A Hamburger Today
Baconalia: Denny's Does Bacon 7 Ways
"Without question, the maple bacon sundae is the breakout hit of Baconalia."
Last week, Denny's unveiled Baconalia—a 10-week celebration of everyone's favorite pork product. During those weeks, seven new limited-time offer menu items will feature bacon in ways both expected and unexpected: from a BLT and a bacon-packed breakfast plate to slightly wackier items like Bacon Flapjacks and Maple Bacon Ice Cream.
As part of the promotion, Denny's Corporation invited me on an all-expenses paid trip to their headquarters in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to preview the LTOs. (Limited-time offerings, in corporate-speak.) In truth, these sorts of press events are only so helpful when it comes to learning about the food; each takes place under the guise of the corporate team and often includes the head chef of the restaurant empire. Though you receive the same food, in terms of raw ingredients, as at any spot in the chain, what you're getting certainly isn't prepared by a 17-year-old with ten minutes of experience. Someone working directly under or trying to impress the C-level execs makes the food. What you want to know is what you'll be eating in-store. So immediately after returning from Spartanburg, I headed out to Brick, New Jersey, to try Baconalia at a Denny's in the wild.
For those who, like me, are Latin-impaired, Baconalia is a twist on the Roman term Bacchanalia, essentially drunken wine festivals; what's Denny's celebration of bacon? Its regular hickory-smoked bacon, its turkey bacon, and a new pepper bacon, in all sorts of dishes and permutations.
As the executives told me, the regular old bacon hasn't changed: it's still thin and crispy, like it always was, and 100% American-produced (they've got an East Coast supplier and a West Coast supplier). They confessed they tested a thicker bacon, but their customers preferred the thin and crispy style. Though I tend to prefer thick, chewy bacon, but I like theirs, and think it carries a good amount of hickory flavor. Though there is some liquid injection of salt, nitrates, and phosphates, the hickory flavor comes 100% from the smoking process.
Taste-Testing In The Field
Their turkey bacon I find delicious: it's limp, but flavorful and meaty, with a reddish hue almost like ham. Yum. The peppered bacon I enjoyed as well: crisp and a bit smoky, with a light peppery finish. The pepper joins the bacon early on in the game. "The spices are rubbed on the meat before it is smoked," Executive Chef Scott Richard told me. This isn't just dusted like a margarita glass, folks.
As for the Baconalia menu items, two are very similar: the Pepper Bacon and Eggs and the Ultimate Bacon Breakfast. The latter features six strips of the hickory-smoked bacon with two eggs, hashbrowns, and choice of bread. (What's better than two strips of bacon? That's right, six.) It's an awful lot of food for $6.99. The Pepper Bacon and Eggs is essentially the Ultimate Bacon Breakfast with only two strips of peppered bacon. For $4.99, it's a pretty good deal as well. Denny's usually gets the eggs right, too. (My girlfriend put back ours before I got a bite—she has no respect for the work I do—but she vouches for the eggs over-easy: set whites, runny yolks.)
Of the bacon-and-egg dishes, the Triple Bacon Sampler was my favorite: two strips of all three bacons, two eggs, and hashbrowns with cheddar cheese and crumbled bacon on top. Denny's tries to keep the bacon crispy, and that's how they served it at the headquarters in Spartanburg. In New Jersey, however, it came chewier, fattier, and still greasy (all of which I prefer). Score one for Jersey; I thought the less shatter-crisp bacon made for a better plate of food. The hashbrowns had a great brown crisp on the outside, but the insides tasted a little undercooked. But the outside cooked layer with cheese and bacon? Delicious.
In the more bizarre department, the Bacon Flapjacks are two pancakes with bacon crumbles sprinkled inside, as if they were chocolate chips or blueberries. Denny's actually gets the bacon-to-pancake ratio almost perfect: the texture is decisively pancake, and the bacon only adds a bit of crunch and a bacon-flavored accent. But Denny's pancakes are bland to begin with, and need some sort of addition: syrup, whipped cream, chocolate chips, or fruit. Often, a chocolate chip pancake or a blueberry pancake doesn't necessitate syrup, but can ride on the texture and flavor of the addition. In the case of the Bacon Flapjacks, though, the pancakes themselves are so dull that they need syrup even with the meat piled in. I'd love to try this idea with better pancakes, but Denny's weren't it.
Denny's Bacon Meatloaf is the most expensive item on the menu ($8.49), geared at the dinner crowd. The meatloaf is made with beef, green peppers, onions, and bacon, and then topped off with hickory ketchup and more crumbled bacon. Mine came burnt almost to a crisp, with a strange shell that made it seem as if it had been deep-fried. It reminded me more of Salisbury Steak from the school cafeteria than of meatloaf. The hickory ketchup added hickory and smoke flavor to what I thought was a rather unappealing item—but there was way too much of it. The bacon crumble helps add actual bacon flavor, as opposed to just flavors we associate with bacon. (It comes with its choice of sides; the Spinach with Pico de Gallo and Bacon was actually a good addition, tasty and spicy.)
On the lighter side, Denny's offers a BBBLT, eight strips of bacon, with lettuce, tomato and mayo on toasted potato bread. I like the addition of potato bread, as it adds a little more interest than plain white bread; but the tomatoes (no surprise in March) are pink and flavorless, and the mayo ends up melting in a strange way because they put it next to the bacon. It's somewhat unappealing, but it does come packed with bacon. In this sandwich, I feel like they focused a little too much on the Leading Actor, rather than building a strong supporting cast around it.
The star of the show is the Maple Bacon Sundae. It's nothing more than the sum of those parts: Vanilla ice cream, maple syrup, and their standard bacon crumbled on top. It may sound weird to some of you, I know, but trust me on this one—the bacon crumble serves the same crunchy-salty role as peanuts on a sundae. There is an interesting textural contrast between the thick, very creamy ice cream, warm syrup, and crunchy bacon, and the bacon leaves a salty aftertaste on a very sweet base. That took a little getting used to, but by the end I was really into it. Without question, the maple bacon sundae is the breakout hit of Baconalia.
Some of these menu items might initially appear wacky, but they work. However, I wouldn't drive back to Brick, New Jersey to try any. If you happen to pass a Denny's, the Maple Bacon Sundae is certainly worth stopping for. Everything else was just variations on a theme.
Disclosure, disclosure: Transportation and accommodation to Denny's World Headquarters were provided at no cost. The food discussed here, however, except where explicitly identified otherwise, was purchased at full cost at a garden-variety roadside Denny's. #Bi-Winning.