Tuesday, February 7, 2017

You Can Has Cheezburger: A Semi-Definitive Tier Ranking of Burgers Across America

God bless you, cheeseburger, especially ye what hail from In N Out
Photo Credit: TH
The hamburger/cheeseburger has roots in German cuisine (look up the Hamburg steak), but the sandwich as mostly everyone knows it is an American invention. Whether you believe it was created in Texas or New Haven, CT or wherever, the burger is in the American Food Pantheon along with the hot dog and the apple pie. It's perhaps the most ubiquitous fast food in the country, whether in pure fast food places, mid-tier, quasi-sitdown joints, or as the "fast" or "cheap" option at a regular restaurant. So needless to say, America has an overabundance of burgers. Granted, everyone has their favorite local burger joint. Every town has a great place to get a piece of ground-up meat slapped inside a bun with cheese and possibly other toppings. However, some joints are nationwide or at least partially nationwide. I will attempt to rank the ones you can get in more than just a few locales.

Steak n Shake - I've heard good things about the Indiana favorite, but I've never been far enough on the road past Ohio to try it out. Please don't hurt me, American heartland.

Culver's - Another Midwestern joint that comes highly rated that I just haven't been to.

Krystal - This Georgia franchise apparently does the sliders like White Castle. I hope they do it better.

Cookout - This is the place I wanna try the most out of the ones I've heard of. No one who has gone to Cookout has come back with less than rave reviews.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries - Five Guys is put up as the East Coast's answer to In N Out, which is hilarious now that I've had In N Out. It's more expensive, for one. Two, the buns they use are barely baked through. Three, one can expect a burger to be greasy, but this place's oil content puts the Exxon Valdez spill off to shame. Five Guys is the confluence of everything bad in burgerdom. If you like it, hey, more power to you I guess, but I'd rather eat my kids' Play-Doh shaped as a burger. Oh, and even though this is strictly about burgers, their fries are trash too.

White Castle - White Castle is the OG in terms of the "slider," which is actually not a bad concept in and of itself. Nearly everything is better bite-sized, and hey, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is a modern-day idiot humor classic. But the actual meat in White Castle burgers tastes a bit off, almost freezer-burnt. Also, the grease quotient is higher than I'd like it to be. But I mean, I wouldn't pass them up if they were given to me for free.

Ruby Tuesday - I know it changes its menu like once a quarter, but Ruby Tuesday is and is mostly known as an "upscale" burger place above all else, and honestly, I've never been all that impressed with its offerings. I almost feel like I can get a better burger at Wendy's, and for the price and the trappings, that's kind of embarrassing. The salad bar was always cool though.

Hardee's/Carl's Jr. - Honestly, this placement might be shaded a bit negatively by the fact that the last time I had it, both my wife and I ran into the bathroom within seconds of getting out of the car. It was good, but not worth the gastrointestinal distress, y'know?

Sheetz - The Pennsylvania Convenience Store War is long and storied. I will always be Hashtag Team Wawa, but one thing Sheetz has going for it is the availability of hot junk food like, well, burgers. I've had quite a few gas station burgers, and honestly, Sheetz laps nearly every other "convenience" burger and actually compares quite favorably to actual fast food burger joints. Diversity in toppings is a huge plus too.

McDonald's - Ah yes, the OG of national burger-slingin' fast food joints, McDonald's actually doesn't deserve all the hate it gets nationally. Well, it does deserve the hate for being a monolithic corporate entity with monopolistic leanings, but the burgers actually aren't as bad as one might be led to believe. Maybe it's just because I have kids who love Happy Meals now, but I do enjoy a Mickey D's burger every now and again.

A&W - Honestly, it's not that I think A&W's burgers are particularly good or mediocre. They're just sorta forgettable next to the root beer floats and cheese curds. But I don't remember hating them and that's good enough for "decent."

Burger King - The maxim was that while McDonald's fries were always superior, Burger King had the better namesake, and it's true. Flame broiling, even in assembly line mass production style, produces a better taste on average. Plus, BK always had bacon, while McDonald's was late to the game. Just stay away from the fries and get the onion rings.

Wendy's - I used to think Wendy's was the best fast food burger by far, but the grease quotient has gone up substantially over the years. Still, the quality in beef is a lot higher than the other two big places. I guess getting it fresh does make a difference.

Sonic - I appreciate that Sonic offers burgers on toast as well as buns. I also appreciate that it has tots in addition to fries, but again, this is strictly burgers and not burgers-plus-accouterments. Anyway, Sonic's burgers have the right amount of toppings on it to go with the actual meat.

Whataburger - I think I was harder on Whataburger when I had it because it puts really strong yellow mustard as standard, and I HATE yellow mustard. However, take it off, and Whataburger has a perfectly fine burger to get while you're in the great state of Texas.

Good Burger - Haha, just a little burger humor to lighten up your day.

Jack in the Box - When I went to Texas for the first time, I was amazed at how good Jack in the Box burgers were. I think I might have had one every day for two weeks when I went. They're the best possible Burger King burgers. The beef is just a bit tastier. The cheese melts just a bit gooier. It's about as good as fast food is going to get.

Bobby Flay Burger Palace - Flay is Food Network's top heel who isn't also a Chopped judge, but goddamn if he doesn't make good food. The burgers at his joint are not only delicious, but they're surprisingly inexpensive for a Food Network personality who's also a nationally-regarded top-tier restaurateur and Iron Chef. Get your burger "crunchified" when you go. The potato chips add a nice layer of texture and salt that go well with the meat and cheese.

Red Robin - Despite the fact that the quality of bun has gone down over the years (seriously, the last time I had a bun stay together for my burger was like two years ago), I still have to give props to Red Robin for consistently making great burgers with inventive topping combinations. I don't think it was the first place to offer the egg on a burger, but it was the first place I encountered it. Now I will automatically order burgers with a runny egg on them at any other place that offers.

Roy Rogers - This placement might be artificially high because of the lack of demand; one can only find a Roy Rogers on turnpike stops in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. However, for a fast food burger, the meat is surprisingly tasty, like even better than Burger King. It's the perfect burger for a road-weary traveler, especially one coming home from a long day at work or en route to a vacation site with several cranky children. The Fixins Bar is a nice touch too.

In N Out - Long have I heard tales of In N Out burger, the mythical beast from the West Coast that made burgers so divine that they were unmatched by any other. I wanted to try it for so long, and when I got out to California last week, I was so excited that I started to get worried. What if I built it up too much in my head and it didn't stack up? Well, I can safely say that it did stack up and then some. Not only was the In N Out Double Double (double cheeseburger) just the most delicious combination of meat, cheese, and bread I've ever had, it was incredibly inexpensive too. When people compare their mid-price burgers to In N Out, it's only a quality comparison, and often one that falls short. In N Out combines quality and price point in ways that should be impossible. It's the Michael Jordan of burger joints.

Shake Shack - Shake Shack comes close to In N Out. Extremely close. When I had it for the first time, I was taken aback by how great the experience was. The meat was seared and crusted perfectly. The cheese was melted so well that it was soaking into the burger crevices. It was unctuous enough to give that satisfying comfort food experience but it wasn't soaked in grease to the point where one would be charging to the bathroom afterwards. The only drawback is that the price is a bit high, but I guess that's the consequence of a burger joint being borne out of Manhattan's cost of living. Either way, even if it costs more money, the East Coast has something that is nearly on par with In N Out, and that's a good thing.

Of course, every brewpub, sports bar, strip mall joint, and even high end steakhouse has their own burger to rest their laurels on. This tiering is strictly for national/chain places. My advice to you is to be adventurous and try as many cheeseburgers as you can from all the various places in this great nation. Or don't. I'm not your dad. Still, the cheeseburger is one of the great foods, nay, achievements in human history. Very few people have ever consistently made a bad burger, but the truly great burgers, like at In N Out or Shake Shack, deserve to be celebrated. So please, eat that cheeseburger. Even if Donald Trump drives this country into the ground, he cannot deny that its food is still great.

And of course, if I've missed any that I have been to, let me know.