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A couple of Sundays ago, I drove through the same Carl's Jr. drive-through I've favored throughout my life: the Carl's on the corner of Harbor Boulevard and Romneya Drive in Anaheim, a large outpost in the shadows of the Orange County burger empire's corporate headquarters. I ordered the same meal with which my parents rewarded me for getting good grades, the same affordable treat that alimented me through college, the same meal I ordered in my young-adult years as a form of edible nostalgia: the Junior Cheeseburger.
This was a burger designed for kiddies, but damn if the Carl's Jr. Junior Cheeseburger wasn't the sweetest bun-based beauty this side of Gisele Bundchen. Its allure rested in its simplicity: a simple, shiny egg bun that housed a charbroiled hamburger patty smeared with ketchup and mustard and two (sometimes three) pickles. The triple tartness of the condiments and pickles tweaked my palate, and its small size always left me with the trait all great chefs want their meals to provoke: desire.
I never graduated to the Famous Star, Western Bacon Cheeseburger or anything else from Carl's—the Junior Cheeseburger sufficed. As I grew older and the tapeworm in my stomach lengthened, I simply ordered three Junior Cheeseburgers. Even as I became a food critic, and I found other better, bigger, tastier hamburgers, none could compare. Life was great.
The last time I visited the Harbor/Romneya Carl's, I ordered my three cheeseburgers through the scratchy speaker as usual. I drove to the second window—as usual, I wondered why Carl's didn't use the first window anymore. A young man handed me the bag—heftier than usual. Intrigued, I opened it to find three large cheeseburgers. I unwrapped one of them. Instead of the egg bun, this burger featured a sesame bun bisected to look like an ass. The customary ketchup, mustard, patty and pickles were there, but so were some alien raw onion slices and a limp strip of lettuce. More important, this cheeseburger was about one and a half times bigger. One wouldn't satiate me; two would bloat my tummy.
I shifted my car into reverse and asked the cashier for the right order. "You ordered the cheeseburgers, and you got them," the teenage worker replied politely. I explained these weren't the cheeseburgers I ordered. "This is the only cheeseburger we have—unless you want the Famous Star," he said.
"What happened to the small cheeseburger, the one for kids?" I asked again. He assured me it was the smallest hamburger they had; I assured him it wasn't. My tapeworm squirmed inside, so I decided to give these new burgers a shot. I drove home.
Carl's new cheeseburgers have it all wrong. The addition of onions throws off the delightful tanginess of the condiment/pickle dance; the dry lettuce proves more a distraction than refreshment. And the sesame bun lacks the chewy, slight sweetness of the original egg bun. I could only grimace through half of this new burger before chucking it to my younger brother in disappointment.
I called my friend the following day. She works in Carl's Jr. and is privy to information and toys few others have. I like to bug her about the Carl's Jr. meals of yore—the sandwich with a weird jalapeño sauce, for instance, or the Junior Western Bacon Cheeseburger. That morning, I called demanding to know what happened to my cheeseburger.
"It's not coming back," she began, in the tone parents use when explaining to their children that Santa Claus doesn't exist. Apparently, consumers wanted a bigger cheeseburger than the Junior Cheeseburger—it just wasn't filling up the kiddies anymore—and so Carl's pulled it from production and replaced it with the bigger one. No one had complained except me. It wasn't coming back.
Life changes. People grow fatter, and industries shuffle to meet the needs of consumers. And Carl's Jr. no longer sells Junior Cheeseburgers. I accept these things—that's the way of the world. But allow me a moment to cry—and then I'll eat. Gotta feed that tapeworm, after all.
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