If we are what we eat, what does that say about Americans’ ongoing love affair with extreme food?Even in an era when consumers say they are increasingly opting for healthy choices, they continue to be intrigued by the novelty of piling a whole lot of calories—whether in the form of bacon, butter, or a hot dog—on top of a burger, pizza, or breadstick.
This is my third annual list chronicling the most over-the-top menu items introduced by restaurant chains during the year. As always, there are some epic constructions with four-digit calorie counts. Yet overall, fewer entries were as outlandishly gut-busting as in previous years. Is it perhaps the sign of a new era of restraint? Probably not.
The Most American Thickburger from Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s
Sister brands Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have launched “meat on meat” burgers in the past but the Most American Thickburger is Americana on a bun: a split hot dog and potato chips on a hamburger patty with American cheese, tomato, pickles, ketchup, and mustard. And at 1,030 calories and 64 grams of fat, it’s also a match for the hardiest of American appetites.
Notable review: “It tastes like freedom. It tastes like excess. It taste like gluttony. It tastes like America.” – Phoenix New Times
The Breadstick Sandwich from Olive Garden
In 2015 Olive Garden (DRI) took the bold move of turning its most celebrated offering, unlimited breadsticks, into a sandwich. The extremeness of the Breadstick Sandwich—which comes in either chicken parmigiana (590 calories, 28 grams of fat) or meatball (600 calories, 39 grams of fat) varieties—earned the creation notice on the Today Show, the Tonight Show, and the Late Show.
Notable review: “It was coated in so much oil that when I finished, my mouth felt like it had undergone a DIY spa treatment. I’m willing to give the Garden the benefit of the doubt—it’s possible the breadstick took on a soaked, slippery characteristic in transit. But still, it made it a little challenging to eat and also to type now that I’m done.” – Food & Wine
The Buttery Jack from Jack in the Box
If a burger isn’t already indulgent enough, Jack in the Box (JACK) decided to turn it up a notch by melting garlic herb butter on top of a quarter-pound beef patty. The company’s CEO told investors that he’d never witnessed as successful a product during his 14-year tenure. Those watching their weight might want to opt for the Classic Buttery Jack at 820 calories and 52 grams of fat over the Bacon and Swiss Buttery Jack, which tops out at 890 calories and 59 grams of fat.
Notable review: “The flavor that the garlic herb butter lends to the burger is unquestionably genius. It makes the entire thing very melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The amount of garlic herb butter might be excessive, but the sandwich wasn’t overwhelmed by it, and the harmony of the burger as a whole was preserved.” – Man Reviews Food
Bacon Wrapped Crust DEEP!DEEP! Dish Pizza from Little Caesars
Initially introduced in February for a limited two-month run, this gem got extended an extra month due to demand. It’s clear why. Not since the new World Trade Center has American engineering achieved such sturdy construction: 3.5 feet of thick-cut bacon wrapped around a deep dish pizza. The pepperoni and bacon on top are merely an added bonus. The idea for this monster (450 calories per slice, 23 grams of fat) came about when a member of company’s R&D team ate a bacon-wrapped filet mignon.
Notable review: “The strips are fused in so seamlessly that you have to wonder why no one’s thought of this before. They don’t fall off no matter how enthusiastically you gnaw into your slice, and they’re neither too crispy nor too soggy. All this bacon does make the pie one of the greasier pizzas you’ll consume in your lifetime, so be prepared for that. And the ever-so-slight heart murmur you’re liable to feel after polishing off your first piece.” – Thrillist
Cap’n Crunch Delights from Taco Bell
These little balls of rainbow sweetness might seem like the result of an unlikely union: doughnuts and cereal. But it’s actually the brilliant merger of two of America’s most beloved breakfast foods. Taco Bell (YUM) launched Cap’n Crunch Delights in July as a limited-time offer and, at 170 calories and 11 grams of fat, it qualifies as a diet food by the standards of this list.
Notable review: “These tender little morsels of pink dough may not be colored with locally sourced strawberries, but what they lack in refinement, they make up for with synthetically sweet goodness. After all, this is a product from Taco Bell, an establishment not exactly known for its subtlety.” – Today
The Peace Day Burger from Burger King
In an attempt to generate some free marketing, er, make peace, Burger King (QSR) called for a one-day truce in its burger wars with McDonald’s in order for the two chains to create a McWhopper. After McDonald’s (MCD) rebuffed the offer, Burger King teamed up with Denny’s, Wayback Burgers, Krystal, and Giraffas to make a sandwich containing elements of Denny’s Bacon Slamburger, the Wayback Classic, Cheese Krystal, Giraffas’ Brutus and Burger, and Burger King’s Whopper. This masterpiece was offered for one day only in a pop-up restaurant in Atlanta. (The company didn’t disclose the calorie count, but the dimensions suggest it could be a worthy competitor to the Thickburger in the 1,000-calorie plus behemoth category.)
The Juice Pulp Cheeseburger from Shake Shack and Dan Barber
This item is extreme—in its good intentions. Shake Shack (SHAK) teamed up with chef Dan Barber of high-end Blue Hill restaurant to make the Juice Pulp Cheeseburger. Meant to highlight food waste, it was made from smashed leftover vegetable pulp from a cold-pressed juice operation, cheese made from cheese trimmings, and served on bun from a mash of stale rye bread. The Juice Pulp Burger was sold for one day only in May at Shake Shack’s location in New York’s Madison Square Park. Its brief appearance may have caused a paucity of reviews, but customers who tried it could at least enjoy the satisfying feeling of supporting waste-reduction practices.
Oreo Mud Pie Cricket Protein Milkshake from Wayback Burgers
Insects are growing in popularity as a source of protein (admittedly, from a fairly low base) so Wayback decided to throw crickets into the milkshake mix for April Fools’ Day. But the buzz it created was no joke, so the chain extended the shake “flavor” with a limited time offer in July, August, and September. The launch makes Wayback the first chain in America to introduce crickets on its menu. It’s crunch time!
Notable review: “There’s Oreo in there but I just bit something that had a little pop to it.” – Buzzfeed