On the second day of September, after viewing an ad for Applebee’s "All-In" burgers on Facebook, I tweeted:
I don't know, Applebees, calling your burgers "flavor bombed" sounds maybe just a little intense— Nick Rallo (@nickrallo) September 2, 2015
Minutes poured on. The sun continued to bake the Earth. A horsefly landed on the sharp leaf of a rosemary plant. Cars sucked in clean air. Then, Applebee’s responded. This, from the heavens:
@nickrallo Are you up to try them for yourself, Nick? ~ ARN— Applebee's (@Applebees) September 2, 2015
I am up to try them, ARN. I am! And so, sweet ARN, I will set out for my first-ever journey to the Applebee’s Bar and Grill. Then, I will go a second time, because I’m all-in.
Before this week, Applebee’s has lived in my mind solely as the hot, sexy-sizzling restaurant of Friday Night Lights’ Dillon, Texas. I enter the Dallas version and sit quickly near the bar.
I am soaking in the Applebee’s. The famed burgers I am meant to eat are emblazoned on the cover of the menu in high-res! Bone-chatteringly loud country music pulses through the place. Hey, there’s a $10 bottle of wine available! I look up, above the bar, for a fleeting moment, to see three flat screens flashing images of an American flag blowing in the wind, wintery wolves running along an ice shelf and a commercial for Bass Pro Shop. What is this place? My server is behind the bar, mixing a candy-yellow drink. At this point, the evidence is clear: I’m eating at the restaurant equivalent of the film Rocky IV.
I need to focus. I’m here to go all-in. ARN challenged me to try the All-In Burgers. Online, a teaser for the burgers reads: “Flavors you crave seared right into 100% Ground Beef.” Damn, that sounds intense.
I start with the “American Standard,” which comes with pickles, bacon, onion, “signature sauce” and two slices of American cheese for $9.50. The server, who was nothing but nice to me, asks if I want my burger “cooked all the way through.” Hey, cooked would be great! I say I’m cool with medium rare, and go for the housemade chips. At a table nearby, a man is doing some extreme, standing-desk business; he’s got legal pads open and pens everywhere and he’s talking loudly into his phone. As if to say: “APPLEBEE’S ISN’T JUST FUN AND GAMES, everyone.”
The burger comes, and immediately Applebee’s' marketing has dashed me to the ground. Promised were burgers so epically tasty that the very sight of an All-In cheeseburger at Applebee’s would blanch my hair and cause my testicles to rush back into my body. Only an SPF 40,000 lotion could protect you from the radiation emitted by the All-In Burgers at Applebee’s. That’s what I was expecting. I, at minimum, expected my face to melt off, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style.
It’s just a burger with two slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato and raw red onion. How am I going all-in? Did I push all my chips to the center of the poker table of sadness? And it’s greasy. Very greasy. Slathered “signature” sauce and bubbling oil runs everywhere. The bun is dense like a brownie.
After eating half of the burger, I felt like I had melted American cheese in my hair. Lettuce was paper-thin iceberg. The tang and acidity of the red onions and pickles saved me from falling over. I don't feel like I'm all-in.
I plunge into a booth near the bar on a sweaty-palm of a Dallas afternoon. I'm back at Applebee's. Has anyone ever eaten at Applebee's twice in under 24 hours? I'm the first, aren't I?
Also, why have I done this to myself? There’s only so much Kenny Chesney a man can take while he’s eating a burger. The country music is still turned up to 11.
But I can’t say I’m going “all-in” and not try the brand new “Blazin’ Texan.” I ordered it, this time with sweet potato. That will save me on calories, I'm sure of it. Sure.
The Blazin’ Texan, which is a brand new addition to Applebee’s' line of “All-In handcrafted burgers” (as opposed to foot-crafted) comes with onions and jalapeños, white cheddar and “signature grill sauce.” Sauced strands of brisket top the monster, or so says the high-res photo on the menu. Come to think of it, photos of burgers are everywhere at Applebee's.
This is when I think: Wait, did I actually leave Applebee's yesterday? If I look closely at a photo of the Applebee's staff from the late '70s, will I be sucked into it?
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The burger arrives, with a scatter of sweet potato fries, heavy-looking and already flopping out of the bun. It’s big, as the photo promised.
If I were just comparing flavors, I’d choose this burger over the American Standard. Those jalapeños and onions give it some depth and crunch. The bun is the same as the day before, dense and chewy. Actually, the whole burger was heavy and awkward, like trying to eat a medicine-ball inside a folder. The burger comes to $13.51, after tax.
The same server as the day before, still very nice, tells me to have a great day as I leave. It’s oppressively humid in Texas, and ARN and I need to have some words.
Unless ... maybe ... I'm still at Applebee's?