We not frequent fast-food diners, but during our six months in China, we have visited more than ever. That probably has to do with the proximity (around the corner) and the availability of post-dinner ice cream cones for about $1 USD. We have tried some of the local chains which sell fruit-based sweets like shaved ice, smoothies, and puddings, but when you want ice cream, sorbet just doesn’t cut it.
As a favor to mankind, and to just try things out for ourselves, we thought up a little experiment. We’d visit the three most popular fast-food chains in our area, and try the weirdest stuff on the menu.
What’s on the McDonald’s Menu in China
Our adventure started at McDonald’s, and not just any location, but the very first McDonald’s in all of mainland China. Opened in October 1990, this store was itself an experiment to see how the local population responded to Western fast food. Shenzhen was chosen because of its proximity to Hong Kong, so McDonald’s could staff it with people familiar with the chain.
Let’s just say foot traffic is not an issue with this particular location.
Like most McDonald’s in China, you can order at the counter or by using one of the touchscreen menus. The machine has a scanner that can scan a QR code from WeChat on our phone, which is linked to our checking account. The McDonald’s menu in China is similar to the US for some of the core products (burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, etc..) but there is less emphasis on beef products. Here, chicken is king.
So how was the food? Just as average as you would expect from your local McDonald’s.
The ‘Big Chicken Cutlet Rice Bowl’ was actually delicious. Rice bowls are incredibly popular in China, and every fast food chain has one. The fruit pie (made of loquat and bartlett pear) was solid as well, though the native loquat flavor was drowned out a bit by the pear. It was significantly smaller than a US McDonald’s pie and the dough was super crispy. I might actually prefer it to the US version.
The ‘German Sausage Double Beef Burger’ (apparently Chinese McDonald’s does not embrace brevity) contained two beef patties topped with two pork sausages and a mustard sauce.
It tasted about as good as it looked. Yeah, that bad.
Lastly, we tried the ‘Chef Crafted Chili Chicken Burger ALC’ which is part of McDonald’s attempt to offer more “fancy” burgers to their menu. They even had Michelin-starred chefs in China design burgers for them earlier this year. This burger came in a special packaging and even went rogue with a black bun. Pretty sure that idea wasn’t from a Michelin kitchen.
The sandwich contained a grilled chicken patty with cheese, lettuce, chili mayonnaise, and what we think was more shredded chicken on top. It is not reassuring when you cannot identify whether what you are eating is a condiment or meat.
KFC: Beyond Buckets of Fried Chicken
KFC is the most prevalent Western fast-food chain in China, with over 5,000 of locations, more than double the number of McDonald’s (though there are reports that KFC’s popularity is waning). The staple of the KFC menu in China is the same as the US: fried chicken. There are buckets of fried chicken, fried chicken sandwiches, fried popcorn chicken, fried chicken cutlets. For our taste test, though, we obviously skipped all of this.
Instead of a touchscreen machine, KFC offers the option to order via app. We scanned a QR code, which launched the full menu. We selected our items, paid and our order was sent directly to the kitchen. Technology is awesome.
Our tray arrived a few minutes later, loaded up with our selections: a chicken rice bowl, a crispy chicken wrap, vegetable soup, a grilled chicken wing, and a red bean pie.
The KFC rice bowl came with bone-in roast chicken. It had an assortment of steamed vegetables, all tossed with a sweet, soy-based sauce. Without the use of chopsticks, eating small pieces of bone-in chicken with a spork – yes, that’s right, we got a spork – did not make for graceful eating. But we credit KFC with its attempt at authenticity – compared to the crispy boneless chicken patty at McDonald’s, the KFC version was much closer to what you would find in a neighborhood restaurant.
The vegetable soup, thickened with cornstarch, was full of vegetables and not bad. The crispy chicken wrap was a play on Peking duck, a tortilla wrapped around fried chicken with cucumbers and hoisin sauce (the traditional garnishes for Peking duck) though KFC added a healthy dose of mayo for no apparent reason. The chicken wing, while shockingly large, tasted just like a wing.
We finished with the red bean pie, which was very similar to the McDonald’s pie: smaller than the US version, with incredibly crispy pastry. Red bean is one of the most common sweets in China, the filling was predictably gloopy and insanely sweet. Red beans in desserts lose most of the savory “bean” flavor once doused in sugar but retain the texture of cooked beans. For newbies, it can be a tough sell.
Pizza Hut Does More Than Pizza
Pizza Hut is another chain that is surprisingly popular in China. Across the globe, Pizza Hut is known for crazy concoctions that defy logic (just check out this list). It is not any different in China. During the summer crayfish season, they have special crayfish pizzas. I’ve seen Peking duck pizzas, and durian pizza (more on durian in a moment). In addition to pizzas, they offer various starters like clam chowder in puff pastry (no thanks), shrimp roe stuffed rice balls, barbecue ribs, and teriyaki chicken rice bowls (see a trend?).
Their current promotion is with a Chinese celebrity who we don’t know at all. But they had flashy new menus highlighting their newest dishes. Julie wasn’t impressed.
No flashy touch screens or apps here. We actually ordered our food from a human, though we did pay with our phone when we were done.
The pizza we ordered was one of the specials for the holiday season, and featured the following (the list is long): shrimp, steak, corn, asparagus, peppers, ham, pineapple, cheese, cranberry barbecue sauce, topped off by the balls of crust that were filled with cream cheese and cranberry sauce. Yikes.
Much to our surprise, the pizza wasn’t terrible. It sounds on paper like a flavor train wreck, but it ended up tasting rather generic, which is a feat upon itself with so many ingredients. I will say, I did secretly enjoy the stuffed crust balls that we ripped off the pizza. Don’t tell anyone.
Next up was Goulash rice, a casserole filled with rice, potatoes (love them carbs), steak, a paprika-heavy tomato sauce, all under a bubbly blanket of melted cheese. This was actually pretty tasty. The sauce wasn’t half bad, though I think the cheese was the star of the show. Hard to go wrong with melted cheese.
Lastly, the strangest dish of our Western chain adventure: potato gratin with cheese and durian. If you are not familiar with durian, it is a fruit that is so pungent, it is banned from many hotels around Southeast Asia because the odor can seep into the carpets and furniture. The smell is hard to describe (some say it smells like a mix of onion-like sulfur and rotten eggs) and it has the consistency of a really thick custard or very ripe banana
This dish wasn’t awful but it wasn’t good either. Despite the putrid smell, durian still has a very fruity flavor, so mixing that with melted cheese and potatoes was not our cup of tea.
Our dive into Western restaurant chains was a fun little adventure. The food was pretty mediocre across the board, as we expected it to be. I found KFC to be the most commendable for the non-fried options, providing grilled chicken rice bowls and a vegetable soup that are actually healthy.
The biggest difference between these chains in the US and China is the cost. Across much of the US, it is hard to find a meal at a restaurant as cheap as an extra value meal, which is why it is easy for so many people to rely on their diet-destroying fast food. In China, most local restaurants are actually cheaper than fast-food, so you basically pay a premium to eat at the Western chain.