Better Than Inedible
A McDonald's restaurant is not something that would normally fall into the Deveaux omniverse. But a number of events have changed that. First, Hong Kong shouldn't be proud of the fact that, especially in October and November, along one of the most spectacular seascapes in the world, there is no place to dine outside except for a fast-food restaurant, the members-only yacht club and over-priced Isola's terrace.
Second, on November 20, 2002, lawyers for two girls—Jazlyn Bradley, who at that point was 1.7 metres tall and weighed 122 kilograms, and Ashley Pelman, who at 14 was 1.5m and weighed 77kg - filed suit in New York against McDonald's, alleging that the fast-food restaurant had made them fat.
It was alleged, in 1999, that 61 per cent of American adults were overweight, and it was McDonald's that made them like that. Although the suit was dismissed, the American right to lawsuits made McDonald's executives sit up straight. Eventually, the US Congress outlawed such suits.
But then McDonald's was hit from the other side by a man named Morgan Spurlock, who made a movie called Supersize Me! about the horrendous effects that eating nothing but McDonald's for a month had on his body, not to mention an 11 kg weight gain.
Also, in 2002, McDonald's posted its first quarterly loss since 1954, the year the legendary Ray Kroc took over the first self-service restaurant from the McDonald brothers who began the chain in San Bernardino, California. Plainly something had to be done.
It was. In addition to smartening up its existing restaurants and pushing them to sell a greater variety of products, the fabled McDonald's test kitchens at Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Illinois were charged with coming up with a whole new cuisine.
The Big Mac Meal, the anchor of the empire, which comprises a Coca-Cola (110 calories), medium French fries (312 calories) and the Big Mac itself (560 calories of beef, pasteurised, processed American cheese, Big Mac sauce, lettuce, pickle slices, onions (dehydrated) and "grill seasoning''), was to be de-emphasised, at least some, in favour of Fresh Choices.
The Fresh Choices menu hit Hong Kong with a good deal of fanfare by "pop icon Kelly Chen'' and, of course, Ronald McDonald, the chain's clown.
Fresh Choices, according to the company, includes three choices of salads and three types of flatbread - which appear to be three different kinds of Mexican tortilla. Atop the tortilla comes a choice of grilled chicken, black pepper pork or Korean beef with various dressings and salads.
These are delivered in cardboard containers. They do not quite look like the pictures. They are edible, in the same way, and surprising in the same way, as eating MREs—"meal ready to eat'', the US Army's freeze-dried field rations. You discover they're better than you thought.
But you thought they'd be inedible.
Each plastic McDonald's tray delivered to diners comes with a "Nutritional Analysis of Selective McDonald's Menu Items in Hong Kong,'' where the Deveaux investigation turned up the calorie count for the Big Mac.
Only you won't find calories listed. In the McDonald's universe, calories are called ``energy''. The Big Mac Meal totals 982 calories. The new Fresh Choices meal? It includes a Coke and French fries just like the Big Mac Meal. Total calories for the Black Pepper Pork Flatbread Meal, for instance? 836.
Grams of fat? 35 for the flatbread meal, 47 for the Big Mac. The Nutritional Analysis doesn't give sugar content. But the Korean Beef Flatbread Meal tastes suspiciously sugary.
However, the dirty little secret programmed into the Deveaux genes is that, actually, a Big Mac tastes pretty good every few weeks, especially with greasy French fries soaked in Mrs. Kerry's Heinz catsup. One cannot every day dine on white truffle sauces at Grissini.
And the Grand Hyatt, which houses the expensive and pretentious Grissini, is indoors, with much of the harbour hidden behind the Hong Exhibition and Convention Centre. Just a couple of blocks away is the Fleet Arcade, formerly known as the China Fleet Club. There, where hundreds of thousands of American sailors have come ashore over the decades seeking the most American of meals, is a McDonald's run by manager Tony Hau, with nine tables outside, fringed by what look like abandoned school benches and topped by beach umbrellas. There, it is possible not only to gobble up your Fresh Choices, but a Big Mac or any of McDonald's standardised meals. It comes with an excellent domestic Coca-Cola, with a fine nose and accents redolent of both coca and cola. It also is the only McDonald's in Hong Kong, and one of the few in the world, to serve beer, a bit of instant rehydration for the US Navy's swabbies as they depart for the steamier parts of Wan Chai. So have a beer and put your feet up.
*Note to reader: The McDonalds at the Fleet Pier was replaced with a proper restaurant a year ago. This is a Reese Deveaux classic column first published in the Weekend Standard