When I spy the brown lettering of a McDonald's hamburger wrapper, even from afar, when I hear the crackle of the butcher paper opening and I inhale the first vapors of ketchup and minced onion—arf. I am Pavlov's dog.

It's not so much a deluge of salivation as it is a flood of memory while a window opens to my mind's eye. It's a triangle-shaped window that looks onto a college football stadium and illuminates the floor of my Auntie Sharon's dorm room, where she and I eat cookies shaped like Grimace and Hamburglar and punch out the perforated shapes on the side of a Happy Meal box. A fold here, a fold there, and suddenly the box has become a castle, a Temple of the Golden Arches. I am 5 years old and thoroughly entranced.

That's Happy McDonald's Memory #1, which is followed by a similar flashback brought on by the hot mayonnaise in a McChicken sandwich. In this memory, I'm a few years older and "student of the week," a class award that comes with a McDonald's lunch with the teacher. Too young to realize that every kid is honored sometime during the year, I'm just overjoyed to be allowed to order my first grown-up sandwich.

I'm not 100 percent confident in the authenticity of these recollections. Amazingly, 25 years later, my aunt more or less confirms the first one, but Happy McDonald's Memory #2—especially the blond faceless Teacher X—isn't consistent with my other school memories. The Golden Arches are so deeply embedded into the architecture of American identity, I suspect I've plagiarized this one from a Saturday morning commercial.

But that's the magic of McDonald's; having developed the ultimate convenience food and the ultimate food service efficiency system, McDonald's decided the best way to control a fiercely competitive market was to sell a completely artificial—but thoroughly American—"experience."

Sixty years ago this fall, Dick and Mac McDonald closed their barbecue restaurant in San Bernadino, Calif., because they realized they could make a lot more money by just selling burgers—and selling them fast. They reengineered their kitchen to work like a well-greased machine and dubbed it the "Speedee Service System." That concept launched the fast-food industry as we know it and, by combining innovation with enterprise, defined the American Dream.

Then that dream was crushed, or enhanced, depending on whether you're the McDonald Brothers or Ray Kroc, who grabbed control in 1953 (the corporation does not recognize 1948 as the beginning of the McEmpire). McDonald's established itself as a kiddy paradise with playgrounds and Happy Meal toys and an actual clown named Ronald. Simultaneously, McDonald's developed formulas for extremely cheap and addictive food, which, as Eric Schlosser reports in his book Fast Food Nation, has contributed to global problems ranging from rain-forest destruction to worker exploitation to the obesity epidemic.

When I picked up the term "cultural imperialism" in my own college dorm, I edged away from McDonald's and guiltily tucked away my memories of McNugget-dipping and ball-pit frolicking. Only in the last year have I begun reconciling with my ol' friend Mickey D.

Mostly it's because the four McDonald's in Santa Fe aren't the same McDonald's of my youth, but have more to offer in everything from the food served to the ambiance of the local locations.

And, in the years since Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock's McDonald's binge-diet documentary, Super Size Me, the restaurant's corporate strategy—from nutritional priorities to animal-handling ethics—has adapted to a more informed, more demanding consumer, while still remaining mindful of the budgetary crunch that comes with economic downswings. Regionally, McDonald's applauds itself for serving as a launching pad for Hispanic and immigrant workers—perhaps even more so in Santa Fe where the $6.55 national minimum wage has been replaced by a $9.50 living wage.

Yes, for the first time in a long, long while, the cloud over that triangle-shaped dorm window of my soul is parting. But the question remains: Can a modern, socially conscious Santa Fean have his Big Mac and eat it, too?

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Location: Cerrillos Road and Richards Avenue
Order: One medium orange juice, one medium Premium Roast iced coffee, caramel flavoring

Barristas at Starbucks in Seattle often complain about the “ghetto latte,” a budgetary trick employed by unemployed hipsters.

They’ll order an Americano, half-ice, no water, fill the rest up with milk from the condiment counter and voila! Use some of the free cocoa powder and you’ve got yourself a mocha.

As a formerly unemployed Seattle hipster, I can attest to the authenticity of McDonald’s new iced coffee line: They have perfected the watery, double-ghetto latte (multiplied since no espresso is actually involved).

The orange juice, on the other hand, is standard diner-class Minute Maid and the only noteworthy element is the fine print beneath the lid: McDonald’s has trademarked the phrase “I’m lovin’ it” in no less than eight languages, including Chinese and Russian, just so they can arrange the lines into snowflakes for a Taiwanese pop star to blow seductively around the circumference of the cup.

It’s approximately 9 am and the restaurant’s business is peaking. There is one McDonald’s for every 18,000 people in Santa Fe proper. Right now, senior citizens, day laborers, suited businessmen and young parents fill tables and gossip over cups of coffee and McDonald’s’ new breakfast platters, which look like airplane meals, but in a kitschy kind of way. A man in his mid-60s, wearing a safari hat patched with duct tape, tattered trousers and a very blingy Star of David at the end of a long silver chain, explains to the cashier he wants egg and cheese on a McMuffin (“No bacon, no ham!”). Outside on the patio, the perfect drifter—Army camouflage shirt, a ducktail streaked with grey and a stack of bedrolls tidier than any sheet on my bed at home—rolls his own cigarette after finishing a newish pancake sandwich know as the McGriddle.

The interior could pass as a college town cocktail lounge, with dim lava-lamp-style lights hanging over booths upholstered with actual fabric. Dark wood panels, with a retro pattern of ovals carved out, separate and somewhat soundproof the sections. It also has Wifi.

According to news archives, this McDonald’s was the first to open in Santa Fe, in 1972, although it was razed and rebuilt in 2005. The Zamora family bought the Santa Fe franchise, which had grown to three restaurants, in 1995 and then added a fourth. Now all of Santa Fe’s major byways are home to McDonald’s: the restaurants on St. Michael’s Drive and Airport Road are more traditional house-like structures with full playground sets, while this restaurant on Cerrillos and the other on St. Francis Drive are both adobe and feature double drive-through lanes.

As a regular patron of the drive-through, I once lodged a complaint because the manager rudely cut me off when I was chatting with the young man at the window; a week later, Vickie Zamora, wife of owner Andres Zamora, addressed my concern personally; I received, in the mail, a free gift card for a sundae.

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Location: Cerrillos Road and Richards Avenue
Order: Two Angus Third Pounders (one Deluxe, one Mushroom & Swiss), one regular Hi-C Orange Lavaburst, one small coffee

An Arab and a Jew meet at a McDonald’s. They both order “gourmet” cheeseburgers and it feels like Christmas.

The Arab is A Qasimi, SFR’s resident, semi-anonymous food critic and thrower of five-course dinner parties that feature entrees like “basil-marinated king prawns in sweet red-onion sauce, jasmine and cardamom-chili oil.”

The Jew is me and I’m desperate to convince a genuine “foodie” that McDonald’s actually serves food; in this case, the limited-run Angus Third Pounder burger line, which looks absolutely delectable in the ads plastered across the window. I point out how slick the interior design is. If it weren’t for the incessant beeping from the machines in the kitchen, like a dozen oversized trucks backing up at different speeds, this could be a nice date-night restaurant. Qasimi is not as enthusiastic.

“I cried myself to sleep last night wondering what I’d gotten myself into,” Qasimi says, adding that her friends would be horrified to learn where she’s supping tonight.

In fact, Qasimi has a history with Mickey D’s. In college, she was addicted to Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and, like me, the orange drink. The restroom, she reminisces, was the real draw; McDonald’s’ toilets were always cleaners than her dorm’s.

(Later, via e-mail, Qasimi further confesses that, while in high school in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, she won an “impromptu pie-eating competition” by knocking back 11 McDonald’s apple pies in under four minutes. “That may not seem like such a great feat, but let me emphasize that the filling was like nuclear-hot book paste,” she writes. “I wore the scars around my mouth like a badge of my triple-threat of courage, gluttony and idiocy for the remainder of the year.”)

After examining the image of the three Third Pounder variations glued to the tabletop, Qasimi chooses the Deluxe, because she’s a sucker for bacon and does not want the Bacon & Cheese burger to cloud her palate. I committed to the Mushroom & Swiss burger days earlier. Minutes later, I bring the boxes, printed over with steak house tan and brown. We open them together and Qasimi says she’s impressed by the full leaf of lettuce on hers. She takes a plastic knife and slices through the sandwich so cleanly that it resembles a new genre of giant sushi.

“It’s unremarkable compared to other burgers,” she says of the presentation. “So, I’d say my expectations are met at McDonald’s.”

As we eat, Qasimi relates her McDonald’s experiences from the UAE, how they don’t have Happy Meals and the food isn’t generally marketed to kids. McDonald’s is a luxury in the Middle East and she’s always shocked when her sisters come home cradling $8 Big Macs. Qasimi herself hasn’t visited a McDonald’s since 2005. And that was her dad’s fault.

“We actually had just been to a lecture about nutritional epidemiology that had been given by a guy from Santa Fe in the northern Emirates,” she says and assumes a rolling Arabic accent. “My dad goes, ‘You know, that lecture rrreallly made me want to eat a Big Mac.’ So, we pulled over and he ordered his Big Mac and I didn’t have anything. I watched him eat it. I was smug, I have to say.”

I don’t have a comparable story; when I was in Israel I was always too impatient to wait through the anti-terrorist metal detectors at the Jerusalem McDonald’s. But our conversation jumps around the hemisphere and we land on Japan, where Qasimi once dined on a meal comprised entirely of insects and where I once had to eat McDonald’s for almost every meal for a week.

That’s Happy McDonald’s Memory #3. I studied in Tokyo as an undergrad. My parents came to visit and, of course, they hadn’t prepared themselves for the food. They keep half-kosher, which means they will eat beef and chicken that hasn’t been butchered by rabbinical standards as long as it’s not served with cheese, pork or shellfish. That dietary restriction was compounded by my father’s reluctance to eat adventurously and my mom’s sudden obsession over the kimono-wearing Hello Kitty dolls on sale at the counter. We had to stop at every Japanese McDonald’s we passed. Rebellious me, I ordered the most un-kosher of “Makudonarudo” locally-inspired cuisine: the shrimp burger.

Qasimi counters that the UAE equivalent is the McArabia sandwich: a pita filled with grilled chicken or spiced beef, vegetables and garlic mayonnaise.

“The best thing about McDonald’s abroad is that the food looks exactly like the pictures,” I say and point again at the tabletop advertisement. “And these burgers look just like the
pictures, too.”

Qasimi tentatively agrees and I search frantically for something else wonderful about McDonald’s that I can use to win her over. My eyes land on the straw in my Hi-C Orange Lavaburst. McDonald’s’ straws are the watermark against which all straws must be judged, because of their thickness and the sound they make, I explain. I start playing the cup like it’s a violin. Qasimi winces.

“That noise is bringing these Pavlovian impulses back,” she says. “I remember as a kid I would drink that orange stuff and if I was really excited or laughing—you doing that just brought the feeling of orange drink coming through my nose and that acid burn up here in my sinuses.”

Suddenly there’s a fly whipping around our heads. I ask for her final word on the burger, which she is clearly not going to finish.

“This is where it’s hard to remove the context,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “The question is, if I went to Del Charro and it was late at night and I’d had a couple of margaritas and I ordered a $5 burger and this is what I was served, would I be happy? I would be.”

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Location: Airport Road and Calle Lucia
Order: Green chile double cheeseburger, Honey Mustard Snack Wrap, apple pie, small fries, regular orange drink.

Is what a Santa Fean wants what a Santa Fean gets at McDonald’s today?

The short answer is yes: Green chile is available on any sandwich at no extra charge.

But can immigrants to Santa Fe get what they want at McDonald’s?

With a green chile double cheeseburger in my stomach (surprisingly delicious, though I’m a red-chile man), I drive over to the offices of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant-rights organization, to interview a former employee involved in a 2004 walk-out.

I’m used to the stereotype that McDonald’s employees are largely teenagers who don’t give a McRat’s ass what I want. In Santa Fe, however, the kitchens are mostly staffed by motherly women who go about their work in the professional manner of an Intel microprocessor line worker.

I want to believe that because Santa Fe’s minimum wage is $9.50, I don’t have to feel guilty. And I want to accept the data in McDonald’s’ “Helping the Community Grow” brochures that state that 44 percent of McDonald’s’ employees and 32 percent of its managers are Hispanic. I want to ignore that the statistic doesn’t carry over into ownership; less than 13 percent of franchises in the region are Hispanic-owned.

But I remember something Qasimi said about why she agreed to dinner at McDonald’s: “I just feel like, if you’re going to ask questions, then you can’t be self-limiting. That doesn’t help anybody. It’s ignorant and delusional.”
Santa Fe’s McDonald’s are 100 percent Hispanic-owned—by the Zamora family. However, Hispanic ownership doesn’t guarantee quality treatment of Mexican immigrant employees.

“Anna,” who was one of the six employees who filed suit against the Zamoras’ company MCZ Inc. in 2004, agrees to an interview on the condition of anonymity. She took the job in 1996 after emigrating from Mexico, where she had worked in furniture sales, but never before in a restaurant. The McDonald’s kitchen, she says, was technologically advanced and she had to figure it out, by burns and cuts, with very little training, how to operate it. (The Zamoras would not agree to be interviewed for this story.)

“At the time, I didn’t have any idea what McDonald’s was; what I needed was a job,” Anna says through a Somos’ translator. “When I started, the job was not good, not bad, but balanced…I could see that some employees were getting special preference. And, there was no vacation, no health care, no benefits, but I knew this since the beginning.”

These were small problems, Anna says, but later, a pregnancy posed a much bigger conflict between her and the management. She says she couldn’t take time off work to see a doctor and, later, when her son was older, she had trouble getting off work in time to pick him up from school.

In 2004, Santa Fe’s living wage ordinance went into effect and the wage rose to $8.50 per hour. According to news reports from October 2004, a group of immigrant mothers employed by McDonald’s on Pacheco walked out after what they described as verbal abuse. They alleged that the store’s managers told them they had to work twice as hard if they wanted to keep their now higher-paying jobs.

“They constantly verbally insulted us, humiliated us and reproached us for the new living wage law,” one of the former employees said in a press conference. “On several occasions, they told us that we were pigs and that we did not deserve $8.50.”

The women sued and, a year later, received an undisclosed settlement from MCZ. Anna is now a self-employed house cleaner. I ask whether she still eats at McDonald’s.
“No,” she says. “It was not a very good experience and I really don’t like the food there.”

I say I disagree and explain that this piece is about how Santa Fe’s McDonald’s are so much superior to those elsewhere. As the translator relates that to her, Anna looks away.

“I do respect your opinion,” she then says, more impassioned than before. “I don’t have anything against McDonald’s, their salads, their food, their hamburgers. What I am against is an abusive employer. You get that good experience, the warm food, the clean tables, the nice atmosphere, because of the pressure an abusive employer is putting on their employees. I know, I was on the other side. McDonald’s’ service could be perfect, but how am I going to support a place that does not respect their employees, those same employees who are putting forth their best effort to give the best quality to the customers?”

I tell her that’s one of the things that makes me happiest about Santa Fe’s McDonald’s; the citizenry passed a living-wage ordinance and, when McDonald’s workers saw it violated, they fought for their rights and won. Isn’t that something to be proud of?

“We are agreeing now,” she says.

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Location: Pacheco Street and St. Michael’s Drive
Order: One three-piece Chicken Selects, one Southern Style Chicken sandwich, one medium fries, one large Premium Roast iced coffee, one bottle Dasani water

I’m waiting at the Pacheco McDonald’s for City Councilor Rosemary Romero, whose district contains two McDonald’s, including this one.
Initially, I had planned to interview the second district’s other councilor, Rebecca Wurzburger over lunch, because she just seems so proper. But, “Rebecca is very picky about what she eats,” a city employee warned me. (Plus, her name sounds an awful lot like “worst burger.”)

The city staffer was wrong: One can never underestimate the aura of the Golden Arches. Wurzburger loves McDonald’s (in small doses) sometimes even stopping by after yoga.

“I have a very strong emotional connection [to McDonald’s],” Wurzburger tells me over the phone. “My mother, who was very poor and died at 85, used to go to McDonald’s every morning for a biscuit, not an egg biscuit, not an egg and sausage biscuit, just a plain biscuit and a cup of coffee. So, when I’m feeling like I need an emotional connection, I go to McDonald’s and have a biscuit—and I do love their biscuits. And I added a Diet Coke.”

But Wurzburger never eats lunch at McDonald’s, so I rely on Romero who, as a mediator and conflict resolution specialist, drives out to remote rural areas regularly—the heart of McDonald’s Country.

“I’m totally surprised,” Romero, who usually only uses the drive-through, says. “Look how clean it is! I don’t know how many restaurants I get bugged by when I walk in and there are like four tables that are dirty and you can’t find a clean spot. But this one is neat, clean and aesthetically pleasing. It doesn’t have the garish stuff on the inside like you would expect.”

As it does for Wurzburger, McDonald’s also holds special memories of a departed loved one for Romero. Her daughter passed away from diabetes in 2006.

“My older daughter spent a lot of time at hospitals, especially at St. Vincents and the dialysis unit,” Romero says. “This is on the way. My kids knew Chicken McNuggets and, boy, that’d be a treat. ‘If you’re really good, do all your chores, you’ll get to go to McDonald’s.’ That was a big deal.”

Then she looks out the window and I ask her to tell me what she sees. It’s the same thing I saw the first time I ate inside a Santa Fe McDonald’s: that slice of community, as layered and diverse as the cross-section Qasimi cut into her Third Pounder.

“I’m seeing the diversity of the town driving through,” Romero says. “It’s working people, people in a hurry to get home. It’s moms, it’s construction workers, who are probably rushing because they get a half-hour lunch…It’s kind of interesting. People say construction is slow in Santa Fe, but you wouldn’t know it by that line.”

At the counter, Romero orders fries and the Southern Style Chicken sandwich, a new limited-time offer that is suspiciously similar to a sandwich served by its competitor, Chick-fil-A. Romero eats the fries as fast as she can snatch them. They’re only good when they’re hot, she says.

As for the sandwich: “It’s pretty tasty,” Romero says, holding it up for a closer look. “I do like it. Now, as a rule, I wouldn’t eat this much bread, but it’s not thick heavy bread. Look at it, it’s pretty light and most of it is chicken. So, I’m actually thoroughly enjoying it and I’ll probably finish it.”

I point out that this restaurant will probably be booming soon, when tenants start filling the affordable housing complex next door. The McDonald’s Playland will be the closest playground for the children. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing, only that it’s better than nothing. Romero doesn’t say anything, but you can see the gears of civic duty tick in her eyes.

She does not finish her sandwich.

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Happy McDonald’s Memory #4: I’m riding in the passenger seat of my friend E’s car, his female friend S is in the back and E is driving us to Peñasco for a live music performance at Wise Fool’s theater.

All the way, I’m talking about this story, about how fantastic Santa Fe’s McDonald’s are: the décor, the Angus Third Pounders, the cleanliness, the excellent customer service, how it’s the one place a family can take its small children and not worry if they start screaming.

By the end of my tirade, they’re both starving and E has decided we’re stopping at the next McDonald’s.

“All roads lead to McDonald’s,” I tell him.

“Eventually,” I add 20 minutes later.

“All roads, except for the one to Peñasco,” I conclude as we pull up to our destination.

On the way back, however, we fail to make a turn and serendipitously arrive at Española’s McDonald’s. I am redeemed, but only momentarily.

The McDonald’s isn’t adobe. Inside, the tables aren’t fashionable. The Third Pounders aren’t on the menu. In blatant disregard to fire codes, we’re locked inside to keep the homeless out. Worst of all, it takes 15 minutes to get our fast food. Kids are running wild; at least I’m right on that point.

After they eat, E and S venture out onto the patio to inspect the Playland. It’s a huge hideous thing; the tubes and domes are like veins and blisters on a genetic experiment gone wrong. No wonder the kids love it. A trio of children swarm the couple and show them the short-cut up the side of the structure and instruct them how they can pick up speed going down the slide if they sit on plastic McDonald’s trays.

Moments later, S comes whooshing out the end of the slide like a Jamaican bobsledder and crashes into the safety mat. After the manager finally unlocks the door for them, S shows me her bruises.

“That was awesome,” E remarks and then says to S, “I can’t believe you let that kid climb up behind you in that skirt. You just made his month, I’m sure.”

His month or his forever memory. People may doubt me, but in the end, there’s a reason why so many of us—ba da ba ba baa—are lovin’ it.  SFR