A great burger needs to stand on its own, a Westword reader noted last week in response to my review of Red Robin's Burger Works, a new concept that the Colorado-based chain tried out at the Shops at Northfield Stapleton before rolling it outside Colorado state lines. That means the burger has to taste good naked; an eggy bun, chipotle mayo, non-iceberg lettuce, chunky peanut butter and the occasional fried egg should complement the meat, not define it.
So what are the bare facts on the best burgers at chain restaurants? Here's my top five list:
5. Five Guys Burgers and Fries
I'm convinced that the mighty meat patty at Five Guyshas a secret ingredient: an unreasonably delicious amalgam of grease-flavors from everything else it makes. The burgers are so juicy with dripping, sloppy animal fat that I'm sure if I ordered a plain meat patty on a plate, it would look like a beef-island in the middle of an ocean of melted meat fat.
I suspect that the employees either grill the burgers on the same grill where they cook their bacon, hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches and purposely don't scrape it first -- or ever -- or they are instructed to collect the leftover grease and grill-leavins' in buckets, then periodically dump them over the burgers.
4. Steak 'n Shake
In 1934 Gus Belt, obviously a meat-man, founded Steak 'n Shake on the premise that he was selling not just hamburgers, but steakburgers made with prime cuts of steak. And as the legend goes, he'd prove it by taking round, T-bone and sirloin steaks and grinding them into patties right in front of the customers, lending credence to his slogan, "In Sight It Must Be Right."
To this day, the beef patties at Steak 'n Shake seem far meatier than the burgers at other chains, and they emit more of a concentrated beef juice than fat. I would love to order a California Double, buck naked, and eat both patties, stacked together, like someone was holding a shotgun to my head.
3. In-N-Out Burger It's no secret that the ice cream shakes at In-N-Out are past amazing, and I've never gotten fries that weren't golden, crisp and hot. But this chain crossed a particularly luscious line when it decided to grill the burger patties in mustard.
If you order any burgers "Animal-Style," the grillers will soak the beef patties in mustard, then grill them up with a sparky flavor and a nice caramelization. I would be down to order the 4x4, bare, seared in mustard, and then stack all four beef patties up like hotcakes and eat them until I was sweating greasy mustard out of every pore on my body. 2. Smashburger
Plenty of burger chains proudly proclaim that they use 100 percent Angus beef in their patties. Angus cattle originated in Scotland and were imported here to the States in the late 1800s. The breed got a huge boost from a well-orchestrated public relations campaign in the early 2000s, pimping the superiority of Angus beef compared to other kinds; Angus are bred to produce thick muscling and fine marbling. And the cattle make for great burgers: The homegrown Smashburger chain uses Angus beef in its fat, succulent, smashed-meatball-style burger patties.
The result is Smashburger's signature, raggedy-edged burgers -- which have the size and seasoning of small meatloaves and pack plenty of flavor even without my preferred layers of goat cheese, spinach, red onions and Smash sauce.
1. White Castle
We don't have a White Castle in Colorado, and that's a crying shame. Because despite having creepy shit on the menu like Chicken Rings and fish sandwiches I wouldn't use for bait, the Castle features original-recipe sliders that are a testament to what burger patties should be: soaked in grease, reeking of onions, and cheap. These burgers are not for the anally thin-skinned, people with heart problems or anyone under the legal drinking age, because if you remove those soft, biscuit-sized buns and scrape off the grilled onion spackle you get...delicious little squares of what is probably beef, liberally marinated in hot onion grease, with little holes filled with more hot onion grease.
Eating a plate of little, nakie, White Castle burger-squares is number one on my F*ckit List.