The aroma of day-old meatloaf hit me when I opened the cardboard clamshell encasing Arby's limited-time only Venison Sandwich, made with farm-raised New Zealand deer and available only on October 21st of this year.
According to Forbes, the sandwich sold out in under an hour in Minnesota and Georgia. But, paradoxically, revulsion compelled me to break my sacred lunch routine (don't ask), hop the light rail to the Sodo Arby's, and pay $10 to try this fast food foray into game.
Why was the sandwich so...thick? Was the real-life portion of venison going to be as...let's say as generous as the one shown in the advertisement? Was the steak going to blush medium-rare like that in real life? Do they...grill the meat somehow? I worked at Arby's for three years for reasons related to my origins in Belton, Missouri, and so I know they don't have a grill in the back. No way was it going to be good, right? Unless, maybe? Maybe Arby's Venison Steak sandwich could be good enough, or weird enough, to attain the cult status of the McRib, or Szechuan sauce, or the Zombie Frappuccino?
I went with a friend. He ordered the buffalo chicken sandwich with curly fries. I ordered the Venison Steak with curly fries. The manager who took our orders said "excellent choice" after we selected our meals, and we loved her for that.
As we waited for the food, I loaded up on Arby's sauce (<3) Horsey Sauce (<3<3) and noticed an older guy reading the newspaper on his lunch break from QFC. All kinds of people were hanging out quietly, and the scene reminded me a little of the old McDonald's on First Hill.
While my friend dug into his buffalo chicken, which he described as "the best version of this kind of sandwich that I've had at this kind of place," I bit into my deer steak sandwich.
As you can tell from the real-life photo above, the ad didn't lie about the thickness of the meat. And it turns out that the steak is cooked sous vide in garlic, salt, and pepper, and then re-heated at the restaurant. But none of that in any way compensated for the sandwich's overall foulness.
The meat tasted pre-chewed but also rubberized. After a little while it dissolved into an unnaturally grainy texture that gassed my mouth with gaminess. Then the "Juniper Berry Steak Sauce" asserted itself, sliming my tongue with an off-marmalade, brownly sour glaze. The fried onions offered no crunch and only added greasiness. I finished the whole thing out of a sense of duty, wondering if maybe the flavor just needed time to "develop." But no. It was all bad all the time. I polished off my curly fries for the sake of nostalgia and got out of there.
While eating, though, it was hard not to visualize myself making the sandwich as a high schooler back in Missouri—pulling the vacuum-sealed puck from the cooler, tossing it in the microwave for a prescribed amount of time, spreading the glaze over the star-cross bun, sprinkling the fried onions over the sauce, plopping the steaming hot meat on the toasted bottom bun, smashing the sandwich together and tossing it in the clamshell, and then sliding it down the sandwich chute, feeling proud of my efficiency and effortless grace during the process.
Though the sandwich I ate was awful, I honor the unacknowledged and fleeting artistry of the fast food service industry: those intricately folded foil wrappers, the perfect sine waves of icing on the apple turnovers, and the enduring patience harnessed by the drive-thru clerk.