What It Is: Arby’s new venison sandwich
Who Tried It: Alex Heigl, PEOPLE.com associate editor
Arby’s, as you may or may not have heard, has the meats. In their latest effort to offer the flesh of every beast under the dominion of man on a bun for popular consumption, this now includes venison.
Topped with crispy onion straws and served on a pillowy-but-crunchy bun, Arby’s venison sandwich is—spoiler alert—surprisingly tasty. Confession time: Despite growing up in central Pennsylvania, a state which James Carville once described as “Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, with Alabama in between,” my experience with venison is largely through deer jerky, rarely steaks. (The first day of deer season where I grew up was something of a holiday — people would go missing from work, school, with nary a second glance from their superiors.)
There’s a reason for this, Arby’s Executive Chef Neville Craw explained to me. “I started out looking out for a source [of venison] in the United States, thinking ‘Gosh, deer are everywhere,’ but there’s no facility or farm the USDA has approved [for venison] in the United States. So in order to sell it for food service or retail, you really have to go outside the U.S.” The solution for Arby’s? New Zealand, of all places, who simply have the space and resources to breed restaurant-quality venison.
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Venison — probably thanks to its reputation as jerky fodder — often has a reputation as gamy or chewy, but Craw and his team came up with a solution for that. Their venison is marinated, seared, and then subjected to several hours of a sous-vide process that Craw says helps to break down some of the gaminess and toughness of deer meat. (A portion of that reputation, he says, also comes from wild North American deer’s diet, but the New Zealand deer are, obviously, eating a lot better than their wild-roaming counterparts.) And it works: The sandwich is a uniformly medium level of doneness throughout the entire cut, just pink enough to yield an appetizing chew-factor without being, well, unappetizing. In fact, I would have been hard-pressed to identify it as venison in the first place.
“I had not had a great experience with venison myself,” Craw says, “until I found this product myself.” And with fourteen years at Arby’s behind him (as well as a degree in marketing to bolster his culinary school credentials), I believe him. Trying to track down one of the limited-run venison sandwiches at your local Arby’s may be an experience akin to an actual hunting trek, but it’s worth it. We’ll just have to see if Craw and Arby’s take my suggestion for the next animal to bring into the fold: Alligator.