McGriddles a true riddle

Published July 16, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

The Nibbler has been firmly on the side of free, bad choice in the food wars for a long time. I root for exercise, abstinence from TV and independence from advertising, and against nutritional nannyism.

I'd love to see more vegetables in every restaurant, but as generations of parents can attest, getting us to eat them ain't easy. Restaurants aren't to blame for piggish diets; we are.

With one possible exception: Do we really need McGriddles?

I've known cooks with insatiable imaginations _ lonely people who shouldn't get too close to a refrigerator with a skillet after midnight _ but I don't think that there are many who would make a sandwich of bacon, eggs and cheese using two pancakes for bread.

Nope, it took mad scientists deep in the McDonald's brain trust to come up with that one.

At first, the genius seems to be in making pancakes thick enough to double as bread and putting syrup directly in the batter. Actually that's just a tactical development.

The strategic premise is more brilliant: how to take the biggest breakfast we eat, say bacon and eggs with the extra treat of pancakes, and make it a portable, everyday meal for a society that eats with its fingers but doesn't want to get the cell phone sticky.

That would be triumph enough, yet Ronald doesn't know where to stop. Nor do we. Here's the topper: Want cheese with that? That's right, a bright gooey slice of cheese melting between the bacon and eggs and your pancake. Why put butter on your pancake when you can have cheese?

Lay people could not have come up with this (although my dad's grilled peanut butter, bacon and onion is in the running).

That's some kind of twisted fun. And fat. And carbs. A temptation I wish we didn't have to face.

Although McGriddles look small, only 2 inches across and stacked high, these little bombs tally up to 550 calories for sausage, egg and cheese (56 percent of your day's saturated fat), 450 for the bacon version (38 percent). Plain sausage (no egg and cheese) is the dieter's special at 420.

Actually, those numbers put McGriddles in the middle of Mickey D's breakfasts. Bagel sandwiches are worst and top the charts. A bagel with sausage and bacon (yes, it's true but wisely available only at select McDonald's, though not in the bay area) is a whopping 760 calories.

The breakfasts with the least calories may surprise you: The venerable Egg McMuffin (with cheese and Canadian bacon) is 300 calories, and the winner is the sausage and egg burrito at 290.

And almost all of them are better than pancakes with two pats of butter and syrup at 600 calories.

Should McGriddles be banned? Should police set up road blocks to administer random fatalyzer tests? Should all Americans be required to sit down to a bowl of high-fiber cereal and listen to Dr. Red Duke every morning?

Not in my book. Humans eat a variety of food for breakfast: rice, kippers, croissants and biscuits. (Where is a Biscuitville when you need one?)

And the final struggle between protein and carbohydrate partisans is not over.

There's even a long history of people who ate ham, eggs and pancakes, and lived (back-breaking work was an ingredient in that diet, too).

And places such as McDonald's are fair enough to provide nutritional data and offer better choices, including a small fruit with yogurt at 130 calories. (By the way, the best and cheapest drink is 1 percent milk, 100 calories and 25 cents less than soda.)

Me? Pancakes are a rare indulgence, even without bacon and eggs. And syrup's enough. Hold the cheese.

Mexico just got closer

Fans of authentic tacos, tortas and burritos _ the kind that come with cilantro, onion and lime _ will be glad to know that Mexico Lindo of Clearwater has opened a second taco place, in Pinellas Park.

The new taqueria at Mexico Lindo II (6050 Park Blvd., Pinellas Park, 727-548-8721) is a sparkling extension of the grocery and butcher shop, with a few tables and the full range of tacos made with meats from bistec and pork carnitas to tongue, plus menudo on weekends. Less than $1.50 apiece, these tacos are the cheapest, quickest trip to Mexico you'll find.

Celebrity (chef) city

When Todd English of Olives in Boston and elsewhere joins the menu stars of Orlando (Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and, as of next month, Norman Van Aken), his new restaurant will stick to seafood. That befits his Boston background and his location, the fishy half of the Michael Graves-designed Swan and Dolphin resorts at Disney.

Keeping in the cartoonish spirit of those buildings, English's restaurant this November will be named Blue Zoo; the menu will feature finfish and shellfish preparations from coastal cooking around the world, from the Costa Brava of Spain to Japan.

English's accent on fresh may come still closer to the Tampa Bay area: He is in talks with TGI Friday's to revitalize the menus of the aging venerable fern bar chain.

What's missing?

I'm still digesting some of what I encountered in an earlier visit to New York and rarely see hereabouts. Interestingly, the sobering effects of war and a tough economy have reduced haute cuisine's reliance on exotic ingredients. More and more chefs take humble food and add talent and hard work in the kitchen. The results may be precious at times, but the techniques can be imitated here.

Though some high-priced spots in New York seek out designer meats, say Niman Ranch beef and Kobe beef (Australian and U.S. versions as well as Japanese), other chefs show off their ability to work with cheaper cuts, going farther down the animal.

Short ribs, lamb shanks and pork bellies are on most menus, as are odd butcher's cuts such as hanger steak (one per carcass), thick bacon, bone marrow and "variety meats" from tongue to sweetbreads. Chefs also do more to meat _ brining, curing, smoking and fashioning into sausage, pates and terrines _ before cooking.

Favorites on fish lists include arctic char, skate, fluke, monkfish, bluefish, peekytoe crab and, in late spring, shad and shad roe. A big favorite is cod, both kinds, the line-caught sablefish from the Pacific Northwest and the rustic salted white fish of poor people on all sides of the Atlantic. The other new staple is sardines _ big ones _ salted and grilled, often combined with sturdy sides such as white beans and greens.

Vegetables have turned plainer, too. Heirloom varieties are still in, but cute babies are giving way to more mature vegetables, even those generally regarded as unpretty.

Cauliflower is turned into lush, velvety soups; beets are celebrated in every course except dessert (although golden beets are sweet enough). All kinds of cabbages, from Nappa to Swiss chard, show up on plates, grilled, wilted or steamed. Beans, from cannelini to chickpeas, show up in side dishes and sauces.

The new favorite staples are root vegetables: salsify and parsnips as well as carrots and potatoes, roasted or pureed.

The starring mushrooms this year are black trumpets and any form of truffle.

Those energetic chefs who like to smoke their own meats now pickle their carrots, celery and other veggies to make chow-chow, curtido or kim chee. They use a wider range of olives (although they don't cure them in-house).

Potatoes occasionally put on airs as fingerlings and Yukon gold; even ordinary potatoes are reformed into gnocchi or even potato "risotto." Fries unashamed to be French as frites are a matter of pride in many upscale restaurants. Spelt and barley or farro, its reddish cousin, are more common and sometimes served polenta-soft. Chefs make their own spaetzle, the tiny German dumplings.

Fruits show the most frivolity. Chefs like Asian pears, blood oranges, Meyer lemons, pommelo (instead of mundane grapefruit). Cavaillon, the melons of Provence (and Montreal) remain the most fashionable, paired with fish as much as prosciutto. Rhubarb is popular in desserts.

Food critic Chris Sherman writes about dining and restaurant news in the Nibbler. He can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or by e-mail at