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Temple of the Golden Arches

A search for the prize at the bottom of Santa Fe’s McDonald’s

September 17, 2008, 12:00 am

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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