Top Secret Menu
NEW YORK (MainStreet)Secret menus are huge these days. From Starbucks to Denny's, it seems like just about every restaurant has a fansite dedicated to all the great options its servers aren't allowed to tell you about. They're a lot of fun too.
Ordering off-menu is like being part of a club, slipping the cashier a password that upgrades your "hamburger and fries" to an "animal style with fries well done," in the case of In-N-Out.
Half the time, I try to slip the Starbucks barista a complicated handshake just to see if it gets me anything extra with my drink. (So far, no.)
The only problem with all of this is that, unfortunately, secret menus don't actually exist. For all their noise, coverage and popularity, the fact is that restaurants just don't have them. The closest anyone comes is places like In-N-Out Burger, which has posted a list of extra options online based on popular customer requests.
"We don't have any unofficial or official secret menu items," said Mark Baldwin, a spokesperson for Chick-fil-A. "We're just able to customize our offerings to meet whatever taste preference a customer may have... We have fresh squeezed lemonade, and we have iced tea, so if people come in and say 'Can I have an Arnold Palmer,' we'll give them half tea and half lemonade."
A barista at a local Starbucks told me something similar, saying that the "secret menu" is just a list of ideas people came up with and posted online. That said, if the ingredients are in-house, she said, a barista will try to accommodate the request, but don't come in and order "a medium butterbeer frappucino with whipped cream" and expect her to know what it is.
Still, that hasn't prevented drunken college kids from ordering the McDonald's McGangBang--a double cheeseburger with a McChicken Sandwich wedged in between. Put another way: if you can dream it, it's possible they'll make it for you.
So, with that in mind, here are some of the best ideas people have had with what their favorite restaurants can do:
#1. Poutine, A&W/Kentucky Fried Chicken
To get this entry, you'll need to go to a joint KFC and A&W location, one of those increasingly common fast food mergers where they've built both restaurants into the same building. They're not that easy to find; the last time I saw an A&W "All American Food" was somewhat ironically in Malaysia.
Still, it's really worth it in a greasy, hate-yourself-the-next-morning, I-just-slept-with-my-best-friend's-wife sort of way.
This fast-food poutine is a serving of A&W French fries smothered in gravy from the KFC counter right next door. This isn't the traditional way of serving poutine--up in Quebec they serve the dish smothered in cheese curds as well as gravy--but it's also not typically served up in a small, orange box either. What it lacks in cultural accuracy, A&W's secret menu option more than makes up for in flavor. This one is well worth trying.
#2. Biscotti Frappuccino, Starbucks
I waited as long as I could before Starbucks made an appearance here, and you'll be seeing the coffee shop chain again fairly soon. But for right now, the biscotti frappuccino needs a mention. First, however, a warning straight from the barista's mouth: Starbucks gets busy, sometimes really, really busy. Your friendly neighborhood barista is almost always more than happy to mess around with crazy drink combinations for you, except for when she's got 12 people waiting in line. Then all she wants is to crank through her routine and get people out of the store.
By all means. have some fun and go off menu, but do it when everyone has a little room to breathe. Don't be that guy who brings rush hour to a standstill, because he decided to get creative.
When you do, however, make sure try the biscotti frappuccino. It's any ordinary version of the frozen drink, except with a biscotti blended in to give the entire thing a great cookie crunch. It's a fantastic idea, and hopefully we'll see it on the board sometime soon.
#3. Nachos, Chipotle
Chipotle is a simply great idea, and a great, simple idea. It's the fusion of Mexican food with ingredients that won't make you sick and die. The concept is brilliant, and I'm astounded it took someone as long as it did to get around to it.
One of the other great things about Chipotle is that, according to a spokesperson for the company, the employees will try to make pretty much anything they can for you. As company policy, if they've got the ingredients, and your order's not too crazy, they're willing to give it a try. Which brings us to nachos.
An order of Chipotle nachos is fantastic. It comes with a plate full of chips, covered with cheese, meat, beans and choice of salsas. I personally always prefer the corn salsa, but that one's up to you. If there's any confusion, just make sure to specify what you want on your plate. It's not as portable as a burrito, but then again, who really cares?
#4. Cheese Fries, Five Guys Burgers & Fries
When I was in college, I worked as a short order cook for the campus restaurant. I spent my days and evenings (often late into the night) flipping burgers and grilling cheese steaks for anyone who came by with a few dollars in hand. One night, I decided to get a little creative and shoved a tray of French fries, covered in shredded cheddar and hot sauce, into the oven to see what would happen.
The result took almost an hour to clean up, nearly lost me my job and tasted absolutely terrific.
Fortunately, Five Guys has made it a little easier to get a plate of cheese fries. Five Guys' French fries are already some of the best around, especially the Cajun seasoning, and there's little I love more in my neighborhood than running a few afternoon errands with a brown bag full of them. Did you know, however, that they're also willing to cover the things with cheese and bake for a minute before serving them to you? The result is a plate of some of the best cheese fries you've ever had.
Added bonus? No one has to worry about losing his job and telling his girlfriend they won't be going out for any more dates that semester.
#5. Animal Style, In-N-Out
In-N-Out is, as far as I can tell, the place that started it all. Their online "secret" menu was the first of its kind and has inspired fast food diners to try their luck pretty much everywhere else they go. Of course with a restaurant as straightforward as In-n-Out there's not too much room to experiment. Still, they found a little with their off-menu grilled cheese, the piled high 4x4 and the creatively named Animal Style.
An Animal, aside from being a Muppet that plays the drums, is a cheeseburger of your choice with the addition of lettuce, tomato, mustard cooked patty, pickles, grilled onions and extra spread. It's basically a creative way of saying "give me everything," and they certainly deliver.
#6. Chicken Quesadilla, Chick-fil-A
The chicken part I get--Chick-fil-A has some of the best chicken of any fast food restaurant out there. What surprises me about this entry is pretty much everything else. Did anyone else know that Chick-fil-A had tortillas behind the counter? Because I certainly didn't. What do they make with them that's on menu?
Still, regardless of the how or the why, the chicken quesadilla at Chick-fil-A is fantastic. Taking advantage of the restaurant's already great chicken then mixing it into a surprising Mexican dish can only end well. Hopefully we won't see the chain go head to head with Taco Bell or Chipotle any time soon, since I love their chicken sandwiches too much to see them lose focus, but as a change of pace, this is a fantastic entry.
#7. The Penny Pincher, Starbucks
It feels good to be back to Starbucks. As a writer, it's like coming home.
The penny pincher is a little bit like a Cuban coffee. Order yourself a double shot of espresso poured over ice, preferably just one cube so the drink doesn't get too watered down. Then add one to two packs of brown sugar. Don't use the artificial sweeteners for this; they'll throw the whole flavor off, plus the sugar crystals actually help break down the ice and mix the whole thing together. The result is a cool, sweetened espresso drink that is absolutely fantastic. To really make the whole thing go further, you can ignore my suggestion and add more ice, but just remember that each cube dilutes the flavor that much more.
In addition, for anyone looking to pinch pennies at Starbucks, don't forget about the option of going Short. Somewhere below "tall" is a child's sized cup called the "Short." It's a great choice if you want to cut costs even more, or if you're on a diet but still really want that full fat mocha latte.
#8. The Ham and Cheese, Burger King
One of the reasons that I try, often without success, to avoid fast food is just how gross I feel after eating it. A trip to McDonald's is a whole lot of fun for the 14 minutes I'm into it, but then there's the subsequent burden of an entire evening I feel greasy and gross right after. Happily, Burger King's secret menu is here to help us out with the addition of the hot ham and cheese sandwich.
Exactly what it sounds like, this sandwich is served on a hamburger bun and made with the ham and cheese from different parts of the menu. However a word of warning should go here as well. Burger Kings don't really play as well as others when it comes to the whole off menu philosophy. They'll generally try to help, but don't be surprised if you find a place that just doesn't want to bother with someone who's decided to get clever. Give it a shot, but know that you're taking your chances.
#9. Blueberry Cheesecake Milkshake, Chick-fil-A
It didn't take us long to get back to Chick-fil-A, but with an entry like the blueberry cheesecake milkshake, can you really blame me?
Now, unfortunately this one isn't available everywhere. Not every store serves the blueberry cheesecake dessert, and if they haven't got it, they haven't got it. However, for the stores that do serve this dessert, ask them to throw a slice in the blender with your vanilla milkshake. Chick-fil-A's shakes are already some of the best in the fast food industry (I'm looking at you, Dairy Queen). Somehow, this addition manages to improve them all the more.
#10. Quesarito, Chipotle
I wanted to end this article with Starbucks and coffee, but it didn't feel fair to the others. So instead I'm giving you the absolutely outstanding quesarito from Chipotle. You'll be glad I did.
This oddly named entry is a hybrid between the quesadilla and a burrito. It's a tortilla filled with melted cheese that's then opened up for you to stuff whatever you want inside of it. Finally, it's closed back up, rolled and served like a burrito. In other words, it's a burrito lined with melted cheese around the entire outside edge.
How did no one think of this sooner? When will it make the formal menu? Why doesn't everything in life come wrapped in a tortilla coated with melted cheese? These are the questions I can't answer. Fortunately, we have the quesarito, so I don't really have to.
Remember, none of this stuff is in some special notebook behind the counter. Wherever you try that secret menu order there's a pretty good chance the poor cashier won't have any idea what you're talking about. Try to order by ingredient rather than by name to make everyone's life a little easier.
And have fun.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.