Get our free newsletter
Ask any chef for their earliest fast food memory and prepare to smile. Chef Jon Taub reminisces about trips to Roy Rogers with his dad when he was growing up in Philadelphia. “You know the Fixin’s Bar?” the chef and co-owner of Bub & Pop’s asks. “You got your burger and then you could put all that shit on it. It’s kind of like your first chance to be a chef.”
Chef Katsuya Fukushima of the Daikaya Group recalls the intoxicating aroma of McDonald’s fries in California. He could smell it from miles away, until he couldn’t. “They used to fry them in beef fat,” he explains. “Now you don’t smell them until you’re inside. There was some kind of health kick and they switched to vegetable oil. Over the last 10 years chefs have started frying things in duck and beef fat, but McDonald’s was doing it way before!”
For some, fast food was a treat. For others, it was at the heart of family life. “We were new immigrants in this county and my mom worked three jobs,” says former Bad Saint chef Tom Cunanan, the sixth of seven children. “Our older siblings had to be the ones to feed us.” They worked at Popeyes and Flamers Burgers and Chicken. “Whatever was leftover at their jobs they took home and that was dinner.”
Chef Paolo Dungca, who hails from the same Phillippine province as Cunanan, looked forward to weekend breakfast spreads from Jollibee. “Growing up in the Philippines, my cousins would come over on Saturdays,” he says. “That’s how we started our weekends. For me, that’s why Tom and I wanted to do something like this. We can connect families.”
Dungca and Cunanan opened a restaurant on Wednesday inside The Block D.C. at 1110 Vermont Ave. NW. It’s a reunion of sorts for the pair who cooked together at Bad Saint. Their fast food passion project— Pogiboy—is more than a nod to Jollibee. It’s a tribute, acknowledging the joy Jollibee sparked early in their lives.
“You can be poor and rich and go eat at Jollibee and enjoy everything on the menu,” Cunanan says. “It reminds you of your childhood, especially the quirkiness of the employees who work there.” He does his best impression: “‘Welcome to Jollibee, have a jolly good day!’ They’re so happy to serve you. It makes you feel like you’re back home again.”
Dungca and Cunanan tweaked Jollibee staples like Chickenjoy, Yumburgers, and Jolly Spaghetti, adding “secret tamarind powder” to the marinade and dredge for the fried chicken, which comes out of the fryer the dramatic color of Doritos. Pogiboy’s Fiesta Spaghetti is covered in a sweet bolognese sauce studded with the same flame-red Tender Juicy hotdogs that are popular in the Philippines, but the chefs finish the dish with gouda instead of a fast-melting cheese akin to Velveeta. Cunanan used to make a version of Filipino spaghetti at Bad Saint that cost $35. This one is $7.50.
By design, the most expensive item on the Pogiboy menu is a six-piece bucket of fried chicken for $13.50. “We’re taking that route where we want to be more affordable during the pandemic,” Cunanan explains. “People can’t afford to eat out.”
Whether it materializes as a whole menu like Pogiboy or just a few dishes, local chefs are drawing inspiration from their favorite fast food chains in droves. Any restaurant that can tap into nostalgia right now has a winning recipe. Fatigued emotionally and physically from a pandemic that’s stretched on for nearly a year, diners are clinging to memories from simpler times. That calls for comfort food, and chefs are happy to oblige. Their finessed fast food dishes allow them to cut costs, take on new creative challenges, and reach broader audiences with more affordable prices.
“You just talked about some major talent doing their interpretation on something,” says Red Apron Butcher and Hi/Fi Taco Executive Chef Nate Anda, referring to Dungca and Cunanan. “All this stuff has a better price point than sitting in a dining room of a fine dining restaurant. It gives chefs an opportunity to reach a different clientele from when there wasn’t a pandemic.”
Anda has done takes on McDonald’s McRib and Arby’s Beef ‘n Cheddar sandwich, but his latest riff is the “Taco Night in America” taco at Hi/Fi Taco inside The Roost. It gets close to a Taco Bell crunchy taco with its hard shell, seasoned ground beef, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, and smoked crema (two for $5.75). Anda became one of Taco Bell’s best customers when he worked as a beer distributor in high school. As the youngest person on the team, he fetched lunch. Back then, tacos cost 29 cents on Wednesdays.
According to Anda, the quality of ingredients can take fast food-inspired dishes a step up from their muses. “Chefs like to know where their food comes from and they like to make everything,” he says. “It’s a fun way to reinterpret stuff they ate when they were younger.”
Taub from Bub & Pop’s echoes Anda’s point. He sought to improve upon the water ice at Rita’s Italian Ice by incorporating an array of fresh fruit and staying away from anything artificial like food dye. “There were days when all I’d eat was water ice and soft pretzels,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s an addiction to sugar or what it is. You can eat so much of it and you don’t feel like you’re getting fat. Technically it’s frozen juice, right?”
He gets creative with the flavors ($6 each) at his sandwich shop. “I’ve tried to get every fruit that I can,” Taub continues. “One year we did sumac water ice. I just love water ice.”
While Anda and Taub have been toying with fast food interpretations for years, three sandwich-focused pop-ups or ghost restaurants spurred into operation by the pandemic offer plays on classics from McDonald’s.
At Your Only Friend, run out of Columbia Room, founder Paul Taylor tinkered with making a patty-size chicken nugget to appeal to adoring McChicken fans. “I’ve always been inspired by the idea of taking something everybody knows and making it better than they ever thought it could be,” he says.
Taylor describes his nugget methodology. “We take ground chicken and add spices to it and blend it up even more until it becomes emulsified,” Taylor explains. “We add transglutaminase to that.” The natural enzyme helps the nugget stay juicy and gives it a springy texture “like biting into mortadella or bologna.”
Your Only Friend serves the chicken nugget several ways. When making The Return of the Mack sandwich, Taylor dresses it with American cheese, Duke’s mayonnaise, Crystal special sauce, shredded lettuce, dill pickle, and chopped onion. If the toppings scream Big Mac, they should. “It’s Americana between a bun,” Taylor says. “We wanted to make a $14 chicken nugget and I think we accomplished that.”
But there’s a fancier nugget. Taylor’s mom is French Canadian, and he couldn’t help but serve a Coq Au Vin Nugget sandwich ($16). He glazes the nugget with wine and finishes it with pickled mushrooms, bacon jam, and aioli. “I’d love a world where you could have French classics in a drive-thru format,” Taylor says.
He’s noticed that he’s not the only one leaning on fast food to reel in customers right now. “So many people know it and understand it,” Taylor says. “Understanding something you’re eating is half the battle, especially in a world of COVID. We don’t have one-on-one interactions with people where we can explain dishes. Also, the nostalgia thing. It may not be healthy, but it’s healthy for the soul. Chicken nugget for the soul.”
At Itty Bitty Sandwich City, run out of The Imperial, Chris Reynolds pays homage to the Golden Arches with a Filet-O-Fish dupe. Where McDonald’s uses Alaskan pollock, Reynolds fries up wild-caught Atlantic cod in a batter boosted by a splash of hazy IPA beer. Before serving the sandwich ($11), he dabs on some house-made tartar sauce. “It’s a similar flavor profile, but sings a little better.”
Reynolds chaulks up his strategy to a coping mechanism of sorts. “Anytime our industry is faced with adversity, chefs go back to their roots and what they know they can accomplish successfully and what they know people want,” he says.
Starting on Monday, Andre McCain’s ghost restaurant Butter Me Up, based out of HalfSmoke, will introduce McGriddle-inspired breakfast sandwiches of buttermilk-brined fried chicken nestled between two maple pancakes. “I think the McGriddle is awesome,” McCain says. “Definitely my favorite product McDonald’s has to offer.”
McCain grew up in Deanwood in the 1980s and 1990s and the McDonald’s he used to climb all over as a kid is still there. Birthdays at the restaurant were a ritual. He’s noticed, however, that there are fewer fast food restaurants in D.C. these days.
“But the demand for convenience and approachable, accessible, relatable food is perhaps greater now than ever,” McCain says. “D.C.’s dining maturation was really about pushing the envelope from the culinary side. Now chefs are rethinking homestyle food. There’s nothing more fundamental to dining in America than fast food.”
Fast food, McCain says, has endured for a reason. “I consider these companies to be experts, if you will,” he says. They have systems in place that help keep their food consistent, which is any chef’s goal. That’s what Katsuya Fukushima was most drawn to because he runs fast-paced ramen restaurants and an izakaya that pulses when there isn’t a pandemic.
“There’s a reason why there’s fast food restaurants all over the world and they can pop up and open really fast,” Fukushima says. Before he had his own restaurant group, he worked for José Andrés at Jaleo. While the tapas spot is far from fast food, it’s a high-volume kitchen. Fukushima recalls a field trip he took with Andrés to McDonald’s. “Each station at McDonald’s has a screen so whenever someone rings up an order, each cook at a station gets a ticket. We installed similar screens at all of the stations at Jaleo. Each cook was a chef of his own little domain. [Andrés] showed me how to get inspiration from anywhere.”
Fukushima installed the same screens at Daikaya Izakaya. “It’s kind of a bad thing for chefs to say they love fast food, but I really love fast food,” says Fukushima, who once worked at Wendy’s. One of his other restaurants, Bantam King, used to be a Burger King. Brian Miller, a co-founder of design firm edit lab at Streetsense, kept the spirit of the Whopper-slinger by holding onto the fast food chairs and affixing trays to the walls. In addition to ramen, Bantam King sells fried chicken.
“I did a ton of research on how fast food restaurants do fried chicken,” Fukushima says. “I was very inspired by the Henny Penny pressure fryer, which is what Royal Farms uses. KFC uses a pressure fryer too. Their chicken is always very juicy and consistent.” Even though Fukushima says pressure fryers are double the prince of standard fryers, he had to have one.
Fukushima isn’t the only chef who has gone on fast food recognizance missions. Chef David Deshaies did some snooping when he was developing the double cheeseburger recipe for Unconventional Diner. His business partner came back from a trip to Missouri raving about the burgers he tried at Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers. Deshaies was worried he wouldn’t get to sample one since the chain is based in the midwest, but then he discovered one in Fairfax.
“I was very impressed by the burger,” Deshaies says. “I tried to sneak into the kitchen to see how they do it. I see them smash the burger. It’s a very hot flat top with steam underneath to make it super hot. It makes the edge of the patty super crispy. The beef patty comes outside of the edges of the bun. I love that.”
He also convinced a cook to tell him the basics of their fry sauce—mayo, ketchup, pickle juice, and some seasonings. Deshaies’ version is called sexy sauce. He brushes some on the double cheeseburger ($16) and also serves it with fries.
There’s one catch. Unconventional Diner can only smash the double cheeseburger patties at when customers order their burger medium-well or well-done. “A lot of people request medium rare or even rare so I can’t smash it.” Either way, it’s a treat. “I like to add my French touch, so we add caramelized onions with garlic and fresh thyme.”
The former fine dining chef who worked at Citronelle is pragmatic about why fast food takes are trending. “With the economy and what we’re going through with the pandemic, fast food is the only way to survive,” Deshaies says. “We do whatever we can to survive. We need to pay the rent.”