Note: This guest review was written by our internet buddy Russ Shelly from What’s Good at Trader Joe’s.
Tension and anticipation filled the cool early morning, day after Thanksgiving air. The nervous glances and small talk only added to the edge. The crowd was gathering, just moments before opening, and we all knew what we there for. The only question was, who would be first, and who would be left empty-handed. There were just limited quantities, after all. We all knew it.
Slowly, the manager approached. The door was going to be unlocked. This was the moment. We all pressed in, just waiting for that click…
The kindly manager opened the door, nervously smiled and cheerfully said, ”Welcome to Arby’s!”
What, you thought we were lining up at Macy’s on Black Friday for $50 off an at-home hair removal kit? Don’t be ridiculous, this was all about the Arby’s Venison Sandwich being testmarketed at select stores only.
Gotta say it: For this sandwich, Bambi’s mom has got it going on. It’s a very simple construct: A 5.5-ounce slab of marinated deer steak, a semi-generous splash of juniper sauce, and onion straws all held by the typical Arby’s star cut bun used in their other specialty sandwiches.
Let’s break it down, starting with the obvious star: the venison. Apparently from farm-raised deer in New Zealand, the meat is marinated in a simple spice blend of garlic, salt and pepper, with the pepper being the strongest element. The steak is slow cooked, sous-vide style, for several hours resulting in a tender, medium-well cooked steak that is lean without any elements of stringiness or chewiness. If you’re not familiar with venison as an edible meat, think high quality beef, and that’s a decent enough approximation for the uninitiated. There’s not a lot of inherent gamey flavor, which some will see as a plus.
The sauce and straw sidekicks really add to the overall appeal. It’s a sweet-style barbecue flavor for the sauce, with juniper berries adding a unique, slightly sweet yet tart tinge. Maybe the berries were my deer’s last meal. That’s…perhaps morbid. But it’s a good thing, as the berry flavor adds a “wild” dimension that a typical BBQ sauce wouldn’t. The onion straws put in a clean, crispy bite, with a little grease, with the onion flavor helping bridge the gap between the garlic and pepper of the deer and the sweetness of the sauce. In a lot of ways, the onion straws are like Lebowski’s rug: easy to overlook, but they really tie it all together. No cheese or lettuce or tomato here, and none are needed.
If there’s a weak spot for the sandwich, it’s the bun. Not that it’s bad bread – it isn’t. But it’s much bigger than the deer steak, and while it’s up to the task of holding it all together without getting overwhelmed, the overall feel of the sandwich is that it’s a tad too bready. Where the steak was a little thinner, or there wasn’t as much onions or sauce, the bread really took over and dampened the much more flavorful elements.
The Arby’s Venison Sandwich was rolled out in a testing phase in only 17 Arby’s locations nationwide, most of them in popular hunting areas. Gathering by the amount of camo in the crowd, and the fact that I had only about the fourth most impressive beard (male division), it’s a hit. Within twenty minutes, the store I was at (Bellevue, PA) had sold out of at least 75 percent of its allocated inventory…and that is slow sales compared to other restaurant sites. But then, again, it was 10:20 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, so much of the nation was either a) shopping for $5 off electronic toothbrushes or b) recovering from riding the turkey-and-gravy train from the day before.
I’ll admit I wasn’t even hungry when I sat down to eat the sandwich, but when my first was polished off, it was good enough for me to consider having my second right then and there. I settled for taking it home and reheating for dinner, which worked better than one would expect.
Gauging by the enthusiasm of the rest of the dining room as well as the friendly Arby’s managers roving around asking for input, there seems to be a good shot of the venison sandwich catching on as a much wider release. It’s superb meatcraft, and I already can’t wait for the commercials with that deep gravelly booming voice.
Here’s to hoping that in 2017 the venison will be coming to an Arby’s near you.
(Nutrition Facts – Not available.)
Purchased Price: $5 (test market price)
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Expertly made venison. Awesome sauce. Being lucky enough to eat not one but two of these before any of you even had a chance.
Cons: A bit too bready at points. Reliving the death of Bambi’s mom.