First Taste: Our food critic visits CosMc’s, a futuristic concept from McDonald’s

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Louisa Kung Liu Chu | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — CosMc’s, a new futuristic concept from McDonald’s, secretively opened its first location near Chicago Thursday. The fast-food chain originally announced that the beverage-focused shop would open in Bolingbrook, Illinois, Friday.

Some locals, though, noticed small lawn signs posted on-site stating that it was open to the public — and possibly the media helicopters circling overhead. A line snaked through the adjacent mall parking lot until the wait peaked at around two-hours long.

Named for CosMc (pronounced “cosmic”), a little-known company character (a space alien who visited the fictional McDonaldland in the late 1980s and early ’90s), the theme essentially throws back to the McDonald’s drive-in origin story. Though, instead of milkshakes and hamburgers, customers can now order popping boba slushies and spicy queso sandwiches.

And it’s a drive-thru only. There is no indoor dining room, outdoor seating or walk-up window. There are also no restrooms, important for a beverage concept, but you are welcome to visit the McDonald’s next door, said a CosMc’s employee.

If you choose to go in these extremely busy early days, be prepared to wait. Eventually, you’ll find four drive-thru lanes with jumbo menu screens and speakers where you order and pay. The service staff was excellent and surprisingly energetic given the onslaught of opening-day orders.

What’s different is that you’re asked to wait at the speaker until your order is ready. The screen displays a red stop sign, until it changes to green with your pickup window number. My order was shockingly fast, about five minutes for 15 items. Friday morning, however, an order with only three items took nine minutes.

Online ordering is expected to begin in the coming weeks.

Until then, after you cruise by the glass front building that looks into the open kitchen, you can park in the small lot to eat, but very few customers did on opening night. In fact, I was the only one who did so for nearly an hour.

So how did it all taste?

CosMc’s offers a thought-provoking futuristic restaurant experience that’s not quite present in flavor.

I ordered from every menu category, including six drinks, the stars of this trippy new experience. Please note that this is not a review and will certainly not have stars. I usually wait at least a month to visit a new restaurant, then typically visit twice, and rate it on our four star system.

Here are my tasting notes on the 15 items I tried.

The Chai Frappé Burst drink at CosMc’s in Bolingbrook is shown on Dec. 8, 2023. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The one must-order item at the moment may be the Chai Frappé Burst, a blended ice drink poured over popping brown sugar boba and finished with whipped cream and cinnamon sprinkles. It’s a beautiful cross-cultural moment in a cup, aromatic with perfect bubble tea pearls.

A turmeric-spiced latte was also terrific, with espresso, gingery syrup and black pepper sprinkles. There doesn’t seem to be any turmeric, though, according to the ingredients. But that’s like its ubiquitous cousin the pumpkin spice latte, which doesn’t have pumpkin, just the spice.

The spicy queso sandwich, however, with a fluffy omelet, sausage patty, two cheeses and jalapeno chips on a small brioche bun, had me wondering, where’s the spicy and where’s the queso? Once I found the breaded jalapeno chips, which slid to the back, they delivered a nice kick and were the best thing about an otherwise bland breakfast sandwich.

A creamy avocado tomatillo sandwich, with egg, white cheddar and the thinnest cut bacon on brioche, didn’t fare much better with its runny green sauce.

The Popping Pear Slush, a prickly pear-flavored drink topped with whipped cream and popping candy, lacked much of any flavor, but the Pop Rocks-inspired carbonation was fun.

A s’mores cold brew, finished with toffee sprinkles, revealed one of my big pet peeves: Don’t call it s’mores unless it has at least the flavors of toasted marshmallow, melted chocolate and graham crackers. This had none of those.

But that wasn’t nearly as bad as the most highly touted of the so-called Signature Galactic Boosts, the Sour Cherry Energy Burst. It promised a tart cherry slush over fruity popping boba and an energy shot. I detected no sour nor cherry, just a black hole of syrupy sweetness. The bursting bubbles were the only saving grace.

The spicy queso breakfast sandwich at CosMc’s includes a fluffy omelet, sausage patty, two cheeses and jalapeno chips on a small bun. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Savory hash brown bites, however, won for the most insulting menu item. Four pieces for $2.39 — that’s about 60 cents for each limp piece of former potato. The order does include one dipping sauce, but the alleged spicy queso sauce is nothing more than what one might find on gas station nachos. What’s so puzzling is that McDonald’s hash brown, with its crunchy crust, is one of the great fast-food items.

Pretzel bites, also with one dipping sauce included, were fine, but the herb ranch is just the same ranch that’s at the main chain.

The Tropical Spiceade teased with hot-pink sweet heat lemonade topped with dried dragon fruit, but the fruit itself is mildly flavored at its best, which was not evident here. An employee wearing a CosMc’s branded yellow puffer jacket said it was her favorite beverage because it was an “Instagrammable moment.”

The caramel fudge brownie and blueberry lemon cookie sundae ended my tasting on a nice, sweet note.

And the McPops exceeded expectations. They’re small, soft doughnuts filled with Nutella-like chocolate hazelnut cream, Biscoff-style cookie butter or apple cinnamon. The McPops can often be found at the McDonald’s Global Menu restaurant at company headquarters in the West Loop neighborhood. That’s another baffling disappointment for a brand with the world’s best resources in its hands.

CosMc’s is a compelling look at what we perceive as a restaurant. Right now it’s nothing more than four drive-thru lanes and a box building with a front window that offers a glimpse into a kitchen that could be from a nostalgic past or a bright future — sometime when we hoped robots would take over the hard work for humans, and not humanity. Let’s hope for the former, and a better menu.

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