Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The best burger

Okay, I admit it. I love a good burger. I don’t smoke, do crack, drink Absinthe before noon, order waffles with whipped cream, munch on cereal that is frosted or contains marshmallows, or eat carnival food (which is deep-fried-anything-edible). I do eat vegetables, salads, some healthy fish, and Grape Nuts (that’s still good for you, right?).

But like J. Wellington Wimpy I enjoy a good burger now and again. My all-time favorite burger place, Cassell’s has closed (although they promise to re-open… actually, they promised to re-open a year ago – not a good sign). Bob’s Big Boy, once a chain, now still exists in Toluca Lake, and I’m still a sucker for their double-decker. Partly it’s nostalgia and partly because the location is across the street from the theater that will be staging my play, A OR B?


Burger preference is a very personal and emotional topic. Religion and politics pale. I’m sure a lot of you will weigh-in with your favorites and I’m holding my breath it doesn’t get ugly.

But recently Consumer Reports did a survey on fast-food burger chains. The winner? A California franchise called the Habit Burger Grill. I’ve had some. They’re very good. In N’ Out placed second. They’re kind of the gold standard for quality – cold tomatoes and other major features. Interestingly, of the 21 chains tested, McDonalds finished DEAD LAST.

They sell the most, but no one seems to really like them. And the other big franchises didn't fare much better. Second-to-last was Jack In The Box, and they finished just ahead of Burger King. I mean, when White Castle and Wendy’s whip your ass, what does that say? Even A & W scores higher and you have to be reeeeally hungry to order one of their burgers.

The clear message is that mass production results in mass rejection. Other categories surveyed were sandwiches & subs, chicken, and burritos. Subway finished second-to-last in sandwiches, KFC was voted the worst chicken, and to no one’s surprise – the worst burrito went to Taco Bell.

And here’s the thing: it wasn’t always that way (well, except for Taco Bell. That’s FEAR FACTOR cuisine wrapped in a tortilla). McDonalds used to be very tasty – we’re talking several lifetimes ago. Subway didn’t always put material in their bread that tire companies use to make rubber, and when Colonel Sanders was still alive, there was actually quality control officers who went from branch to branch to ensure the chicken was fresh, all eleven secret herbs and spices were prepared in the correct amount, and there was less grease in a bucket than in a 1967 Chevrolet Impala V-8 engine.

Fast food is obviously not great for you in the best of conditions. So if you’re going to indulge in a burger like me, or (God help you) a burrito – pick a good one. Don’t waste the calories and cholesterol on a Jumbo Jack for crissakes. Treat yourself to whatever you feel is the best. As for me? I might wander over to Five Guys.

65 comments:

Rich Heldenfels said...

Calvin Trillin has said that for most people, the great hamburger is the one you ate in your youth. (For him that was from Winstead's in Kansas City, for his friend R.W. Apple it was one from Swensons in Akron.) I still remember ones I could get at the lunch counter in our neighborhood drugstore. (Yes, I am that old.) But In'n'Out, which I didn't discover until adulthood, lingers delightfully in the tastebuds years after I last had one of its burgers.

404 said...

Five Guys is completely overrated, imo.

Living on the east coast, there are a lot of chains you guys have that we don't. Last year we took a trip out west and I tried Jack in the Box for the first time. Not impressed at all. Now, Whataburger, on the other hand, blew me away.

As far as chain stores we have in my area, the best burger for me is Sonic.

john brown said...

If you are ever in the Missouri or Oklahoma area, try Braum's. Very tasty.

Carol said...

There's a Florida based burger place that just opened near us in PA called Burger Monger. The burgers are apparently made with Kobe beef. That is my 16 year old son's favourite burger place on earth. They are quite good, and the prices aren't TOO expensive, all things considered.

I also like Five Guys.

Jake said...

Everybody hates McDonald's, yet they continue to be one of the top fast food chains in the country, year after year. Somebody's gotta be eating there.

Keeping in mind, too, that the kind of people inclined to participate in a Consumer Reports survey may not be your typical fast food consumer.

Igor said...

Ken wrote: "Bob’s Big Boy, once a chain, now still exists in Toluca Lake, and I’m still a sucker for their double-decker. Partly it’s nostalgia and partly because the location is across the street from the theater that will be staging my play, A OR B?"

Ken, you do a lot of product-placements in your blog - all of it more than fair, to be sure.

But THAT one... I never saw THAT one coming. Cracked me up. (And it, alone, would be enough to get me to buy tickets, if Ollie I didn't live 2000+ miles away.)

Jerry Krull said...

Ken let me add another type of sandwich to your list; the Italian Beef. Big in Chicago (yeah I know, you'll never have one because it means landing at O'Hare or Midway airports). A Chicago restaurant with a really good Italian Beef has opened two locations in California. If you ever find yourself in Buena Park or Moreno Valley stop in "Portillo's" and order an Italian Beef. And get a piece of their Chocolate Cake too.

Ask those Chicago comedy transplant writer friends of yours. Watch their eyes light up at the mention of Italian Beef. I think there are more fist fights over the best Italian Beef place than over the best Pizza place in Chicago among the natives.

mmryan314 said...

Ken- I fly to CA every few months ostensibly to visit family but they all have guessed that the real reason for my visit is to get a fix of In and Out burgers. Headed there today actually. Double double here I come.

Mike said...

Where did Five Guys rank?

I like Wendy's burgers, and don't put them on par with White Castle.

McDonalds did well when they were cooking with lard. Even then, there patties were substantially smaller.

I don't get KFC's ranking. Tastes good, and it is one of the best fast food values around. Sure it's not as good as ChickFilA. Popeyes is better, but their chickens are tiny.

There is the possibility that the bigger chains have been taken over by MBAs. One guy proposed that McDonalds shouldn't focus on hamburgers, but instead use their brand to sell toys at a big profit.

Michael said...

Friday question: In your experience, do most comedy writers have college degrees? If so, what is most common major?

Mike McCann said...

Quality should top quantity -- and perhaps it really does. McDonalds tied up so many storefronts in leases and purchased so much rural and suburban real estate years and years ago... and they're everywhere. Now, the upscale chains -- such as Five Guys and New York's own Shake Shack are winning favor (with this longtime burger maven, anyway). In and Out seems cut from the same cloth. Even Wendy's has upgraded its burgers lately.

Sadly, every time Mickey D's tries to roll out a higher quality product, it fails. The Angus -- their rip-off of the better burgers at Carls Junior/Hardees -- was dropped... If course, it too was flawed, being way too salty. Still an improvement and step in the right direction.

Being just an occasional visitor to the West Coast, I was surprised to see Jack in the Box receive low marks. I've enjoyed theirs on a couple trips their since '08. Their burgers -- compared to what they served in the '70s when they were a sizable presence in the New York area -- are meatier, tastier and way less greasy.

I guess the lesson is, "You get what you pay for." The words gourmet and "Dollar Menu" don't fit together.

Lairbo said...

Next time you're in the Bay Area, Ken, try a burger from Gott's at the Ferry Building.

CamrioKid said...

Let's hear it for The Habit and their CharBurger! I've been eating there from time to time since 1984 - mostly at their original restaurant location in Goleta, CA. One would think that as their chain expanded, that the quality of the food would suffer. On the contrary, it has consistently offered excellent burgers, fries, and onion rings. The chain was started by two Santa Barbara brothers who worked at the original Habit shack as burger flippers, then bought it from the owner. Great American success story! Tip: get the grilled onions on your burger, and also ask for "half and half" and you will get onion rings AND fries with your combo!

C. A. Bridges said...

The best burgers are at places that don't feature burgers. No idea why this is so, but I've had some of the best burgers of my life in seafood restaurants.

Dave said...

When I was in the fast food business, they used to say something to the effect of, people don't go to McDonald's everywhere because it's the best burger, they go to it because it's the same burger.

SharoneRosen said...

greasy dive in Reseda on Saticoy called BIG FAT. I drove by it for years. Finally stopped one day when I was just too beat to go any further without food. I braced myself. BIG FAT is now my FAVORITE burger anywhere!!!!

I've been back several times. It wasn't just the hunger speaking. The kitchen is right where you can see it and the burgers are big, juicy and grilled on an open flame.

Maybe I shouldn't be telling you this... now it's going to be crowded...

Debbie said...

I'm also a fan of Bob's Big Boy. This is probably because we went to the one on Sherman Way in Canoga Park every report card day while I was going to Lockhurst Drive Elementary and Hale Jr. High (back when it was a junior high and not a middle school). Toluca Lake Bob's does get my business every now and again.

As to fast food burgers, while I don't eat many, I do enjoy Fatburger. It may be heresy but I am not a fan of In 'N' Out as their burgers seem slimy and their fries cannot be cooked well done for some reason.

Mike Botula said...

Ken,
I should read your culinary pieces so early in the morning. I'm just sipping my first "cuppacawfee." And, as I follow the bouncing ball, I'm beginning to crave those White Castles that I have tucked away in my freezer.

benson said...

Five Guys is my favorite of the national chains. (We don't have In and Out, but we do have Red Robin, which I wasn't impressed with at all.)

I would argue a good bar burger would be pretty competitive with all those on the list.

@Jerry Krull

Portillo's is wonderful, but they've just been sold to a big corporation. 99 times out of 100, that means the beginning of the end.

And Jerry, I love mine both with just sweet peppers or with hot giardiniera. And fresh cut fries on the side. (Sorry, it's lunch time here in the ET zone)

Anonymous said...

Hello Ken,

I'm not a fast food guy but I do love my hamburgers. I like 5 Guys the best in terms of "chain hamburgers" Their fries are excellent as well- hot n greasy! As someone who's in NYC everyday here are some of my favorites: The Greek Corner Coffee Shop, (29th St & 8th Ave) Real simple but big & good, Cosi's Soup & Burger, (B'way & 8th St) 2" high type of burgers and finally Jackson Hole Airplane Diner in Queens (this diner was the one in Good Fellas) The best & biggest burgers- and great breakfast too! --LL

Jerry Krull said...

@benson Yeah I've been following the Portillo's buyout. Not bad for a guy who started with a hot dog stand. They sell more Beef than hot dogs or hamburgers. The business articles were saying the average Portillo's location have $8 million in revenue annually versus a Panera that does under $3 million a year.

He's getting a billion for the company and all the locations are company owned. We'll see how it pans out now. I still like alot of the local joints for Italian beef around Chicago too.

These types of foods; Beef sandwiches, deep dish pizza, fried cheese etc. are definitely the reason some of us midwesterners are "well marbled".

Dan Ball said...

One of my favorite burgers here in Land o' Cantucke is something made at a local pub called the Burger Orleans. Between two grilled buns and underneath some lettuce, tomatoes, cajun mayo, and smoked gouda lies a patty made with equal parts beef and andouille sausage.

After that, Cheddar's has a good burger.

While I like a good chunk of beef, I have a hard time enjoying a burger that's a pound of all burger and no seasoning. A nice bun or a some nice charring can turn it around, but I just think a burger needs seasoning. Or sausage.

McAlvie said...

I agree with Mike that the drop in quality probably has to do with bean counters, who probably only eat beans, so what do they know?

But this is true not just for fast food, but for so many aspects of modern life. It's all by the numbers now, and nobody in a position to do anything about it really cares whether it works. I agree that McDonalds hamburgers were fairly decent once upon a time. That was when you could actually find the lettuce, tomato and pickle on top. hey, sometimes you hit the jackpot and got TWO pickles! And thanks for having the courage to criticize Taco Hell. The one and only time I tried them I got ill from all the grease.

We have Five Guys on the east coast, and their burgers are pretty good. They aren't fancy, but they are made fresh. And their hot dogs are even better.

Eric J said...

Used to work for a publisher in Silver Lake in the late 70's. We ate at Cassell's once a month, at least. I once pointed out three large cockroaches on the wall behind the grille. Some old guy (prob. Al hisself) resat me on the other side of the table. We still went every month, but sat outside. Downtown L.A. has probably the best summer weather in the entire world.

blinky said...

I quit hamburgers over ten years ago and have not missed them once. I like my beef in a solid, unemulsified slab just like god intended.

BD Johnson said...

A Hickory Burger at The Apple Pan on the west side is always at the top of my list. Make it a complete meal with fries, a drink and apple pie and ice cream.

Phil said...

Hmmm. Vegan here. Enjoy your burgers and I'll see you tomorrow.

Pat Cremin said...

Come to Oklahoma--home of the flat griddle, onions fried in with dill pickles and mustard. The great ones abound....usually single hamburger "joints" and real french fries. Ask my brother, Kevin, and he will confirm, Ken.

Pat Cremin

Gene Renaker said...

Do you think that In-n-Out's secret menu increases their standing? I mean, who doesn't smile while ordering a "Double-double, animal style?" I know I do.

Phillip B said...

The best burgers - I agree - are those that exist in our memories. I remember the pure joy of the burgers at a place called Moose's it the Marina district of San Francisco.

Although it was quite upscale, Moose insisted that he'd always have a burger on the menu -- so men would have something they could (and would) eat.

Unfortunately when Moose passed away and the restaurant passed into new hands, so did the Moose Burger....

Jeff Parker said...

Plan Check (http://plancheck.com/). Yum.

Fast Food Freddie said...

Food reviews in Consumer Reports are akin to Oscar nominations. Lots of snob appeal but hardly any substance.

I defy anyone to make it though a half hour of any movie that has won best picture in the last twenty years. And I defy anyone to deny the success of any of the fast food restaurants that CP rated toward the bottom.

Food is in the taste of the beholder. No one with an ounce of pride should base their dining choices on the recommendation of a magazine.

TWTWTW said...

Didn't we do this a few months ago?

BDG said...

C.A. Bridges, that is a great observation. One of Seattle's most venerable seafood spots, McCormick's Fish House and Bar, makes an absolutely killer burger.

Letter Sphere said...

Here's a little news story that relates to today's topic:

http://www.king5.com/news/editors-pick/Red-Robin-3540-calorie-meal-269229201.html

Emiril Fabrigasse said...

Always a tasteful treat to participate in the Semi-annual Best Burger Survey. As a Seattleite, I'm required to promote Dick's, which I gladly do. However, it's a long drive for me (22 mi) so my 'back-up' burger is FAT BURGER. I find it far better than the nearby 5 Guys (whose cooks must've been trained by the Neptune Society).

And another: The Keg. One of the best burgers I've ever had was at The Keg. It ain't cheap, nor is it 'fast,' but it is very tasty.

Lexavline said...

Nothing beats a burger from Julius' in NYC! Fast, greasy and only 5 bucks!

VP81955 said...

I now live a few blocks from the original Tommy's at Rampart and Beverly, and their hamburgers are pretty good (though I order mine with chili and onions only), while I'll buy their chili to go and put some cheese on it at home. Not much of a fan of their fries, though.

A chain no one mentioned, but I love, is Juicy Burger, which has several SoCal locations (including two of Hollywood Boulevard). A nice variety of burgers, all prepared fresh, with a variety of toppings from guacamole to red onion to spinach (which complements a burger surprisingly well). Worth checking out.

Anonymous said...

Freddie, while your point is valid,
it is quite easy to get through a half hour, and indeed the whole movie, watching the following:

Argo
The Kings Speech
The Hurt Locker
Slumdog Millionaire
No Country for Old Men
The Departed
The Return of the King
Gladiator
Titanic
Braveheart
Forrest Gump

You can throw

Gary said...

Great topic! I'm for anything that gives us a break from the Food Police who seem to have taken over society. These days we have been conditioned to feel guilty about every good-tasting morsel we consume, and there's usually some health-nut control freak nearby to warn us that our diet will cause death within the hour. Hooray for burgers!

Pat Reeder said...

When I have an irresistible hankering for a burger, I don't waste it on a fast food place. That would just taint the whole experience, like paying for sex with an arthritic old hooker when you could afford a Kardashian sister. Here in Dallas, I would go to Liberty Burger, Mixed-Up Burgers in Grand Prairie, or Tom's Diner or Texas Style Burgers and Wings, both in Arlington. For burgers, I mean, not sex. Although I'll check the extras on the menu the next time I go in and get back to you.

Pat Quinn said...

Bar Marmont Burger. Really the best in the world.

jcs said...

Ken, is this a Freudian slip ("survived" instead of "surveyed") or intentional? Just curious.

"Other categories SURVIVED were sandwiches & subs, chicken, and burritos."

apocalipstick said...

Steak'n'Shake. And if it's stand-alones, there is a Mexican restaurant in Cabool, MO, called El Imperial that serves the best burgers in the world

Richard said...

I... I don't...

I mean, far be it from me to ever criticize anyone's personal preferences or taste, but, I mean...

I just can't quite get why one would prefer Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake for their burger, when Mo's is right there.

I am awed at learning about a viewpoint that is totally outside of my experience, and I thank you for blowing my mind.

Dixon Steele said...

Never could understand the love for the over-hyped Cassell's. Never liked the Apple Pan's burgers either.

In the 25 years I lived in LA, I'd have to say the Hamlets, particularly the Sunset branch, was pretty damn good.

sanford said...

I had In and Out this spring. Not impressed I have had better burgers at bars. Five Guys is just OK.

We have a burger place where I live called Kewpees. The best. People who have moved away go there when ever they come back.

RCP said...

Burgers: In-N-Out
Fries: McDonald's (even Julia Child agreed)
Shakes: Bob's Big Boy (the banana shake is fantastic.) Not many locations, unfortunately.

I have to defend KFC: every time I've ordered the breast meal (Original recipe) w/ two sides it's been hot, juicy, and delicious.

Rooting for the Underdog: Jack in the Box - never mind those old Kangaroo meat rumors, the food is always hot, the fries are good, and you get two tacos for $1...wait a minute...

Dana Gabbard said...

The burger at Taylor's steakhouse are made with steak trims and even my mom (who also likes 5 guys) liked it. Which is weird as it is in the heart of Koreatown. The folks who claim they are re-opening Cassell's say it will be ready later this year (6th and Normandie, also in Koreatown). Mark Evanier and I plan to try it out and see if it is as good as it used to be. My worry isn't just the quallity of the meat but who operates the broiler shelf. There is a reason often the chef is the best paid of the personnel at eateries.

Barry Traylor said...

In the last decade when I have eaten at McDonalds (no other place to when on the road) or Burger King (because I once enjoyed the Whopper so I would stop for old times sake) I feel lousy afterward. Not sure if their mystery meat agrees with me anymore.

Jason said...

I grew up in Akron, Ohio, so my favorite burger is a double cheeseburger with everything (meaning, mustard, pickle and onion) from Swenson's. I'm also partial to Hamburger Station, which is also from the Akron area, but it seems to be on its last legs now, with only 3 or 4 locations left.

I'm slightly offended about White Castle's place on the list -- whoever thought those disgusting balls of grease should be called "hamburgers" obviously lacks working tastebuds.

As for Mickey D's... it's good for when you're traveling and not in the mood to take a risk. You know exactly what you're getting, and you get it (kinda) fast. Wendy's burgers are just fine, but I wish that someone had told them that putting sea salt on your fries means you don't need to put a pound of the stuff on a small order.

Red Robin is good if you want a slightly different set of toppings (teriaki and pineapple is my go-to there) but Five Guys is the best regular-ol'-burger chain that I know of.

BrettJ said...

I prefer a great burger to a great steak and I've begun spending the slight extra for Angus beef. That being said, there are a few great burger joints where I live (the one where I once worked had some of the best I've ever had and for some reason, they failed). I also think it depends on what you want in a burger. ME likes a fairly plain burger whereas I like mine a bit "gussied up". Canada is home to a franchise called Harveys and although their burger is in reality a "steakette", they're always good and 95% of their franchises are very clean with fresh fixings offered.

MikeN said...

Dan Ball where is this Burger Orleans?

Anonymous said...

NO ONE goes to Jack-in-the-Box for the burgers.

Its the tacos or nothing.


Pam/St. Louis

Andy Ihnatko said...

I used to allow myself to get a McRib every time McDonalds put them back on the menu. The idea of pork molded into the shape of a rack of ribs? Hilarious! And it only goes on sale once every year or two.

I stopped. I realized halfway through my final McRib that they taste horrible. I changed my rule to "Whenever McDonalds puts the McRib on the menu...I get to make a special trip to a great barbecue place and get a real barbecued pork sandwich.

When you realize that a burger and fries at a restaurant nearby that's known for great burgers and fries costs only about six dollars more than a Big Mac Value Meal, you feel a little foolish for eating fast food!

Dan said...

There are Big Boy restaurants all over the Midwest. Are they different than Bob's Big Boy?

Dixon Steele said...

Saw what you will about Jack in the Box. But their burgers are cooked fresh with every order and I don't know what other fast food place can make that claim.

tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike B said...

Big Boy has different franchisees in different regions. They have similar, but distinct menus. The Midwest has Frisch's Big Boy. They put tartar sauce (I know, gross) on the Big Boy instead of thousand island dressing.

AAllen said...

I worked at McDonald's from 1986 to 1990, and that was long enough to see a couple of changes, to illustrate why things don't taste the way they used to. They were transitioning to the clamshell grill, which cooks both sides of the patty at once, speeding things up just a little bit. Even though our location hadn't switched to the clamshell yet, we were ordered to stop putting onions on the regular hamburger patties, and put them on the bread part of the sandwich. The onion juice used to soak into the burger, but not any more.

I left the grill and moved to the drive-thru order window just in time for them to bow to special interests and replace the vanilla and chocolate soft-serve with vanilla frozen yogurt and fat-free orange sorbet. The frozen yogurt tasted almost the same to me, but you wouldn't believe the complaints I received for that, as if I had anything to do with it. They got enough complaints that they switched back.

Even though KFC got low marks, at least it's one thing that still tastes the same as it used to. They don't want to mess with the eleven herbs and spices. Even though I live in the same city as Ezell's, I still can't get myself to break away and try it.

Anonymous said...

For the 'fancier' but still simple burger, Stout on Selma and Cahuenga is pretty great. They serve only 4-5 types of burgers, small selection of craft beer, and good fries. Bit pricey but the focus on quality is worth it.

Not a fan of the fancy truffle-filled Umami stuff.

I would also list Habit over In-n-Out. Enjoyed In-n-Out the first few times when I came from the E. Coast but have found better since. I respect the level they've set though.

Diane L. said...

Big Boy's in the Midwest is pretty much the same restaurant that it was in California and I lived in Michigan from 2010-2013. As a girl from the Valley who's parents LOVED Bob's - I was super excited when I saw Big Boy's everywhere. But, people who grew up in Michigan give it the same kind of approval we would give to a low grade Denny's. So my love of Big Boy's quickly turned into a secret shame. But it was the first placed we stopped when my Mom would visit me. :)

chuckcd said...

I like Carl Jr's and Wendy's burgers.
In and Out is way overrated.
Five guys is pretty good, but they are too expensive.

BW said...

Five Guys? Meh. Way overrated.

Foaming Solvent said...

apocalipstick is correct. The champion burger is at Steak 'n Shake. But don't just take my word nor apocalipstick's word, read what Roger Ebert wrote about Steak 'n Shake: http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/car-table-counter-or-takhomasak