April 2009

Sake Challenge - Premium Sake Vs. McDonalds (Uh-Huh!)

Posted by Beau Timken in 2009, April, Newsletter, Sake Challenge


I am on a spiritual sake quest that will finally put a nail in the coffin of "sake can only be consumed at a sushi restaurant" mantra. Wake up people! Food and sake go together - always have and always will. If it has a tail, roots, feathers, leaves or a damn beak sake will go with it - anytime and any place. And that is my quest - the place or origin of the cuisine does not matter. It can be Spanish, Italian, Brazilian or ughhhh British chow and sake will walk the walk. Japan has chickens! Japan has salad! Japan has beef! Japan has spicy and savory dishes! Japan has sweet and salty fare, so why not think about having sake with these "tones" from other countries?





The Sake Challenge is my way for you great consumers to see outside of the sushi paradigm, and to achieve this "new view on brew" I will usually select two different sake styles and price-points and bring them to a non-Japanese restaurant with a celebrity, sake-sleuth or hell even a friend in tow. Read about past challenges:



When reviewing restaurants and their specific cuisines paired with sake I use the following criteria:


  • Works World Class (WWC)
  • Works Well (WW)
  • Works (W)
  • Does Not Work (DNW)


This criterion is more true to the mission of bringing a beverage to a restaurant not knowing what you will pair with. The point is to make the general pairings "work." Rare is the day that you bring a specific wine or sake to pair with a specific dish - we look for generalities and the entire eating/drinking experience. Think of fishing with a net as opposed to a hook and line - a pairing is supposed to reach out and catch more flavors as opposed to just hitting one match.


Sooooooooooooo we all knew this one was coming. Yup - it was destined! Sake and the Golden Arches - NO WAY! Yes. Why not take my project and sake to the heart of darkness - to the hell of the edible world - to the most comfortable of comfy foods - to the fastest of fast foods - really to the antithesis of hand-crafted and clean sake? Why not take nihonshu to McDonalds? Or as they say in Japan - Mac-ee-Don-Aldos!


But who would be crazy enough to go with me? I needed a real foodie - a go-to food writer with a passion for edible insanity. In a word I needed a valid voice - otherwise the pairing would read like some stoner's weird late-night munchi-fest. What is most impressive is that C.A. Devlen answered his phone on the second ring. He never answers his phone - ever. And he did. His last words on that call were "fate is a mo-fo," and I couldn't agree more. C.A. or "Chuck" as his close friends know him is a former food writer for Saveur and Bon Appetit, who now has his own syndicated "My Kitchen - Your Kitchen" radio program that he said is carried by over 120 radio stations throughout the US and Canada. He spends half the year in Napa and the other half in the south of France - and he won't tell me where!


So with C.A. committed I needed to pick two brews that would go with the "ultimate" Ray Krok adventure - a semi-fruity brew with big body and dry and crisp effort to hit the oils etc. Thus I decided upon the Kameyama "Turtle Mountain" Junmai Ginjo Genshu (SMV: +2 Acidity: 1.7) and the Kenkawa "Sword River" Tokubetsu Junmai (SMV: +7 Acidity: 1.4). But how in the hell would I get these sakes into a McDonalds without getting busted? C.A. recommended emptying and cleaning a Gatorade bottle and a water bottle. Genius!


We decided to hit a Mc-E-Dees south of SF, and settled upon a shiny greasy shrine in Serramonte. I said that we should go at an off-hour, so we could order in pieces without tons of customers and waiting in line. We arrived at 3:45, and were escorted out at 5:18PM - whoops - a little foreshadowing there! I had a cooler pack to keep the brews at a nice chilled temperature point, and put the more clear sake - Kenkawa - in the water bottle. (It looked like water - ta-dah!) On the drive over we agreed on what sandwiches to order. Yes - we game-planned - and thankfully so, as when you are at the counter with a bag-full of booze one tends to freak out and order something goofy - like a Filet'O Fish (wait we did order one.)


As I do not eat beef - C.A. was charged with the glorious task of ordering the hallmark of McDonalds - the Big Mac (in Japan Big-u mac- U). I decided upon the McChicken and the Chicken Nuggets (which is very much like chicken kara-age in Japan), and of course we got the fries (which used to have a beef powder on them for flavor enhancement). And some more foreshadowing - we also got a quarter pounder and that damn Filet'O Fish.


I am not particularly proud of what then transpired - no self- respecting "professional" should be, but I swallowed a lot of pride with that McChicken. Herewith is our pairing of sake and the all- American culinary experience:


  1. The Big Mac: As we were at an off-peak time C.A. said that the burger was hot and juicy. He said that the Ginjo had more body and stood up to the juices and the special sauce. The pickle and the catsup were "enhanced" by the fruit-forward Ginjo, and the meat blended well with the overall sip. But he said that the drier Junmai was a better "wash" for the entire bite. He said the starchiness of the three buns went better with the dryness of the Junmai. He said both brews did well, and that was pretty encouraging!
    • Ginjo = W
    • Junmai = WW


  1. The McChicken: The oily, salty, and mayonnaise flavors of the hot McChicken were better than I remembered. The sakes both held their own for different reasons. The dry Junmai really blended well with the oils of the greasy fish - a very nice savory play. The blandness of the bread was accentuated by the grainy Junmai. What surprised me was the fact that sweeter brew pulled the saltiness of the sandwich out, and the body of the Ginjo stood toe to toe with the mayo. Go figure. A very nice pairing all around. C.A. said that both brews enhanced the flavor of the chicken, and that the swallowing "was made easier" by the sakes.
    • Ginjo = WW
    • Junmai = W


  1. The Chicken McNuggets: In a word - Chicken McNuggets were made for sake. The oily, salty, savory and "greasy" elements all danced perfectly with both brews. Basically a McNugget is like pub food - chicken kara-age - and the sakes both enhanced the flavor by balancing the elements. Pretty impressive! What was even more "shocking" were the sauces. I selected the mustard and A.C. had the Bar-B-Q. Mustard and sake? You bet! Both brews pulled the vinegar-like qualities of the sauce and made for a smooth but zesty flavor. And A.C. said that the sweetness of the Ginjo pulled a mutual sweetness from the B-B-Q sauce, whereas the Junmai was a little over-powered because it lacked "body."
    • Ginjo = WWC
    • Junmai = WW

    NOTE: I do not know if it was the fact that we were drinking the sakes straight from plastic bottles or the fact that we were drinking quickly - but both "professionals" had at this point lost some composure and motor skills, as we were unable to taste and spit. (Drooling does not count as spitting) The QP was A.C.'s idea and as such he went up to order. He asked over his shoulder if I wanted anything else - he answered for me - "The Filet'O Fish - O- yah!"


  1. The Quarter Pounder: A.C. was in charge of the beef so the QP was his terrain. Sadly, when he returned from the counter with the QP and the Filet'O Fish he was wearing a black McDonalds baseball cap emblazoned with the Golden Arches. "How did you get that?" I asked. "They gave it to me." I believe it was at that exact moment when I said "ummmm good night everybody" after noticing that every member of the McD's "team" was looking at us. With his back to the counter A.C. proceeded to do his expert analysis - a bite, a sip of Gatorade - a bite, a sip of water - a bite, another sip of Gatorade. It looked very awkward. So much so that the manager of this particular establishment went back to his basic training - he loudly asked over the counter "What's that guy drinking?" With a mouth full of beef and bun and without missing a beat A.C. gurgled out "Gggrinjo."
    • Gggrinjo = W or WW or taster could not comment effectively
    • Junmai = Incomplete


  1. The Filet'O Fish: We never even opened the Filet'O Fish as the manager jumped into company policy action and came to us in a flash. "You drinking alcohol?" "No sir!" Gatorade. "Sorry no outside beverages!" "You sure that's Gatorade?" At this point my sake pairing wingman had gone into convulsions - fits of laughter so out of control all I could do was sit back and watch. His face was red and he had catsup and bun crumbs on his chin - a new low in the esteemed history of haute cuisine and sake pairing. We were asked to leave - to which my fellow taster replied, "Do you know who this man is?" pointing to me. The last words heard that day in our McTasting were "I don't care."


In Summary: 

The next time you do junk food be not afraid to mix in a premium sake.



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