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Monday 11 December 2017

Burger Queen

Taking a food critic on a tour of Dublin's budget burger joints is a bit like taking a born-again Christian on a trip through Amsterdam's red light district.

In short, I wasn't expecting an enthusiastic reception. It's easy to spot Ernie Whalley when he walks in. He has the gait of an out-of-towner, all slow, measured steps and long, lingering looks. He's also the only person dressed like a character from the film The French Connection. When he slides into the booth beside me, I'm half expecting him to say, "have you noticed any suspicious activity in the area?" Instead, he cheerily asks, "what's good?", as though I'm about to read him out a list of specials and suggest a gutsy Châteauneuf-du-pape to complement. To be fair, though, this is Whalley's second time in McDonald's. In his entire life. His first encounter was alcohol-induced, making his recollection of the event rather hazy (that's what they all say).

It's my job to introduce Whalley to the seedy underbelly of the food industry, and what better way to kick off proceedings than with a Big Mac, a burger that is loved and loathed in equal measures.

I'm in the former category. In fact, I couldn't imagine a world without those two pathetic patties, processed, plastic-look cheese and killer combination of limp lettuce drenched in what has become known as 'special sauce'. So wrong and yet so, so right.

I think I associate McDonald's with reward. While my fast food palate has matured, a visit to McDonald's still stirs the same excitement that a Happy Meal did all those years ago.

The very mention of the word fires up my pleasure pathways and the sight of the golden arches provokes a Pavlovian effect.

"I suppose you're going to tell me that your parents weren't together," laughs Ernie, referring to the phenomenon of divorced 'McDonald's Dads'.

Ernie can't remember his own children asking to go to McDonald's. "Sian, my elder daughter, ate everything: Chinese, Indian, Italian, Greek, from a very early age. Her primary school teacher said her diary read like a menu! Rachel, the younger, ate only very plain food."

The burgers arrive and Ernie slowly brings what is the antithesis to everything he stands for to his mouth. I'm waiting for him to wince and declare it a travesty. I'm expecting him to bark, "fetch me a spitoon at once".

He doesn't. Instead, his reaction changes from deference to enjoyment and, eventually, utter oblivion.

He's soon feasting on the Big Mac like a lion would a gazelle's leg. I don't think he wanted to enjoy the much-maligned burger, but by God, he did. Or maybe he was just hungry.

The next stop is the arch nemesis of the golden arches, a place where the burger is king. On the way there he tells we that he once considered changing his name. I tell him Harry could work. He prefers Humphrey. He's undecided on the surname. "Maybe something Scottish... "

And so, Humphrey and I repair to Burger King, where he orders something befitting his namesake: the 3 Cheese Angus Burger. I keep up tradition with a Whopper.

These two go down very well indeed. Food critics never miss a chance to extol the virtues of good produce, and the fresh onion rings, crisp lettuce and floury bun all meet with his approval.

When we finger duel for the last chip, I realise that he's enjoying this much more than I anticipated.

On next to Supermac's on O'Connell Street, our spirits buoyed by the additives but our energy slowly fading, thanks to the surge of carbohydrates.

A group of builders eye him suspiciously when we walk in. I probably would too. He looks like he's about to a) seize the 2009 accounts or b) ask for directions to the Samuel Beckett Theatre. Not c) order a five-ounce burger.

He's not impressed. "It's hardly a symphony of flavours," I offer, after I take an investigatory bite of his burger. "More like a cacophony," he deadpans.

By the time we reach GBK, the sight of a burger is near terrifying, such is the amount of food we've put away. We spurn the waiter's offer of extra chips and assorted dips with the awkward hesitance of two stoners. "We're, er, we're good," I said meekly, avoiding all eye contact.

Pity we weren't stoned, we could have done these towering burgers the honour they deserved. I managed one bite; Ernie a few more.

Taking into consideration the €9.99 offer, a GBK burger doesn't cost a whole lot more than a Big Mac meal, but it's an altogether different proposition. GBK is more sophisticated than McDonald's but sometimes sophistication is overrated. Ernie gives it his number one spot. McDonald's gets mine.

The question is, will he ever darken the door of McDonald's or Burger King again? "Yes, I would," he says, "if someone had firebombed Zaytoon and I wasn't in walking distance of a decent chippy." I admire his open-mindedness. HQ

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