Tastelessness, Napkin-lessness, and Other Perils of Eating Barbecue at Starbucks

A woman in a green apron called out my name over the chatter of the people and the speakers' corporate reggae.

“Mike? Mike?”

Squeezing my way through the crowd to where she'd stood, I found a white paper bag waiting for me, with “Mike” and “BBQ” scrawled across it in black marker. I snatched it off the counter. It was warm and moist in my hand, and I took it back to my table, feeling deeply ashamed.

Having grown up in one of the country's best spots for barbecue, it was with great reluctance that I went to my nearest Starbucks on a recent afternoon to have a barbecue sandwich for lunch. You read that correctly: barbecue, at Starbucks.

[jump] The global coffee chain announced the addition to its menu earlier this month, right on the heels of the decision to close all 23 locations of La Boulange. Although the bakery is about to bite the dust, Starbucks is forging ahead into the world of fast casual dining, trying to grab market share with offerings like the beef brisket sandwich.

And so, after several days of working up my nerve, I found myself staring at a lump of meat and bread in a glass case next to a little sign that read “BBQ Beef Brisket On Sourdough,” wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into. I whisper-mumbled my order to the cashier, trying not to be overheard, and she smiled and said, “Hang on, let me check to see if we have any more.”

Disappearing through a swinging metal door, I could see her digging through a freezer in the back. She returned with a whitish little frozen square hermetically sealed in clear plastic wrap. “Last one!” she said, holding it up for me to see.

About $7 and 90-seconds-in-an-oven later, she transferred the sandwich to a white mermaid-printed bag, and brought it to the counter. I retrieved it as stealthily as I could, and, after discovering that all the napkin holders were empty (a cardinal sin for any place that sells barbecue), decamped to a table in the corner, where I hoped to avoid prying glances.

Tearing open the bag, I saw that the whitish frozen block had transformed into something I could only think to describe as rather like a pile of cat vomit, on toast. The Sonoma Jack cheese clung to the waxy paper; I took an uncertain bite. 

The sourdough, an homage to the sandwich's creators' West Coast roots, was soggy, and the “slow-cooked beef brisket” and “Gordon Biersch beer-braised onions” inside had fused into a meaty mush. Chewing thoughtfully, I considered the slight bite that hit the tongue at first taste. Not quite spicy, not quite tangy, and not really smoky, either. None of barbecue’s typical flavors seemed to fit the BBQ Beef Brisket. Whatever that almost-tang was, it tasted like desperation, a half-hearted attempt to define itself as bold that, in the end, was too fraught with insecurity to be believable. I chewed some more.

Within seconds, I noticed, the taste had all but disappeared. I took another bite, and the same thing happened — that initial sort-of-tang, and then: nothing. As I chewed and chewed each successive bite, it became increasingly clear that, apart from its chewiness, this sandwich lacked any other defining characteristic. It was so discretely flavorless that, unless you had actually come to eat the sandwich, and taste it and think about it — in other words, unless you were really paying attention — you would hardly even notice what it was you’d just eaten.

And while fast food could just as easily be called forgettable food, the reality of the BBQ Beef Brisket on Sourdough is somewhat more disturbing when you consider that Starbucks is branding it as “the ultimate taste of San Francisco.” In a way, this sandwich represents what happens when regional cuisine gets gobbled up by a corporation and re-produced at mass volumes — despite all the city’s nuanced culinary offerings, soggy sourdough and Sonoma cheese come to serve as a stand-in for SF’s food culture.

In fairness, Starbucks isn’t alone in the practice; they just happen to be really good at it. They’ve boiled down the corner-coffee-shop ethos to such an exact science that it has, in many cases, replaced the original thing. Looking around the store, I wondered if anybody else was aware of the imitation (there was an independent coffee shop literally next door). Then the cashier’s words echoed back to me — “Last one!” — and it scared me to think that perhaps no one else cared.

A pimply kid in a tie-dye shirt stood near the counter, picking his nose and watching me. He looked away when I saw him, and to both of our reliefs, the barista delivered his 30 oz. chocolate-coffee shake a second later, giving him an excuse to leave. I crumpled up the paper bag before anyone else could see, tossed it in the trash, and headed back to my cube. 

MIke Vangel is a writer, eater, and drinker. He tweets at @mike_vangel

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