Food

Burger King’s Keep It Real Meals Feel Like a Glitch in the Fast-Food Simulation




Chase? Huddy? Charli??? Help!
Photo: Burger King

Bushwick’s hottest restaurant is the Myrtle Avenue Burger King. Experts (me) have deemed it a destination so architecturally significant that it ought to be preserved by UNESCO. The Myrtle Avenue Burger King is a time portal into a fantasy 1990s that never was, a living shrine to a playful postmodernism in chain-restaurant design we’ve since lost in the post-Chipotle Edison bulbification of even our basest chains (cough, Taco Bell). The décor theme is “Hollywood,” splashed broadly in primary colors, with booths shaped like Cadillacs and stools in incongruous leopard and zebra prints. There is a play place that’s never open and balloons always brushing up against the neon star-shaped fixtures. Dotting the walls is a deliciously random assortment of plaques devoted to celebs of the ’90s, back when we still had movie stars: a Denzel Washington here, a Julia Roberts there. The anemic interior redesign of chains like McDonald’s over the past 20 years has forgotten that fast food is, above all, supposed to be fun, not good. The Myrtle Avenue Burger King is a poignant reminder of what we lose when culture is flattened into one millennial-pleasant aesthetic, when every brand bends over backward to lie about an “authenticity”: the joy, humor, and good vibes that come from theme-parkified fakety fakeness.

First place I went after getting the jab.
Photo: Rebecca Alter

So it’s almost bittersweet that Burger King’s new campaign is all about keeping things “real.” First, the chain purged the color blue from its branding, because blue doesn’t exist in food (which … tell that to the mythical delicacy known as the blue raspberry). And last week, it launched its “Keep It Real Meals” campaign to promote how the chain has “permanently banned 120 artificial ingredients and counting from our food menu nationwide.” Nowhere in the press materials or advertising does Burger King specify what any of those artificial ingredients are, whether the chain had been using them prior to the announcement, or which artificial ingredients it will continue to use. (Not to get ahead of myself, but one of the Keep It Real Meals includes a Sprite and an Impossible Burger patty. By most accounts, these would qualify as “artificial.” But Burger King doesn’t clarify what it means by “artificial.” If it’s referring to ingredients that have been altered by a man-made chemical reaction, then a scrambled egg emulsified by whisking would be “artificial,” as would the maillard reaction that leads to the chain’s famous flame-grilled char.) The absence of even one example of what Burger King is actually phasing out in favor of a natural substitute makes this whole campaign ring a little false. And as with so many of these celebrity promos, it comes across as a way for BK to get press without actually spending on anything new (tag yourself, I’m “press”).

The Keep It Real Meals don’t introduce any brand-new menu items or go out of their way to highlight specific non-artificial ingredients, but they do hop aboard the celebrity-collaboration trend that’s proven viral for McDonald’s. Chipotle and Sweetgreen have rolled out their versions of celebrity meals, and Taco Bell has something in the works with its former employee Lil Nas X. To catch up, Burger King launched three celebrity meals at once, the gimmick being they’re titled after the artists’ “real” names, not their stage monikers. Get it? It’s a treatise on artifice, celebrity, the self, and American cheese! It’s basically the Annette of celeb tie-in fast-food concepts! And considering the three artists they went with, it makes sense that Burger King launched all three at once rather than let them stand on their own. They are:

—Cornell Haynes Jr.

—Larissa Machado

—Chase Hudson

If you don’t recognize any of these names, you’re not supposed to. They’re the “real” (get it??) names of:

—Nelly

—Anitta

—Lil Huddy

… And here’s where the King’s Gambit backfires. When McDonald’s rolled out the BTS meal, it was a mutual flex: The biggest band in the world pairing with the biggest brand in the world. Burger King reinforces its no-one’s-first-choice-at-the-highway-exit status by going with a handful of less-than-A-list names. There’s Nelly, whose biggest single came out nearly two full decades ago and who has been mostly known since for the rape allegations against him. There’s Anitta, a baile funk megastar in Brazil but still only beginning to break in the U.S. And then there’s Hype House co-founder and Charli D’Amelio ex Lil Huddy, who I’m not convinced isn’t just a walking multimedia-marketing gimmick for The Other Two

Keep It Real Meals are also being used as a promotional tool for Burger King’s new “royal perks” in-app rewards program, which is in keeping with chain-restaurant trends in these here end times. As the celebs and their tethereds point out in the commercials, the meals are only $6 if ordered through the app by someone with an account. So last Monday, recovering from a Doja-fashion-induced VMA hangover, I logged in and ordered all three meals for pickup. If there were just one meal, I would have gone out of my way to my beloved Bushwick Burger King to retrieve them, but I didn’t want to carry three full drinks across Brooklyn, so I ordered from the aggressively normal BK location near me. The store’s screens had zero graphics promoting the Lil Huddy and Anitta tie-ins. There were ads for something called “Cheesy Melty Cheesy Tots,” but nary a Nelly. Service was super-quick, but the Keep It Real Meals didn’t come in the branded boxes that were promised in the ads.

Decidedly not a fun Hollywood-themed environment.
Photo: Rebecca Alter

First up was the Nelly meal: a Whopper with cheese, a small Sprite, and small fries. It was old school and refreshingly restrained in its choice of small side and drink. Here is where I will say something that automatically invalidates me as any kind of food authority: I don’t think McDonald’s fries are the be-all-end-all of chain sides. It’s accepted wisdom that they’re the pinnacle of the form, and it’s true that nothing smells better, but they’re too pale and skinny, the Timothée Chalamet of fries.

Burger King’s fries, I think, are underrated, and they were one of the best things I ate across these three meals. They’re long, golden rectangular prisms of potato with each edge and corner defined by a crispy crunch. They weren’t salty enough, but that’s probably a good thing, cardiovascularly. I think this may have just been an excellent batch. As for the Whopper, I wondered whether its signature grill lines were real or a dye job, but it was a good, consistent fast-food burger. Nothing exciting, but no complaints, either.

Next was the Anitta meal. I’ll be honest: I didn’t know who Anitta was before this week. But now I know she’s got singles in Portuguese, Spanish, and English, including a collab with Cardi B, and she’s sometimes vegan, which is way better for the planet than not vegan at all. So her Keep It Real Meal is, fittingly, vegan-ish (more on that later): small fries, a small Sprite, and an Impossible Whopper.

First, a note on a conspiracy: Are celebrities ashamed to admit they like Diet Coke? In nearly every celebrity meal I’ve encountered so far that specifies an accompanying drink, that drink has been Sprite. Is Sprite really the default? For everyone? Am I living in an alternate reality, parallel and simultaneous to the rest of the world, where the obvious choice is a Diet Coke? Or a Coke, even?! Travis Scott meal: Sprite. Saweetie meal: Sprite. Now both the Nelly meal and the Anitta meal have Sprites? It is too much. Paint with more colors. The world is large and Coke Freestyle machines vast.

I ate the Impossible Whopper (which was cheeseless and therefore vegan and the regular Whopper side-by-side — open-faced so I could get a taste of the differences, and then just pieces of the patty on their own to compare. My first bite of an Impossible Whopper made me sad: sad for people in food media who insist that Impossible Burgers are these groundbreaking substitutes for beef. It didn’t taste meaty so much as meatloafy. It was too soft when I bit in, holding no meaty char like its cow-derived sibling Whopper in the wrapper next to it. It made me miss the veggie burgers of my briefly vegetarian teens, full of hearty bean protein, not trying to be what they’re not. If you want a lesson in self-acceptance, in “Keeping It Real,” in authenticity, don’t eat a veggie burger that’s trying to mask the fact of its veggieness; it will only let you down. For a better vegetarian fast-food sandwich, allow me to suggest the indulgent Shroom Burger at Shake Shack, which oozes with cheese like a giant popped pimple of deliciousness. For a vegan option? The veggie sandwich at Five Guys, where they basically customize a burger for you with literally everything but a patty, is an oddly satisfying treat. The fries are vegan, too.

Correction: I have since been informed that because there is mayo on this Impossible Whopper, it’s not actually vegan. We confirmed through Burger King’s allergens page that the Impossible Whopper does indeed include egg via mayonnaise. However, we also learned via fine print that Burger King “makes no claim” that any of its products, including the Impossible Whopper, “meets the requirements of a vegan or vegetarian diet,” as the patty is cooked on the same surface as the meat patties. But as I wrote before, Anitta’s embrace of vegan-ish-ness is still better for the planet than making no efforts at all. The Impossible Whopper, mayonnaise and all, is true to the spirit of that. My apologies to any vegan readers who were offended by this error. (Sorry you want your burger TO BE EVEN DRIER.)

I was personally most excited for the Lil Huddy meal, mostly because he best exemplifies the “who-iness,” in the Weberian sense, of this whole venture. Lil Huddy is a 19-year-old TikTok star with a pretty face and Jughead-black hair. His former girlfriend (but still “friend”) was the only other TikToker until now to have a fast-food collaboration: “the Charli” at Dunkin Donuts (iced coffee, whole milk, three pumps caramel; a true high schooler’s order). Gone are the days of Julia and Denzel, of charisma and magnetism. (Editor’s note: This is Bennifer erasure!) We’re stuck with Charli and Huddy now. Would a co-branded BOA Steakhouse meal be a more accurately parasocial experience for fans of these stars? Probably. But I don’t doubt that Huddy has torn up a BK drive-thru at least once in his life.

The meal itself also seemed the most fun and the most significant departure from McDonald’s: a chocolate shake, mozzarella sticks, and BK’s chicken-sando wars entrant, a sandwich that sounds like a sneeze: the Ch’King. Temperature was this meal’s biggest enemy. The walk from BK to my house couldn’t have been more than two minutes, but many of the items already hit room temp by the time I got around to them minutes later. This didn’t matter too much for items like the Whopper, but it did a disservice to this meal, which is based on breaded items. The mozzarella sticks — the novelty of which is that they’re a fun departure from fries — had zero pull to the cheese; they were solid, salty blocks reminiscent of something you could do better at home with a bag from the freezer.

The Ch’King’s breading wasn’t crunchy or crumbly at all, and the special sauce was too sweet: more Russian than Thousand Island, which sounds like splitting hairs because it is. The meal was supposed to come with ranch for dipping the sticks, but I didn’t get any in mine. But this otherwise disappointing meal also had my highlight, a true discovery and recommendation: the Burger King chocolate shake. It tastes almost homemade, like putting Hershey’s syrup in milk, and it was delicious, leagues ahead of McDonald’s shakes or even the shakes at my closest diner. It was truly so dumb not to include fries with this meal for dipping, so I borrowed from Anitta and Nelly. I was prepared to delete the Burger King app from my phone as soon as this review was over, but instead, I’m gonna keep it on hand for when I want a shake. Thanks for tastemaking, Lil Huddy. Good for you for not going the way of the Sprite, or even the way of drinkable non-dessert liquid.

I’d end this by recommending which Keep It Real Meal to get, but honestly, the best thing you can do is go with a friend to your nearest 1990s-holdover Hollywood-themed BK, sit in a booth shaped like a car, and split a chocolate shake. People don’t go to Burger King because they’re in the mood for “real ingredients” or “real” “celebs.” I’ve come to accept that part of our culture ended when fast-food places stopped looking like indoor mini-golf, and ever since then, we’ve just been living in The Matrix 4. You can’t “Keep It Real” when “real” wasn’t there in the first place. Enjoy a simulatte with that shake and stream “partycrasher” while you’re at it.

Drivin’ off into the sunset.
Photo: Rebecca Alter


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