In praise of . . . Carl’s Junior?

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Now there’s a headline I never thought I’d write. Before last weekend, I’d never eaten at a Carl’s Junior. I’m grossed out by the idea of industrial meat (anyone seen Food Inc.?) and, while I’m not a vegetarian, I try to primarily eat meat from animals that I think were raised in a humane way. But there are times when even the most adamant of McDonald’s haters can be tempted by the siren song of processed food.

And those times are road trips.

Last weekend, after my pump-in-the-toilet fiasco, my husband and I were on our way back from Yosemite National Park and got hungry for lunch. California’s Central Valley might grow ingredients for salads, but the establishments that line its highways do not serve them — so we were eventually left with what I considered two unappealing options: Jack in the Box, or Carl’s  Jr.

Jack in the Box was out of the question. Many years ago — 15? 20? — there was a nationwide scare over Jack in the Box. Perhaps you remember it; I believe it had something to do with a rat’s foot ending up in a hamburger.  All I know is that I was grossed out, and that since then, every time I see the Jack in the Box logo, I think of minced rodents. I don’t care how much time passes (or the fact that similar rat catastrophes happen in meat processing plants all the time): I’m never eating there.

Carl’s Jr. it was. And on its menu, I believe I found a near-perfect diabetic road trip food: the “Low-Carb Six-Dollar Hamburger”  (offered, confusingly, for less than six dollars). What makes this low-carb? They replace the bun with lettuce.

I was doubtful at first. I’m so grossed out the idea of fast-food meat that I actually welcome the idea of a bun — not so much because I think they’re worth the carbs, but because they hide some of the texture and taste of the meat. I worried that if I were to get the low-carb burger, stripping down my meat’s protective layers until only a sheath of iceberg lettuce remained, I might not be able to finish it. Let’s put it this way: if there’s a rat foot in my hamburger, I’d prefer not to taste it.

But I was pleasantly surprised. My burger came carefully swaddled in green, pickles and sauces kept contained by a well folded leaf. What’s more, it actually tasted good. Not good enough that I’m going to give up my salad-eating ways and dive into the murky world of American fast-food eating, but good enough that this first visit to Carl’s Junior is likely not to be my last.

Also worth noting: It’s not on the menu, but In-and-Out offers the same lettuce leaf option. Just ask for your burger “Protein Style.”

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You’re a very brave woman. I would have just starved and drank coffee.

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