Sunday, February 23, 2003

Long Live the King

While preparations for war were the main focus of the front pages of last week’s papers, the big news in the business section is that the Israeli franchisee of the international Burger King chain is in trouble and that Burger King Israel is now under bankruptcy protection.

This announcement threatens to upset the delicate balance I have built, the fine line that makes living in Israel bearable.

You see, when people refer to the "matzav" - the "situation" - it's not the economy or security considerations that make the difference for me. Rather, it's the status of fast food in Israel, in particular, the ability to eat that quintessential fast food delicacy – the burger – once again, after going kosher so many years ago and no longer being allowed to frequent my previously favored dens of culinary iniquity.

The arrival of real American fast food in Israel twenty years ago, with a scattering of kosher variations around the country, restored all that for me. Sure, falafel is more Israeli, more authentic. And native-born Israelis are not big burger consumers: a recent survey from the Mutagim Institute written up in Haaretz revealed 33% of Israelis prefer falafel, 29% pizza and only 17% hamburgers.

But when it comes to pure nostalgia – my nostalgia – nothing beats a burger. But now, the threat of losing the unchallenged king of them all…well, it's been almost too much to stomach.

But I am determined to make the best of a potentially devastating situation. I mean, it’s not like we don’t have other burger establishments.

So on a recent Friday, I decided to determine just how much of a tragedy this really could be. In order to come up with a scientific answer, I visited each of the five main burger joints in town, bought one representative burger from each and brought them home where the Jody, kids and I held a gala burger taste-testing fest and fast food competition. We divided each burger into five equal pieces and then each started sampling.

Our test group included a Whopper from Burger King, of course, and also a McRoyal (the European equivalent of the Quarter Pounder) from McDonald’s which I had to pick up at the Mevesseret Zion Mall since the McDonald’s five minutes from our house on Emek Refaim remains defiantly non-kosher.

There were three more burgers: a Star Ranch from Burger Ranch which came topped with smoked goose breast; and two super-cheapies from hole-in-the-wall vendors – more like a guy with a grill, a burger and a bun instead of shwarma and a pita – located conveniently along side the Rami Levi supermarket and Bazaar Strauss discount clothing store, both in Jerusalem’s Talpiot Industrial Zone.

The three brand name burgers were between 18 and 20 shekels each; at about $3.80, fast food in Israel is not cheap. At a mere 5 shekels for a Rami Levi burger and 6 shekels at BurgerStrauss (just a little more than a buck), these were definitely the best burger deals in town.

We deliberately left out of our survey the gourmet burgers. Norman’s charges upwards of 30 shekels for a hamburger (and it’s not even a Whopper). We also left out Emek Refaim’s Burger’s Bar which is not that much more price-wise but is more a restaurant not a fast take out joint and distinguishes itself with some particularly yummy sauces (garlic, pesto, hot pepper).

Gourmet burgers are in a whole different category, really. The International Herald Tribune recently ran a piece on the most expensive burgers in New York. It was truly decadent. A $26 burger mixed with duck fat, marjoram and thyme; another stuffed with black truffles, fois gras, and braised short ribs. I’m not saying they’re no good – they sound great (if totally treife). But burgers...I don’t think so.

As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much impossible to grow up in suburban America and not have a fastidious fondness for fast food. There’s the ubiquity to start. And the fact that they’re just so darn delicious. They may be terrible for your health (and lately legally dangerous too), but can any of you deny that a Big Mac with a triple thick chocolate shake, a side order of fries and a hot apple pie is not on a par with any fancy bistro, French, Italian or otherwise?

And don’t get all huffy about ambience. McDonald’s has play areas for the kids. And a really big clown. So it’s not Jerry Lewis. The French can go sue me.

The last time I ever ate at a “real” McDonald’s was, ironically, in Paris. It was September 15, 1985. I was finishing up a five-week trip through Europe and heading back to Israel to study at Pardes. I had already decided I was going to keep kosher once I got to Jerusalem, so I made sure that my last meal before hopping the train to the plane was a good one.

For some reason, I was unable – or perhaps it was unwilling – to go all the way and order the bacon. To this day, I regret not having one last fling. Gluten-based simulated pork just doesn’t satisfy.

Back to the matter at hand. Or mouth. The kids were looking forward to the taste survey. Their enthusiasm surprised even me, the burger meister. The salespeople at the burger establishments all looked at me a bit funny. Just a single burger? What, no Happy Meal?

When they were laid out across our kitchen table, Jody commented that all the burgers looked the same from the outside: there must be a monopoly on hamburger buns. She also mused that if we came down with food poisoning, we wouldn’t know which was the culprit. Thanks, Jo…

Now for the results. Bottom line: money does talk. The super-cheapies couldn’t hold their own next to the King of Burgers. Except for Aviv, who voted for Rami Levi because he liked the way the name sounded, Burger Strauss was uniformly hated and Burger King and Burger Ranch were in a virtual tie (sorry McDonald’s).

That was until I realized that the smoked goose breast on the StarRanch might be skewing the results. We removed the goose, tried again, and the winner and still champion: Burger King.

So what’s to be done? There’s really only one alternative. We’ve got to get out there and support our local Burger King. I urge all readers within a 10 kilometer radius of an Israeli Burger King to get out and buy one a day. Don’t dawdle. It may not be a life or death scenario, but the future of Burger King in Israel is in our hands. We can make a difference! This is the reason we made aliyah in the first place!

And while you're out, could you pick me up a large order of fries and that hot apple pie?

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