If you’ve been paying attention at all to fast food advertising in the last 8 years, then you know that $5 is a magical number. There’s just something about this price point—it’s been designated in the cultural consciousness as the unofficial “value tipping point.” A $5 meal? That’s reasonable. $6? Get the hell out of here, you robber baron!
If you’re looking for someone to blame, blame Subway. Their “$5 footlong” promotion kicked off in 2008 with no particular fanfare, but unexpectedly blew up to become the biggest promotion in the history of the chain. Even though it was just a sandwich (no drink/chips), it captured some untapped aspect of the fast food market and inspired its own mini-mania. In the years that followed, dozens of other fast food chains have tried to tap into that by creating “extreme value” meals that tip the scales right around the $5 mark. Many of those are so-called “big box” meals.
The goal of any given big box meal seems to be the same—how much food can we, as a brand, afford to give you for roughly $5? How many calories and grams of saturated fat can we send straight to your ass while staying under budget? Brands like Taco Bell or Hardees have turned this into a science of gluttony. Just take an average one offered in the past from Hardees, which contains two double cheeseburgers, fries, an apple turnover and a drink for $5. Nutritional sum totals? 1,650 calories, 91 g of fat, 18.5 g saturated fat, and a whopping 3,110 mg sodium … oh, and that’s assuming you got a DIET Coke for your drink, by the way.
In honor of Paste’s October Monster Issue, then, I can see no more fitting tribute than partaking in as many of these Monster Meals as possible and documenting the results. For each one I consumed, we’ll describe the contents of the meal, the execution of said meal, and answer the all-important question: How much did this meal make me want to die? Let’s get into it.
KFC $5 Fill-Up Box
Contents: Two pieces of extra-crispy chicken (leg & thigh), mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuit, cookie, drink
KFC knows that when you’ve worked hard—when you’ve worked through your extra crispy obligation to down two pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes and a biscuit—then you have EARNED YOURSELF A DAMN COOKIE. Anything less would be a travesty.
The KFC I visited was in the middle of an epic lunch rush. The kind of lunch rush that makes a comically harried woman behind the counter loudly exclaim to anyone listening: “Jesus Christ superstar, that was a rush!” when it’s over. Still, that’s a positive, if it means fresh chicken, right? The box does note that the chicken is “freshly prepared by cooks.” I’m just glad that it’s apparently being prepared by cooks and not the custodial staff, as I’d always assumed. In reality, it’s perfectly serviceable chicken—as are the mashed potatoes, although KFC’s gravy has never driven me into an Eric Cartman-like state of chemical dependence. But you can do worse (and I did far worse, in the course of this experiment).
Did I finish this meal: All but a couple bites of a substandard biscuit.
Adverse effects: Kidney palpitations, spontaneous combustion (of human dignity).
How much did this meal make me want to die? I remained blissfully free of the desire to die until right near the end of the meal. I fully expected to hit the “What the hell am I doing here?” wall, but was foolish enough to think I had entirely avoided it, until … the cookie. Because when you’ve just eaten an entire KFC meal, and then you’re presented with a chocolate chip cookie as the reward for a job well done, then the only reasonable emotion is to want to go outside behind the building, crawl into the dumpster and lay there with the rest of the garbage until the world is a cold, dead husk.
Wendy’s 4 for $4 Meal
Contents: Junior bacon cheeseburger, 4-piece chicken nuggets, fries, drink
The latest trend in fast food is a subversion of the $5 gold standard that is aimed at both “health” and “value” as twin pillars of consumer motivation. What this means is simple: $4 meals! And even (gasp) $3 meals, as we’ll also see. Just imagine that all of the fast food franchises are Harland Williams in There’s Something About Mary, trying to pull the rug out from under 8 Minute Abs by cutting one minute out of the program. “Zounds, ye wastrel!” they proclaim. “I have saved thee a buck!”
NOTE: I physically journeyed across Atlanta in the course of this piece to BOTH a Hardees and a Sonic location, two chains that had recently been doing “$5 box” promotions, only to find that each of them had recently ended said promotions. So go to hell, Hardees and Sonic; thanks for screwing up the breadth of my piece.
Wendy’s 4 for $4 meal is mostly notable for its seemingly reasonable nature—this is more or less what I would order on any given trip to Wendy’s, which doesn’t make me feel any better. As a chain, Wendy’s does seem to have a vested interest in presenting itself as a semi-sensible, classier alternative to the likes of McDonalds or Burger King, so perhaps the idea of outlandishly excessive meals on some level goes against the image they’re trying to craft for the company.
Did I finish this meal: Yes, with frightening ease.
Adverse effects: Existential dread at how normal this meal appeared to be for a human being to engage in.
How much did this meal make me want to die? No more than the daily realization that I must face the light of the world for another 24 hours.
Taco Bell $5 Big Box
Contents: A crunchy taco, a Doritos Taco Loco, a drink, and (the star of the show), the “Quesarito.”
Okay, the literal NAME of this meal is the “$5 Big Box,” but I swear to you that at the Atlanta Taco Bell location I visited, it was actually retailing for $6 despite this, in flagrant violation of all that is holy. Taco Bell, you just made an enemy FOR LIFE.
This being Taco Bell, I felt more or less obligated to complete the ensemble with a proprietary Mountain Dew Baja Blast with my meal for the full Taco Bell experience, despite the fact that this drink should only be inflicted on prisoners as a form of strategic nutrient deprivation and psychological torture. It was unsurprisingly the only fast food establishment I visited where the drink proved more memorable than the meal. You can literally see the glow of it emanating from the paper cup in the above photo I took.
As for the food: It is what it is. The Doritos taco was a strange experience. Having not tasted one since they first rolled out 2012, I’d forgotten how far the result is from an actual Dorito—they actually taste more like a standard hard taco shell, coated with Cheetos dust. The Quesarito, likewise, is a bit better than a remember, with a pleasantly spicy sauce that is only partially diminished by the cup of lukewarm sour cream crammed into the final few bites.
Did I finish this meal: The food, yes. I’ll be deep in the cold ground before I finish a 20-ounce cup of Baja Blast. Which is ironic, given that 20 ounces of Baja Blast is more or less the fatal dose, if I’m remembering my toxicology training correctly.
Adverse effects: Spicy southwestern catatonia, gasket erosion.
How much did this meal make me want to die? Even the presence of the Baja Blast didn’t make me want to die. Rather, it only made me want to be hurt very badly, possibly in a soft drink fountain explosion where I’m covered in Baja Blast syrup and emerge as a hideous, Toxic Avenger-style monster to enact justice on Mountain Dew executives.
Popeyes $5 Bonafide Big Box
Contents: Three chicken tenders, mashed potatoes/gravy, red beans & rice, biscuit
Popeyes pulls the old dodge of not including a drink in their “meal,” knowing that every in-house diner is just going to buy one anyway, thus raising the TRUE price to $6. It’s the ultimate fast-food cop-out for this sort of big box meal, but perfectly indicative of how these chains view the $5 mark as a magical barrier that isn’t to be broken, whenever possible. They’ll sacrifice anything to be able to literally print “$5” on the box itself.
As for the meal … it’s bad. I usually order chicken on the bone at fast food chicken restaurants, and the strips are reminding me why. They’re as close to an entree of pure chicken breading as I’ve eaten in quite a while, all spongy and salt-crusted. The potatoes, meanwhile, were dangerously close to being considered a vegetable, but thankfully they’ve been coated in a liberally applied gravy that contains little bits of Cajun ham. The disaster that would have been any accidental nutrition has been heroically averted.
Did I finish this meal: Almost. I was afraid of what sort of TMNT-style mutation I might suffer if I drank a full cup of the residual red bean gravy.
Adverse effects: Explosive ennui; dislocated my trick duodenum.
How much did this meal make me want to die? About halfway through this meal, I wanted nothing more than to be marinated in buttermilk and Louisiana spices for 12 hours, then fed to gators.
Checkers 4 for $3 Meal
Contents: Spicy chicken sandwich, seasoned fries, cinnamon apple pie, drink
$4 meal? Checkers laughs at your $4 meal! Presenting the truly absurd, mind-bending value of the 4 for $3 meal, which cracks the idea of a “dollar menu” in half by making each item average less than a dollar. Ye gods, what mad sorcery is this?
Truly, the amount of food one is being offered here, in terms of bang for the buck, is almost disturbingly generous. Regardless of which sandwich one chooses (burger, chicken or fish), a raised eyebrow and mounting sense of dread is the only possible reaction to being presented with your lunch. I elected to go with the spicy chicken sandwich, which I’m petitioning to have renamed the “crispy mayobird” in honor of its primary ingredient.
The weirdest part of the meal is no doubt the weirdly dry, doughy, chewy apple pie, which has all the allure of a mouthful of packing peanuts. The seasoned fries, on the other hand, are above reproach. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise: Checkers’ seasoned fries are awesome. There, I said it.
Did I finish this meal: In my defense, I only ever promised to eat all the food that was offered, and I’m not entirely certain the apple pie is food, so I believe that absolves me.
Adverse effects: Night terrors (while awake)
How much did this meal make me want to die? Not particularly, but it did make me wonder what kind of coffin and funeral services I could get for $3. Or better yet: How many happy, satisfied wedding guests I could provide for at only $3 a head at a Checkers-catered nuptial.
So there you have it. I wish that I could have hit a few more big boxes for the purpose of this piece, but availability dictated what I had access to. And really, if I’d eaten a couple more, perhaps I wouldn’t be here writing this piece right now, so it’s probably for the best.
To answer the obvious question: Which of these meals was worst? Upon full reflection, it’s close, but none can match the sheer ostentatiousness and disdain for human life possessed by the Popeyes $5 Bonafide Big Box. From the substandard chicken, to the “drink not included” dodge to the very idea of a ham gravy-covered potato blob, it’s definitely the meal that will haunt my dreams the longest. Congratulations are due to Popeyes for capturing this austere honor.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident fast food geek/smartass. You can follow him on Twitter for much more food, drink and film writing.