McDonald's latest foray into trendy entrees is a far cry from burgers. But someone forgot to add the flavor

Sitting in traffic the other day, I found myself staring intently at a billboard for McDonald's. Not for the Egg McMuffin sandwich, the Big Mac, or the Happy Meal. But for the new Fiesta Menu being offered at Mickey D's.

I added that image to a story in USA Today about how McDonald's is going to start introducing its McCafe concept soon (like, have a latte with your McSalad Shaker!), and I found myself wondering, as traffic inched along, whatever became of the vision of Ray Kroc burgers! fries! shakes! billions sold! I mean, who wants to go to McDonald's for a Cajun McChicken sandwich and a cappuccino?

Now, I should say that, although I do have a warm spot for tradition (and goodness knows, we have little enough of the stuff here in Lotus Land), I'm also not opposed to change, not at all. In fact, I'm willing to come out foursquare in favor of the stuff.

But when it comes to fast-food restaurants, I've always been somewhat puzzled when the powers-that-be feel the need to venture from the path of righteousness, and get into realms that just don't seem to have anything to do with them.

There's something about the notion, for instance, of Taco Bell offering Chinese chicken salad that upsets my vision of a well-adjusted universe. And the other day, I dropped by a branch of KFC to taste one of their new Twister sandwiches, which seemed to involve lots of deep-fried bits of something or other, nestled in lettuce and sauce, wrapped in a sheet of latex. Now, it was fairly filling, assuming you had the moxie to actually swallow the whole thing. But it made me long for a piece of chicken, either Original Recipe or Extra Crispy.

I think that what the Colonel wrought was, if not exactly great, at least pretty darned good, flavored with all those secret herbs and spices and the like. In other words, KFC (which used to be Kentucky Fried Chicken, and which I wish still was) began right, did a good thing by going even crispier, and then got kind of weird. I mean, what the heck is a Triple Crunchy Zinger Combo sandwich, and why would anyone want to eat one?

Chicken by any other name

In the case of Koo Koo Roo, a chicken chain that's a quantum leap beyond KFC, change has been pretty impressive stuff. Koo Koo Roo began with a clever recipe for skinless bird, which had significantly less fat and less cholesterol but no less taste. As they grew, they added rotisserie chicken with skin (for those who need that shot of cholesterol), a lot of nicely cooked vegetables (their pureed squash is delicious), and a big salad section. But they never lost sight of what they were. Which is to say, a somewhat upscale chicken restaurant with a healthy edge. In other words, they didn't start offering McRib sandwiches.

In terms of the recent changes at McD's, I don't know which seem stranger Mexican food or gourmet coffee. In terms of the latter, it seems that McDonald's has been testing the concept in, of all places, Australia since 1993.

There are currently 50 McCafes in McDonald's Down Under. And there are 300 of them around the world though none yet in the United States. Since there are 27,000 McDonald's branches worldwide (half of which are in the U.S.), that would make for one heck of a lot of places to go for a McEspresso. The obvious head-scratcher here is that, unless I'm way off base, people who eat at McDonald's don't seem like the sorts who drink a macchiato with cinnamon. I even thought their McSalads were a bit off the beam; the ground-meat-and-fries crowd doesn't seem all that interested in greens.

On the other hand, if you chew a Big Mac, there's no reason that a Crispy Chicken Torta with guacamole wouldn't be of interest. The motto of the McDonald's Fiesta Menu is "Welcome to La Familia." Though I'm not sure there are many families south of the border who would actually recognize any of the McDonald's Mexican dishes as, well, Mexican. The guacamole can be discerned by the fact that it's green. But it has no texture, and nothing that might be confused with flavor. Unlike McDonald's Secret Sauce, which boldly expresses its sweetness (I've long wondered how it would taste on ice cream), McGuac doesn't really taste like anything; I wonder if it's made with synthetic avocados.

The selection of Fiesta dishes includes a Chorizo Egg Burrito (made with both refried beans and hash browns, as if the point was carbo loading), a Burrito a la Mexicana, the aforementioned Crispy Chicken Torta, along with a Grilled Chicken Torta and a Grilled Beef Torta. The grilled tortas aren't bad, though I wouldn't go out of my way to actually eat one.

Where's the flavor?

And since there was actual gridlock at the McD's that I went to (both outside and inside), I really wouldn't want to wait for one of them. Nor, it seems, would a lot of others in this particular Mickey D's. A totally informal survey of the diners had them ordering the classic McDonald's dishes at a rate of about 10 to one.

One of them, Barbara Stebbins of Palm Springs, took a bite of a grilled torta and looked a little distraught. How is it, I asked? "Well," she said, briefly considering the unexpectedness of being interviewed in a McDonald's, "It's disgusting. It's bland. No, it's tasteless. To put it another way, it has no flavor. Del Taco is a lot better. They should leave Mexican food to Taco Bell, and stick to hamburgers."

Customers (or at least, Ms. Stebbins and myself) may not be thrilled. But McDonaldites are optimistic. Alex Mestas, chairman of the McDonald's Hispanic Owner-Operators Association, told Nation's Restaurant News: "We wanted to have some flavors that represent more of the Southwest taste out here. We've found that customers in the West like spicier flavors. And we wanted to give them more variety, and more reasons to come back to McDonald's more often. That is really the bottom line."

For better or worse, it reminds me of the time that the Cheesecake Factory tried to jump on the Cajun bandwagon by adding a blackened redfish dish to its menu. But instead of using red snapper, they used salmon (hey, a red fish is a red fish, right?). It had the texture of a piece of wood but not nearly the taste. It appeared, it disappeared, and the Cheesecake Factory continues to thrive.

It doesn't really matter to Ronald McDonald whether the world accepts his new Dulce de Leche McFlurry Dessert or not. As long as there's a Big Mac with fries on the menu, McDonald's will rule the roost. And you can bet a double latte with skim milk on it.

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