful but very low on flavor.
The best burger of this mid-size type that I tried was the breakfast burger ($4.69). It, at least, had significant moisture in its carefully folded omelet dabbed with ketchup, and cheese that, while not actually melted, was at least on the way to gooiness. By contrast, a burger that bombed was one from the third-pound premium class of burgers, all of which come stacked with a fair amount of lettuce (I guess that’s the California part), giving them a messy, jumbled appearance.
The “1/3 lb. original six dollar thickburger” ($5.99) also sports tomatoes and pickles, and comes slathered with mayo, mustard, and ketchup. (Hey, isn’t that McDonald’s “special sauce”?) It’s really just more dry beef. Really, how the chain makes the beef so flavorless is a mystery. Ditto with the sliders, which can be had with one, two, or three patties.
Weird assortments of peripheral products like the sliders can be ordered in combination in the so-called All Star Meals. The one shown includes a pair of two-patty sliders, french fries, a chocolate chip cookie, and a hot dog in a bun. This formidable $6 tuck-in also includes a giant beverage. Here’s where the menu takes an unexpected turn. The fries are actually good, though they desperately need salt. For an extra $2 you can get one of the chain’s thick shakes ($4 normally), made from real scooped ice cream and quite tasty.
Breakfast is much better than dinner or lunch, served only until 10:30 a.m., with the exception of the aforementioned breakfast burger, available all day. There are biscuits, and quite desirable ones, cakey rather than flaky and layered with the usual stuff. The “monster biscuit” has two eggs in folded omelet form, sausage and bacon, and Swiss and American cheeses. It’s delicious. Also offered is an oddball grilled cheese sandwich (for breakfast?) on sliced sourdough bread that might have been flown in from the moon, so out of place does it seem in fast food.
Breakfast burritos are promised, too, but they haven’t arrived yet. Lunch and dinner burritos also are not yet available. Both would give our Carl’s Jr. a more California feel, and heck, they might be good. Anyway, due to a menu that’s demonstrably shorter than the usual Carl’s Jr., perhaps we should call our branch “Carl’s Jr. Jr.”