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A McDonald’s in Huntersville is selling fancier, build-your-own burgers. But why?

I don’t spend a lot of time in McDonald’s, especially since I haven’t been a high school sports reporter. (It was my go-to, late-night, post-game WiFi spot.)

I can’t tell you the last time I ate a meal there. I’m usually just swinging through for a cheap sweet tea, maybe some fries.

But a McDonald’s in Huntersville — and possibly more down the line — wants to lure people like me into the dining room with the option of a fancier burger, like one with grilled onions and pepper jack cheese on ciabatta bread. Intrigued by the thought of a tasty burger, I felt compelled to check it out.

The obvious question to me was, “Why?” Why not stick with what McDonald’s is known for: The Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, Filet-O-Fish, the fries? Why get fancy?

“I think what we realized is people love our core sandwiches — Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, Filet-O-Fish, chicken nuggets — they love that. But they also want additional variety,” said Jeff Stanton, the Huntersville location’s owner/operator. “There’s a lot of fast casuals and people want to customize their sandwiches and we feel like this is a way for them to do that and still have the same great ingredients of McDonald’s.”

Hmm. OK. I’ll play along.

The new menu, called “Create Your Taste,” is being tried in various locations all over the country. The first in the region to offer it is the new Cane Creek Drive restaurant in Huntersville. (One is coming to Lenoir this week.)

Here’s the deal:

Order: Only available in-store (not drive-thru) and you can order at a big touch screen. A worker should be there to greet and help you. (Shout out to Antoine Vail for being an awesome guide.) You then get a little disc to sit on the table and a server brings the food to you.

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Options: Start with the meat (burger, grilled chicken or fried chicken), then choose bread (or a lettuce wrap, if you want), cheese (options like shaved parmesan and white cheddar), toppings (things like grilled onions, grilled tomato and guacamole) and sauce (there’s your standard ketchup and mustard, but you can also get sriracha mayo, sweet onion BBQ and more).

(You can still just order from the regular menu.)

Cost: Depends on what you get, obviously, but Stanton said it’s only about 50 cents to $1 more than a comparable sandwich on the regular menu. My burger (see below) with fries and a drink cost $6.69 before tax.

Time: It takes longer to get your food– 8-10 minutes, according to the kiosk — because everything is being made and put together after you order it. (Mine took about 8 minutes.)

Food: The meat’s the same meat you get on a normal sandwich, but instead of cooking it as fast as possible on a “clam shell” grill, it’s being cooked slower, one side at a time on a flat-top grill. Which makes you wonder: If that makes for a better burger, why weren’t they doing it in the first place?

“The goal for McDonalds is for people to look at us like we want, which is we’re a restaurant that serves great food,” Stanton said.

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Here’s what I got:

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A quarter-pound burger with pepper jack cheese, grilled tomato, grilled onions, lettuce, mayonnaise and ketchup on a butter toasted artisan roll, fries and a drink. (I also got some of the sriracha mayo on the side — Vail twisted my arm.)

Everything comes in wire baskets, including the classic McDonald’s fries. (Don’t worry — They haven’t messed with those.)

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Stanton got a grilled chicken sandwich with the shaved parmesan and crispy onions on ciabatta. Here it is.

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The verdict

It was … pretty good, actually I legitimately enjoyed my lunch. I ate all of it. The patty was juicy and more flavorful than I expected. The toppings and cheese all melded nicely. The bun was more substantial than the standard McDonald’s ones, with a slight buttery flavor that I kinda liked.

It wasn’t the best burger I’ve ever had, but it’s probably the best McDonald’s burger I’ve ever had. It exceeded my — admittedly low — expectations.

But I still have the question: “Why?” Why would I come get this burger at a McDonald’s when I can get something similar — or better — at other places?

“What sandwich options are out there for lunch? There’s Five Guys, there’s all the local places in Charlotte,” Stanton said. “I think what’s nice for us is: convenient location, I know I can count on McDonald’s to get me in and out in a reasonable amount of time.

“If I want a customized sandwich I can get it but my whole party doesn’t have to get it. My daughter can get a chicken nugget happy meal. I can get a parmesan peppercorn grilled chicken, so to me it’s like that best-of-both-worlds experience where, hey, I can go to McDonald’s but I can also venture out a little bit.”

Will it catch on? We’ll see.

Photos: Corey Inscoe

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