Fast-food chains have secrets, and we're not talking sauce (it's just Thousand Island!). Almost every chain has a clandestine list of items just waiting to be discovered, forever rendering your typical order of a "#1 with Coke" bland. But which are real and which are just myth? To find out, I took to the streets. And ate. A lot.
How I did it
After extensive research (the Internet has been known to lie), I narrowed the list to nine chains. Any place that advertises their secret menu (here's looking at you, Subway and In-N-Out!) was disqualified. Over one weekend, I casually ordered the secret item from an unsuspecting clerk. My success rate was decidedly mixed.
The secret item: Peppermint Mocha... but not during the holiday season
The myth: A drink with enough sugar to send Buddy the Elf into a coma, the fervor surrounding the holiday appearance of Starbucks' red cups is rumored to be a marketing myth. All of the seasonal drinks are available year-round.
How it went: Christmas in January, y'all! Or, at least, peppermint-and-chocolate-infused sugar drink with whipped cream topping in a white cup in January, y'all! SUCCESS.
The chain: Taco Bell
What it is: That place where the nacho cheese flows like wine, whose partnership with Doritos could go down in history as the best business partnership ever. Also, the place you wish delivered every time you leave the bar.
The secret item: "Spicy Green" anything
The myth: Supposedly, you can order any regular Taco Bell concoction as "spicy green" -- as in, "I would like a spicy green Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco” -- and your taco will get a little piquant kick.
How it went: I said, "Spicy green Doritos Locos Taco, please!" She blinked. After a bit of confusion she offered up their "Creamy Jalapeño" add-on. The taco wizards spread the faintly green sauce as the taco's base layer for a delicious and subtle kick that was more evenly distributed than I can ever manage with the sauce packets. SUCCESS.
The chain: Wendy's
What it is: Dave Thomas' popular chain featuring a pigtailed ginger represented by a Pippi Longstockings-looking gal on the sign. Possibly the inspiration for Huey Lewis' "Hip to Be Square," with its signature cornered burgers.
The goal: The Barnyard
What it is: This is the deep-fried, processed version of Old McDonald's farm sandwiched between two buns. Burger + ham + bacon + fried chicken fillet + cheese between every layer. You can also add vegetables and tomatoes if you want a little green with your heart attack, and if your jaw unhinges like a snake.
How it went: The already surly-looking Wendy's worker glared at me and slowly pulled a Vanna White pose to demonstrate the menu items I could order. None were The Barnyard. I tried a second time and he suggested I wanted #3, the 3/4 Triple with Cheese, a wimpy choice compared to what I wanted. I walked away. FAIL.
The chain: Shake Shack
What it is: Restaurateur Danny Meyer's burger chain that ignited the biggest East Coast-West Coast beef (based on actual cow) since Biggie and Tupac. Choose sides, burger lovers. The Shake Sauce v. In-N-Out Spread battle will be messy.
The secret item: Peanut Butter Bacon Burger
The myth: Select locations ran this combo as a main menu item back in 2010. People apparently hated it, but they've now been shunned because you can't hate a trio of all-American goodness.
How it went: The Shake Shack folks did not hesitate, except to ask if it was okay for the peanut butter to come on the side. The nutty goodness turned out to be a mix-in from their shakes, so it's like the burger version of those Toaster Strudel icing packets -- but actually looks good. SUCCESS.
The chain: Five Guys Burgers and Fries
What it is: For burger lovers with severe peanut allergies, this place is the worst, what with those giant buckets of nuts everywhere. For everyone else, it's amazing. It would be the other In-N-Out rival, but it already annihilated the competition.
The secret item: Cheese fries
The myth: Word is that Five Guys will melt a bit of their burger cheese onto their already amazing fries. Then, you can go crazy with the 50,000,000,000 combinations available for burger toppings. You know you wanna...
How it went: Cheese fries are my fourth favorite food (they shouldn't feel ashamed with the spot since they are only beat out by the heavy hitters known as pizza, fried oysters, and nachos), so I really should've been more upset that I got denied here. But Five Guys' Cajun fries are so damn delicious on their own, it's hard to be sad. FAIL.
The chain: Burger King
What it is: The place whose giant, plastic-headed, human-sized Nutcracker-esque mascot haunted your dreams until they killed it in 2011. Also the home of the Whopper and, more importantly, the home of the Original Chicken Sandwich.
The secret item: Frings
The myth: You know when you get a lone onion ring in your French fry carton and rejoice for that one bite of tasty, crunchy happiness? This is that, but evenly divided rings and fries. It also gives you an excuse to make Los Pollos Hermanos jokes.
How it went: Look! It's on the box, so it's like the deep-fry gods are begging you to discover this one. My cashier did not like that portmanteau (better than "Fronion ries," though), but she still yelled out "half onion rings, half fries." SUCCESS.
The chain: Chipotle
What it is: Taco Bell's older, less erratic cousin, Chipotle's kind of like the Mexican food equivalent of the average 20-something, upper-middle class kid, just trying to be an adult and pretending to be fancy. He has a cameo on Girls.
The secret item: Quesarito
The secret: This is the mother-lode of fast-food glory, the mythical legend of fast-food menus. It is, so the Internet rumor mill suggests, the normal, delectable contents of a burrito wrapped in a snug, happy jacket of a quesadilla.
How it went: The man at the cash register -- the man holding my fast-food future in his burrito-making expert hands -- slowly turned to stare at the other two workers. One nodded slowly. And the quesadilla was made. Every bite had the perfect distribution of cheesy happiness and burrito satisfaction. SO MUCH SUCCESS.
The chain: McDonald's
What it is: The only burger chain that managed to make its clown mascot not totally terrifying and transform "two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun" into a mantra remembered more readily than the Pledge of Allegiance.
The secret item: Coke float
The myth: If you're super sweet, McDonald's might mix their fountain Coca-Cola with their vanilla soft serve just for you. If they can serve you a McRib, then it certainly seems like they can fulfill this all-American fast-food dream of yore.
How it went: The guy who took my order whispered slowly to himself, "I don't know how to ring this up." I think he said it so hesitantly because he was also asking himself why he had never thought of this idea. A wise older worker pushed him aside, rang it up, and created the fizzy, sugary concoction. SUCCESS.