Fast-Food Secret Menus Are a Garbage Urban Legend
Secret menus are the best -- you get to saunter into a fast-food place and order something not on the menu. Then you get to eat something that inevitably tastes better than what everyone else is eating. Your food is sprinkled with fast-food fairy dust. You're the only kid at the table with Shark Bites. You get a first-place ribbon for excellence!
Only problem is... secret menus don't actually exist.
But doesn't In-N-Out have a secret menu?
Actually, it doesn't. In-N-Out has a name for its secret menu (strike one) the "Not-So-Secret Menu" -- and it actually advertises it on its website (strikes two through a billion). There's nothing secret about a secret menu that's advertised, unless you also think sports news on ESPN.com is a secret too.
Animal Style is a delicious way to eat a burger. It's convenient shorthand for asking them to do all sorts of fun things to your meal. But it's not a secret.
But In-N-Out is where the secret menu myth begins. It's undoubtedly one of the best burger joints in the country. The fact that there's not one on every corner, like McDonald's, makes it somewhat of a cult restaurant, despite being as pervasive in LA as fake boobs and cold-pressed juice. And because In-N-Out's legend has spread far and wide, people speak of its secret menu in hushed tones. I grew up on the East Coast and heard rumors of a fast-food place in California that had burgers that weren't even on the menu. That got my attention. I probably wasn't the only one.
People want that experience of ordering something no one knows about at other fast-food joints. Everyone likes to feel smarter and more in-the-know than the guy next to them, and it makes that trip to McDonald’s -- a place you’ve been to 1,000 times -- suddenly feel special. It instantly creates a unique experience at a place that couldn't be more common.
I got marching orders from my boss to find the secret menu items at every fast-food joint, and write about it. Simple enough. I used to order Coke floats at McDonald's in high school -- this should be fun! I did my homework. I visited a website dedicated to secret menus, I scoured Reddit, message boards, and I visited a ton of fast-food places to find the best secret menu items.
And what I found is that it's all bullshit.
It’s not a secret menu if the workers are not in on the secret
Let's start off with my trip to my local KFC. I found a bunch of items on #HackTheMenu for the Colonel's spot, including poutine and a Hot Pocket bowl. I asked for both items at the counter. I was told they didn't do poutine. Or a Hot Pocket bowl. They had no idea what I was talking about. If the fast-food workers don't know how to make your secret menu item, it's not a secret menu item.
When I went to McDonald's, the very nice cashier had no idea what a McGangbang was (and what an awfully named thing to have to ask for). It's essentially a McDouble and a McChicken, so I just ordered a chicken sandwich and a burger and put them together. If I have to put together a weird sandwich made of two existing menu items using my own hands, that doesn't make it a secret menu item. That's just me temporarily becoming a McDonald's employee. And we all know no fast-food place would ever hire me.
It’s not a secret menu if I have to tell the workers how to build each item
There are but two items on #HackTheMenu's Wendy's menu. Wendy is mad lazy, probably busy doing all those commercials and whatnot. The Barnyard Burger is listed. It's a "chicken patty, a beef patty, crispy bacon, cheese, fresh lettuce, and tomato between soft buns." I asked for one. I got a blank stare. At this point, I was used to having cashiers look at me in this way when I asked for secret menu items. But here, they were happy to make it for me rather than let me make it myself out of the individual items. "What is it again?" he asked. I explained what I wanted (a burger and a chicken patty on the same bun), and I got it.
KFC was confused about the Triple Down (three chicken filets instead of two), another rumored item on its secret menu, but when I asked for them to put one Double Down on another, they said sure. It took about 10 minutes for them to make. It's called a Quadruple Down, and it was worth the wait.
Burger King’s workers were similarly obliging in combining menu items to make my order. The cashier had never heard of Frings (half fries, half onion rings) or a Quad Stacker (four beef patties, four slices of cheese, bacon), but he was happy to accommodate my request. Hooray!
So, yes, I did get to enjoy some of the rumored secret items. But if you went to McDonald’s, ordered a Big Mac, and then had to tell the worker how to combine two cheeseburgers and add special sauce and lettuce, would you still say a Big Mac was part of the menu? You wouldn’t. So the combination of four BK bacon cheeseburgers, plain, is not part of a BK secret menu.
It's not a secret if it's on the menu
#HackTheMenu says you can sub a boring burger bun for sourdough at Jack in the Box! Turns out, that's on the menu. It's not a secret menu item if it's actually on the menu, ya dig? On the upside, they knew what I was talking about when I ordered it. And back at KFC, another secret menu item was, supposedly, "Add bacon." Let's get something straight -- adding bacon to food doesn't make that food a secret menu item, it's simply your right as an American.
It's not a secret if it was on the menu previously
Sonic is known for discontinuing items from its menu and then still making them available to customers who ask. So if you want Extreme Tots (large tots with chili, cheese, jalapeños, onions, and ranch), you can get them!
But if a fast-food place spends time crafting a new item, testing it in focus groups, and then advertising it to millions of people, it's not a secret anymore. Even if it's not currently on the menu.
I'll admit that there are secret menu items
OK, so are there secret menus anywhere? Well, certain fast-food places do have items, which is more than I was able to track down at the national chains during this story. We even wrote about the Stoner Burrito at Del Taco and The Hypocrite (veggie burger + bacon) at Fatburger, but those are exceptions to the rule.
And a single item does not a secret menu make.
Secret menus don't exist... but there is hope
Earlier this year, we teamed up with Justin Warner to make a Five Guys secret menu. It consists of additions and combinations you can (mostly) just order one by one. The Five Guys workers won’t know what you’re talking about if you order the Breaking Windy City Dog, but you can ask for a hot dog with pickles, tomato, relish, hot sauce, green peppers, and mustard with a side of seasoning.
Sure, Five Guys makes a point of saying its menu is hyper-customizable so maybe it was expected that we'd be successful, but, while writing this, I learned that all fast-food chains are incredibly receptive to whatever you want. Nearly every cashier was down to whip up whatever I wanted using the ingredients they had back there, despite not knowing the nicknames of whatever I was ordering. Good news: you never have to feel uncomfortable asking for a McGangbang.
So next time you're out there in fast-food land, order some Frings and a Quadruple Down and a Barnyard Burger all you want. Or make up your own ridiculously named creations like we did. You'll probably get to eat one once you explain what it is -- just don't expect your cashier to give you anything more than a blank stare for a minute.