Best choices on fast food dollar menus

It's for the day when the best you can come up with is the coins under the sofa cushion (hey, there's the earring I've been missing). The day you're driving along and hunger sucker-punches you — and your wallet is slow on the draw. It's for when looking at your checkbook register makes you feel queasy. In these tricky times, the dollar menu has taken root at all the major fast-food players. Some items are a little higher than that magic number, some even cheaper, but the aim is clear: Keep customers coming through the door with the lure of rock-bottom prices. In many cases, these cheapie menus have become so successful they account for 25 percent of sales. Wondering which ones were worth your buck, I ate my way through the goods at the big five. I've included nutritional information below, but my favorites were irrespective of their caloric and fat content.

Laura Reiley, Times food critic

McDONALD'S

The best item on the dollar menu is the Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait ($1). It is fairly wholesome, as a snack or as a dessert, with a layer of soft, syrupy strawberries and a little packet of granola to sprinkle on top.

In second place: the McDouble ($1), the latest addition to the dollar menu. There was a hue and cry last year when skyrocketing cheese prices lifted the double cheeseburger off the dollar menu and onto the regular board. This newcomer is two patties and, deal with it, a single slice of American. The McDouble is more than twice as good as the regular single hamburger. It's a meat-to-bun ratio thing.

The two apple pies are sad now that they are baked, not fried (I know they're probably better for you, but that's no solace when they taste like cardboard), and the rest of the dollar menu is just, well, wee versions of real-sized dishes. A tiny Coke ($1) with tiny fries ($1) with a tiny four-piece McNuggets ($1) does not a full belly make.

Nutritional Information:

Fruit 'n Yogurt Parfait, 160 calories, 2 total fat grams

McDouble, 390 calories, 19 total fat grams

Baked Hot Apple Pie, 250 calories, 13 total fat grams (that's per pie)

Small Coke, 150 calories, no fat

Small fries, 230 calories, 11 total fat grams

Four-piece Chicken McNuggets, 190 calories, 12 total fat grams, sauces extra

Also on the menu: Hot Fudge Sundae, Side Salad, McChicken Sandwich

BURGER KING

Burger King's value menu now accounts for a paltry 13 percent of sales (about half that of its main competitors). His Royal Highness is gearing up with a new ad campaign to promote the value items (as well as some kooky new concepts like grilled salmon sandwich and steak kebab — good luck with those).

In total: Yuck.

The best item is the Small Onion Rings ($1), a little packet full of crunchy-coated bliss. The Whopper Jr. ($1) has a strange fake-smoke flavor I can't quite put my finger on, and the quartet of Crown-Shaped Chicken Tenders ($1) are the not-quite-as-talented understudy for the McNugget (what's the shiny coating?).

That said, the second-best item was the Spicy Chick'n Crisp Sandwich ($1), your basic fried chicken patty sandwich on a sesame seed bun with lettuce and mayo. The seasoning of the breading was tasty, the meat itself moist. (I would urge them to reinstate the "e" in chicken, however — the contraction is not befitting to a king.)

Nutritional Information:

Small Onion Rings, 150 calories, 8 total fat grams

Whopper Jr., 370 calories, 21 total fat grams

Crown-Shaped Chicken Tenders (4 pieces), 180 calories, 11 total fat grams

Spicy Chick'n Crisp Sandwich, 450 calories, 30 total fat grams

Also on the menu: Small French Fries, Side Garden Salad, Dutch Apple Pie

WENDY'S

The No. 3 burger chain has had its Super Value Menu for 20 years, with eight items mostly hovering around 99 cents (offered as a combo with small fries and small Frosty for $3.39). The priciest end of the value menu is a trio of Go Wraps (spicy chicken, homestyle chicken and grilled chicken), all $1.69, all incredibly skippable, hinting at thermoplastic polymers. You're better off with the good old Double Stack (99 cents), its square patties topped off with two perfect onion rounds and a thick slather of condiments.

But here's an idea: Instead of the value french fries (99 cents), which just don't measure up to McDonald's, opt for the baked potato with sour cream and chives, a mere $1.29, very filling and reasonably wholesome if you eschew the weird fake-flavored buttery spread.

Sadly, the Wendy's chili ($1.29 small) seems to have changed recipes, now reading more like a thin-broth minestrone with ground chuck in it. Some things don't change: A small Frosty ($1.39) is still thick enough to cause inner ear problems as you work the straw.

Nutritional Information:

Double Stack, 360 calories, 18 total fat grams

Value French Fries, 210 calories, 10 total fat grams

Spicy Chicken Go Wrap, 320 calories, 15 total fat grams

Homestyle Chicken Go Wrap, 310 calories, 15 total fat grams

Grilled Chicken Go Wrap, 250 calories, 10 total fat grams

Sour Cream and Chive Potato, 320 calories, 3.5 total fat grams

Small Chili, 190 calories, 6 total fat grams

Junior Frosty, 160 calories, 4 total fat grams

Also on the menu: 5-piece Crispy Chicken Nuggets, Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, Crispy Chicken Sandwich

TACO BELL

The Bell goes 'em all one better with its "Why Pay More" value meal options as low as 79 cents. None is a meal by itself, but a couple of these and it starts to feel like dinner. The best option is a new one, the Grilled Chicken Burrito (89 cents) with a tasty, spicy avocado dressing that adds panache to the chicken cubes, cheddar shreds and rice wrapped in a thick flour tortilla. Sadly, here's the rub: That dang sauce adds all the fat: with sauce, 20 grams; with salsa instead, 10.

Second-best is the Caramel Apple Empanada (99 cents), cinnamony sugar coating a deep-fried pastry shell cradling blistering hot, sweet apple sludge. Like McDonald's apple pies back in the day.

The only way to save the new Grilled Chicken Soft Taco (89 cents) from total blandness is the discharge of a full packet of hot sauce (stick a penny in a packet and see what happens; makes you wonder).

Triple Layer Nachos (79 cents) and the Bean Burrito (99 cents) were edible once you got past the unappetizingly loose consistency of the refried beans, the former a pile of chips racing against the clock to stay crisp under a deluge of beans, fluorescent yellow cheese sauce and a drizzle of chili powder-tinged pico de gallo.

The Cinnamon Twists (79 cents) are a bad idea: corn twists that taste like nothing more than granulated sugar and cinnamon. It's no churro, that's for sure.

Nutritional Information:

Grilled Chicken Burrito, 440 calories, 20 total fat grams

Caramel Apple Empanada, 310 calories, 16 total fat grams

Grilled Chicken Soft Taco, 200 calories, 8 total fat grams

Triple layer nachos, 340 calories, 18 total fat grams

Bean Burrito, 350 calories, 9 total fat grams

Cinnamon Twists, 170 calories, 7 total fat grams

Also on the menu: Cheese Roll Up, Crunchy Taco, Cheesy Double Beef Burrito

KFC

KFC has just entered the fray, having launched its Ultimate Value Menu in February with 10 items priced under $1.99. Because the chain has always been more oriented toward family-sized buckets, it hasn't been as quick to jump on a range of bargain-priced individual servings. The cheapest, and frankly most successful, of the new items is an array of Snacker sandwiches (99 cents), from Original Recipe to the even better zingy Buffalo-sauced one: a soft oblong bun, bit of mayo, chopped iceberg and a plank of intensely battered chicken breast.

The side salad ($1.49) is plain goofy, just iceberg ribbons and two large rounds of tomato, the Toasted Wrap ($1.49) was dry and uninteresting, and the Snack Bowl ($1.99) was an utter mystery — why does one want corn niblets, mashed potatoes, gravy, little gobs of breaded chicken and molten cheese shreds all rammed together in a tiny plastic bowl? It seems like an accident someone has hastily cleaned up.

The snack box ($1.99), a cardboard container of breaded chicken and battered potato planks, had a super-salty, crunchy homogeneity to it that was unappealing.

Nutritional Information:

Original Recipe Snacker Sandwich, 270 calories, 12 total fat grams

Buffalo Snacker Sandwich, 240 calories, 7 total fat grams

Side Salad with Ranch, 175 calories, 17 total fat grams

Toasted Wrap with Crispy Strip, 360 calories, 20 total fat grams

Snack-Size Bowl, 320 calories, 15 total fat grams

Popcorn Chicken with Potato Wedge Snack Box, 660 calories, 38 total fat grams

Also on the menu: Two Biscuits, Two Apple Turnovers, Honey BBQ Sandwich, Three Hot Wings with Potato Wedges

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

Best choices on fast food dollar menus 06/16/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 1:22pm]

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