6845 Main St., Williamsville, NY 14221
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"Although we certainly prefer Arby's to its sister chain Wendy's, the prospect of combining these two restaurant chains into one strikes us as potentially exciting."
Before we say anything else about Arby's, we want to make one thing clear: it mightn't be the biggest or the most popular fast food restaurant chain out there, but we like it. For years, the roast beef-focused Arby's has been all but ignored during fast food wars that have centered on burgers, yet it has remained a consistently good place to grab a meal, with a couple of menu items that are as good as anything served in the fast food industry. It's also well-represented in Western New York. The Arby's chain has only a little over half the outlets of its sister company Wendy's, which is nationally the third-largest fast food chain, but in Western New York, the two chains each have roughly 10 locations - at least, for now. In 2008, Arby's parent Triarc purchased Wendy's during a downturn in business, and a week ago, the combined Wendy's/Arby's Group announced that it would be testing combined locations to "save expenses." Given that Wendy's has enjoyed some success with its burgers, and Arby's has comparatively excellent milkshakes and french fries, could a complete merger of these two restaurants be far behind?
Though the star attraction at this 45-year old chain is supposed to be its plainly-named Roast Beef Sandwiches, Western New Yorkers have had their own, superior alternative in the Beef on Weck for years, so for as long as we've remembered, it's been all but impossible to discuss Arby's around here without getting into the "but that's not really roast beef" conversation. This conversation starts with a negative comment about the meat quality relative to any one of a number of restaurants, and depending on the age of the person, it may continue with the sound of a whinny and a reference to Bailo's Tavern, a local place that was apparently caught serving horse meat sandwiches before it burnt down decades ago. The implication, of course, is that the vaguely cowboy-themed Arby's was doing the same, and for whatever reason, we've never been able to get the picture out of our heads; the old stories come up every time an Arby's employee mentions "Horsey Sauce."
But from our perspective, there's no need to denigrate Arby's roast beef in order to praise our hometown favorite. The sandwiches actually have little in common, flavor-wise, and we've never viewed Arby's as any greater threat to the Beef on Weck than a hamburger. It's just a sandwich, with "Junior," "Regular," "Medium," and "Large" versions that look identical but for size, each a pile of thin-sliced, warm, and nearly rubbery beef that's ever so slightly browned at the edges, served on a sweet, quality bun that's coated in sesame seeds. You can add sauces - cue the galloping - if you want, but they're not necessary, and a "Super" version includes lettuce and tomatoes, plus a red sauce. Those looking for something more elaborate can also choose from Beef and Cheddar versions that come with onion-flecked buns, a gooey topping of liquid cheddar cheese, and more of the same meat.
To be unambiguous on this point, neither the standard nor the deluxe sandwiches is anything great by local standards - one of us likes them, while the other struggles to call them even good - but the combination of the slightly salty meat and sweet buns is if nothing else an interesting contrast with the Beef on Wecks we love. After our most recent visit, however, one of us has sworn off of the Beef and Cheddar on the grounds that the cheese quality is poor, and the onion bun isn't as tasty as the standard sesame version; we'd stick with the less deluxe sandwiches. They're a lot less expensive, too. When Arby's runs its five sandwiches for $5 promotions, it's possible to feed a small family on a budget of $10 to $15; try doing that at any local Beef on Weck shop and you'll run out of cash at sandwich one or two.
So if the roast beef isn't the big draw here, what is? Unlike Wendy's, which occasionally debuts a new menu item with as much impact as a tree falling in an empty forest, Arby's has historically done a very good job of making and introducing compelling side dishes. Its version of french fries - Curly Fries - combine the perfect level of seasoning and saltiness with fun-to-eat spiral shapes, a recipe that we consider to be best-of-breed by fast food fry standards. Outside of Western New York, chains such as Jack in the Box and Carl's Jr. offer similarly flavored fries as an alternative to traditional ones; at Arby's, they're the only fries offered, and the only ones needed. More recently introduced by Arby's were Loaded Potato Bites, deep-fried triangular mixes of potato, cheese, and bacon that manage to taste like all three - a little light on the bacon, heavy on the cheesy potatoes - and include a ranch dressing for dipping. We've tried dozens of similar items at various fast food and non-fast food restaurants, and like the Curly Fries, these just deliver exactly what you'd expect in terms of texture and flavor.
That said, chicken items have been somewhat of a challenge for Arby's, albeit not for the standard reasons. Years ago, Arby's introduced chicken strips that were a lot more expensive than comparable offerings at Burger King and McDonald's, but unquestionably better: full chicken breast meat was used along with a most likely unhealthy but wonderfully crispy golden batter, and a zesty dark brown barbecue sauce that we preferred to any other fast food chain's. In short, Arby's was selling the equivalent of perfectly made restaurant-quality chicken strips, at a slightly lower price. But people - including us - didn't want to pay near-restaurant prices for fast food, so a legitimately great product stagnated. Arby's recently acknowledged this reality, and has replaced its bigger, pricier chicken offerings with Popcorn Chicken, essentially nugget-sized chunks of breast meat with a good enough batter and the same dipping sauces. They're not quite as good as before, but they're better in quality than what McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy's are serving as tenders and McNuggets these days.
To us, Arby's other major highlights are its milkshakes, most specifically the Jamocha shake, which historically has been a coffee-heavy combination of java and mocha chocolate flavors. In California, these shakes were consistently strong in delicious, slightly sour coffee flavor, but for whatever reason, virtually every location we've visited in Western New York prepares them with too little if any coffee; the result is something nearly if not exactly equivalent to a plain chocolate shake. But there are signs that local locations are on the road to improvement: Arby's has switched to clear cups for the shakes, and has employees splash the sides of the cups with the coffee and chocolate syrup, which helps a bit with the flavor. We're not 100% thrilled with the quality of the result - we used to love these so much that our daughter was gestated at approximately 53% Jamocha shake by weight - but by fast food milkshake standards, Arby's is still a top option. Other beverages, including the chain's recently introduced fruit-flavored teas, are quite good for those who aren't looking to pack on the pounds.
In all candor, although we certainly prefer Arby's to its sister Wendy's - enough that we wouldn't shed a tear if Wendy's stores just converted over to Arby's - the prospect of combining these two restaurant chains into one strikes us as potentially exciting: each brand has gaping holes in its menu that the other could fix, and in the event of a true menu merger, Western New Yorkers would have a fast food option with enough diversity and quality to really compete with the surging West Coast chains. Technical issues and franchisee resistance might well delay or prevent such an event, but in our view, it's worth doing - moreso than the combined Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell restaurants that have been underway in various forms for years. Readers, what do you think?