I knew I met the right gal when, early on in our courtship, she said her idea of a perfect date night is going out for cheeseburgers. That's what we do now. No candlelit tables or sports jacket required, just a reliable burger and the pleasure of each other's company. We don't even need those ultraluxe versions from three-star American bistros. In fact, we are living in a golden age of great, non-fast-food, chain burger restaurants. Having a date night for $25 isn't being stingy; it can make you look like Prince Charming.
Here are four popular chain burger restaurants, ranked in order.
When I was young and ignorant, burgers were simply burgers. There was no difference between a steakhouse version and McDonald's: A burger was a discus of beef between buns, full stop. Around this time was when I first discovered Fuddruckers. I thought it was decent. Before my palate matured, burgers occupied only that middle range of superlatives between OK and pretty good.
Returning to Fuddruckers last week for the first time as an adult, I was frankly shocked by how good it was. Call it the folly of low expectations. Chain restaurants get short-shrifted by implication that anything mass produced with cookie-cutter efficiency lacks soul or care. The counterargument is, if the resulting product was delicious, wouldn't the ability to reproduce the dish with exacting consistency be a good thing?
Fuddruckers makes the case for that counterargument. It's halfway between counter-service fast food and family restaurant (Think a burger version of Panera Bread). There is a self-serve toppings bar to pile on fixings and condiments, including a pump vat of hot cheese product to douse over the tomato and lettuce you just added.
The sandwich makes a terrific first impression with its bun, a component often neglected in burger construction. The thin-domed crust seemingly floats, like the inflated fabric roof of a domed stadium, suspended over the fluffiest bun interior in the hamburger industry. The underside is toasted an even butter-golden, no soft spots, just crispness throughout. It has that new bread smell, because there are ovens — visible from the dining room — where the buns are baked that morning.
The beef patty, grilled to a medium pink as requested, had a loose-grain quality; one could almost use the word creamy to describe the interior. At some locations, you'll even find a wagyu patty (listed as Kobe) on the menu under the Fudds Exotics Line. The difference in taste is negligible; I discerned a blue cheese tang similar to dry-aged beef. It's not enough to warrant the surcharge because, really, the original burger is good enough.
Such as: The Works, a no-fail combination of smoky and brawny strips of bacon, American cheese and grilled mushroom. It's as unabashedly American as sewing a flag. The more health-conscious diner should consider the turkey mushroom on whole-wheat bun, which will dispel any notion that turkey burgers must be dried, flavor-void discs of cork. Still, it's nowhere as satisfying as the beef.
Really, it matters not what variation you order. Be it the Southwest with guacamole or Inferno with jalapenos, 90 percent of this burger's effectiveness comes from that consistent base of superb bread and beef. The word "overachiever" comes to mind.
Locations at fuddruckers.com
2. Steak 'n Shake
Having attended school in Southern California and now living 2,000 miles away, I can't help proselytizing the In-N-Out gospel to anyone who'll bend an ear. There are three factors for us preachy ex-West Coasters: 1) nostalgia, 2) the idea that distance makes the heart grows fonder (closest location to Chicago is in Texas), and 3) one memorable cheeseburger, a compact and grease-sheened amalgam of beef and melted American cheese.
It prompts the question: Why don't Midwesterners gush about Steak 'n Shake in the same way? Removing all geographic biases, I'm now of the opinion that the Normal, Ill.-born chain serves a burger on par with In-N-Out's.
The burger has two unique traits. First is that patty, though a more apt description might be "beef wafer."
At some places, consuming a burger feels like ingesting a meat grenade. At Steak 'n Shake, the grill cook smashes a mini hockey puck-size patty with a spatula against the hot griddle. This action creates a magical byproduct: an edge so crisp and thin, it's as if steak took on the properties of a potato chip. (Fellow chains Smashburger and Schoop's have emulated the practice, but Steak 'n Shake did it first and does it best.) After you pile two or three of these hot patties on a bun and layer cheese in between, the two fuse into a single mass where meat and cheese become indistinguishable. This is their dangerous, habit-forming secret.
Its second trait is less familiar to most: the restaurant's proprietary pepper sauce, which sits underutilized on every table. Hot sauce and hamburgers always seemed like a strange pairing, albeit conceivable. But somehow, dashing a swig of this sauce, made from sugar cane vinegar and green Amazon peppers, perked up the burger in a special way. It's got Tabasco's vinegar zing with a fruitier flavor.
You can attribute a third trait (though not unique to Steak 'n Shake), and that's the 1980s-level prices. For a sit-down restaurant with a full-service wait staff, its $4 menu is a remarkable deal in 2014. An Original Double 'N Cheese Steakburger with a plate of fries comes out less expensive here than a Big Mac with large fries at McDonald's, and the difference in deliciousness is threefold. So spread the word.
Locations at steaknshake.com
3. Red Robin
Red Robin is like the jock basketball star who also sings in glee club: jovial and popular with the high school set, mature enough for parents to like. Next to Applebee's or TGI Fridays, Red Robin ranks several notches above. It's because of the eclectic burger lineup, running two dozen deep, from chili drenched to teriyaki glazed with grilled pineapples. Growing up, many after-school dance get-togethers were spent here, kicking back bottomless strawberry lemonade while we wore our ill-fitted rental tuxes.
The restaurant's signature Royal Red Robin was my first gourmet burger experience, after years of being satisfied with the fast-food stuff. I was struck then by the novelty that burgers could be topped with a fried egg. A little hesitant, actually. The burger is of a softer disposition, from the moist sesame seed bun to the runny yolk's richness, nothing overtly textured except the bacon's crispness. Of course, giving into the classic combination of egg, bacon, cheese and beef was a revelation for this 14-year-old — I was eating breakfast for dinner in a hand-held sandwich. It holds up all these years later.
I've since graduated to other burgers, with A.1. Peppercorn my new default. It's a roundhouse kick of umami, with bacon, fried straw onions, pepperjack cheese and a mayo-like spread using A.1. Peppercorn sauce. It's beefy in all caps, tasting like the marinated roasted crust of prime rib. The only negative is it uses a rosemary-onion roll; sturdy, yes, but a tad floral. Ask to substitute a toasted sesame bun instead. (About their vaunted steak fries: Next to the burgers, the fries are a disappointment. The ratio of crisp exterior to fluffy interior potato is about 1-to-4, when it shouldn't exceed 1-to-1.)
Among Red Robin's newest offerings is a premium-priced line called Finest Gourmet Burger. The one available at the moment is the limited-time Smoke & Pepper Signature, created by Laurent Tourondel, the noted French chef known for his BLT Steak and BLT Burger restaurants worldwide. Even at $3 pricier than its regular burgers, I applaud the ambition: a half-pound Black Angus beef patty seasoned with alderwood-smoked sea salt, peppered strips of bacon, sharp cheddar and a sweet-vinegary ketchup that resembles chutney, served on a ciabatta bun. Here's an accessible burger approaching the line where gourmet ends and froufrou starts, without crossing over.
That burger would've seemed unappealing to me 15 years ago, perhaps too elaborate for the teenage crowd. But just as Red Robin's culinary aspirations grow, I also grow from a picky eater to someone open to experimentation. It's as if the restaurant and I are coming of age in parallel.
Locations at redrobin.com
4. Ruby Tuesday
Of these four chains with some renown for their hamburgers, Ruby Tuesday fits best into the "pub burger" category. They feel heftier, more showy and built vertically. The problem is that while Ruby Tuesday serves decent burgers, they are not particularly memorable.
Ruby Tuesday recently added pretzel buns as an option. These have good flavor, chewy, though a bit dense. Buns as sturdy as pretzel require a substantial patty to match, and the beef here is thick and chin-drippingly juicy.
Everything else is nitpicking, not egregious missteps. The bacon-mustard mayo on the bacon cheese pretzel burger is overly salty, as are the deep-fried jalapeno strips on the spicy jalapeno burger. The fries, meanwhile, were terrific — skinny, long, fresh-tasting and uniformly crisp.
Still, these burgers lack one quality that makes them stand apart from the thousands of two-handed gastropub versions. On a bell curve, they reside among that crowded middle of "good enough."
Locations at rubytuesday.com
Kevin Pang talks cheap eats with Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano, Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. on WGN-AM.
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