I imagine everyone at some point in their life experiences a sad stretch of time in which the food that’s available to them on a daily basis is disgusting, a kind of personal culinary dark age that’s as formative as it is scarring, a time you look back on later in life and marvel at the resilience of the human body and its ability to survive on little more than bad pizza, alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee. For me, that time was known as college.
One particularly awful day, when what was offered by the dining plan I was compelled to participate in as a condition of living on campus was particularly repulsive—also, I was incredibly hungover—I made my way to our lone campus cafe. The meal plan included a pittance attached to our student IDs, which, to add insult atop the insult and injury of the dining hall’s food, could only be used at the cafe. While the food there was bad, too, you could order what you liked à la carte, and the quality was a little better, if only because most of the stuff there came fresh out of a fryer. I stumbled into the empty cafe and ordered a breakfast sandwich and, because I was already treating myself to what passed as a luxury at that time, a hash brown. And then the guy making my sandwich taught me one of those enduring life lessons, the kind that sticks with you into your middle age, the kind that compels you to hoof it over to your local fast food franchise at exactly 10:55 am (on the weekdays) or 11:25 am (on the weekends) so you can enjoy both the breakfast and lunch menu simultaneously.
“You want the hash brown in the sandwich?” he asked.
“Is that allowed?” I responded, stupidly.
He chuckled and said it’s a specialty in some place that I can’t now recall—I alternate between believing it was Pittsburgh or Buffalo—and had some pithy name like the “gridiron” or the “knuckler” (I don’t know, I was very hungover). “It’s great; every sandwich gets better if you slide a hash brown in it,” he said, with a confidence that seemed a little unhinged to me at the time. Except, with respect to that egg sandwich, he was entirely right: the bad Aramark hash brown and the bad Aramark bacon and the substandard Aramark eggs and the completely acceptable Aramark American cheese slice and the bad Aramark bread combined to produce a sandwich that wasn’t just edible; it was delicious.
However good the combination is, it isn’t something I ever make at home, in part because the best potato product for this application is those flat, processed potato bricks that you can’t really make at home*, not the hash browns you can make with grated potato on your stovetop. And, as everyone knows, the best version of the manufactured hash brown product that exists in the entire world is the one sold at your local McDonald’s from time they open until, frustratingly, some time in the mid-morning.
*Just want to note that while you may think the same thing about that other great manufactured product known as chicken nuggets, “Mc” or otherwise, that isn’t true at all: Tim Chin’s homemade nuggets are better.
Now, I don’t have to tell you McDonald’s is bad. Everyone knows McDonald’s is bad. It serves unhealthy food; it treats its workers terribly. But it’s a pandemic. It’s a recession. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. Restaurants are dying in droves, and there’s no end to it. I’m not saying you should go to McDonald’s and eat their food, but I’m also not saying you shouldn’t go to McDonald’s, order a breakfast sandwich, and stick one of their very good hash browns in it—not to support some faceless multinational food corporation, no, but to give yourself a brief moment of pleasure in these awful, crazy, stupid times. Whether you do so or not I leave up to you and your personal ethics of consumption. Mine is tolerant enough of hypocrisy that I can eat there from time to time without feeling too bad about it; there’s a hash brown-sized hole in it, and it otherwise looks like a slice of Swiss cheese. Yours may be made of sterner stuff.
However, even the most ethical consumer might find a need to resort to ordering something from McDonald’s every once in a while, particularly when you’re in a dead zone of decent food—highway rest stops, say, or any airport in the United States, or, as is most frequently the case for me, the LIRR station at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn—places where there’s nothing at all that’s worth eating, purely from the perspective of gustatory pleasure. But if a McDonald’s is around and it’s still serving breakfast, know that there is a little light in that momentary culinary darkness, and that light is a breakfast sandwich with a hash brown slid into the muffin*.
** The breakfast sandwiches that don’t use the muffin? The ones with the folded egg slab (?) instead of the thing that seems like an actual egg? They aren’t worth a damn, to me, so we’ll speak no more of them, here.
This isn’t anything new, of course. Other food publications have covered this topic before, although without a McDonald’s focus (and in that, they made a grievous error of taste, if not ethics). Yes, the world has already been told that a hash brown added to an egg sandwich is a very good thing to eat.
But why stop with egg sandwiches?
Home from college, after that life-changing experience with the cafe cook, I found myself jet-lagged in Hong Kong, awake at 4 a.m. while my family slumbered on, so I went to the McDonald’s down the block, which was the only thing open at that time. Unlike the franchises in the United States, franchises in Asian countries typically offer the Filet-O-Fish for breakfast. If the McDonald’s hash brown is the best thing the company has created—and it is—the second best is the Filet-O-Fish, and I did what any reasonable human would do, and put them together.
You can imagine what it’s like—the soft bun, with its melted slice of American on one half and the blob of mayo-with-veg we know as tartar sauce on the other, encasing two fried patties, one oblong one of reconstituted potato mush and the other a square of flaky pollock that’s miraculously identifiable as once having actually been a fish—but I have to recommend you actually try it to get the full experience; it’s mystifyingly delicious. One of its most appealing qualities is the way it reveals the crispiness of the fish puck and the hash browns to be a lie: they aren’t crispy like a chicken cutlet or the outer edge of battered and fried chicken; they aren’t crispy in the way that crispy things feel like when they shatter against your teeth, like potato chips, or shrimp crackers; they aren’t crispy at all, really. Instead, when mushed up one against the other, what’s revealed is that they carry a suggestion of crispiness, sort of like if LaCroix has a crispy flavor, even while they’re soft as the doughy bun they’re encased by. It’s a weird trick, and I find it fun rather than disappointing. And of course the combination tastes good because everything in the bun is that signature fast food mix of sweet, salty, MSG-y, and fried.
It can be a little tricky getting both a hash brown and a Filet-O-Fish in the US, unless you’re near a franchise that offers the sandwich menu all day (lucky you). If you can’t get the hash brown and you’re thinking of trying French fries in its place, don’t do it. Look at this:
It looks unappealing, and it isn’t architecturally sound: You’ll pull whole fries (similarly uncrispy) out of the sandwich unless you exert a lot of pressure with each bite.
Instead, I suggest you do what I do, which I admit is simpler for me because I have a toddler and we typically start thinking about lunch around 11 am: Go to your local McDonald’s just before they switch over to the lunch menu, grab a hash brown, wait a few minutes, then order the Filet-O-Fish. You will feel awful after eating it, of course, and you may feel awful while eating it, too, but I don’t think anyone can deny the damn thing is delicious.