The quality of one’s cheeseburger often tends to be a good indicator of the quality of the fast-food establishment, especially if that establishment purports to be a burger chain. So, in an effort to figure out which burger was the fairest of them all, I decided to taste-test the cheeseburgers at eight major fast-food chains. In one day. Needless to say, it was simultaneously a great and horrible idea.
How I did it: At all places, I opted to get the standard cheeseburger, with the standard fixings (unless otherwise noted below), and then judged the results based on taste, wait time, and price. The test was conducted on November 5th, 2013 in and around San Diego, CA.
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Price: $2.19 The build: Ketchup, mayo, American cheese, burger patty, sesame seed bun Wait time: 1 min 43 seconds Tasting notes: With so many other options, the woman at the counter seemed genuinely disappointed when I just ordered a “cheeseburger.” “A Sirloin Cheeseburger? Or maybe the Bacon Ultimate Cheeseburger?” she asked hopefully. “Just whatever your regular cheeseburger is.” “Oh. Well, okay,” she said. And maybe now I understand why. The standard “Big Cheeseburger” has the most basic build of any burger I tried, with just ketchup, mayo, and cheese. And though the patty was substantial, the taste brought me back to my public high school lunch room, on “burger day.” The patty itself seemed too dense to be anything but frozen beef, and the mix of condiments with no acidity from a mustard, or pickles, left my mouth feeling sad and nostalgic for Wellesley High’s mediocre tater tots.
7. Carl’s Jr's “Big Burger with Cheese”
Price: $1.72 The build: Pickle, white onion, ketchup, mustard, American cheese, burger patty, sesame bun Wait time: 2 min 16 seconds Tasting notes: Like the Jack in the Box server, the friendly girl at Carl’s seemed very invested in me getting one of the fancier burgers. “Have you had our Six Dollar Burger?” she asked. “Do you like Teriyaki?” she followed up. "Yes," I wanted to scream. Teriyaki is good on everything! But no, I continued to let people down with my insistence on a “normal cheeseburger.” Carl’s version of the “big” burger was perfectly serviceable -- a functional fast-food cheeseburger with all the requisite parts in place. But that’s also exactly why it doesn’t get much farther on this list -- nothing stood out in any significant way, except the large onion slices that sat directly in the middle of the burger, so you had to take several non-onion bites, and then get overwhelmed with straight onion action.
6. Burger King's “Cheeseburger”
Price: $1.19 The build: American cheese, crinkle-cut pickles, mustard, ketchup, fire-grilled beef patty, sesame seed bun Wait time: 6 min Tasting notes: The cheapest burger on my list ended up being a damn good value, as the entire build comes together nicely, and you can really taste the flame-broiled meat through everything else. On the down side, there was too much mustard, which overpowered the other toppings, but all in all, pretty good for just over a buck. Part of the issue here was wait time. I waited six minutes in a not-crowded BK to get this small cheeseburger, and while I appreciate that they’re making it up fresh so I can have it my way, most others do that as well, and that put BK in the same wait time box as some of the more premium fast burger chains.
5. Sonic's “Cheeseburger”
Price: $3.99 The build: American cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickle, chopped onion, beef patty, seedless bun Wait time: 4 min 22 seconds Tasting notes: Sonic! The place with the commercials of those two kooky guys, and all the milkshakes! Having not spent a ton of time in Sonic, I didn’t know what to expect, but the results were generally pleasing: it tastes like a serviceable backyard burger. Although the patty was a little dry, and the shredded lettuce had wilted slightly, the tomatoes were crisp and cold, and the bun was soft, and all the elements played nice together.
Price: $1.29 The build: American cheese, ketchup, mustard, chopped onion, one pickle, beef patty, seedless bun Wait time: Just under 2 min Tasting notes: Ah, the old classic. Some of my fondest memories of eating in high school revolve around how I would always order two Mickey D’s cheeseburgers BEFORE I ordered whatever my actual meal would be. Don’t judge me, I was growing. Anyway, the classic stands up well, mostly because of the secret weapon of chopped onion, which allows the onions to mix evenly with the other condiments and not overpower the burger. Personally, the fact that there is but one pickle on a Mickey D’s burger strikes me as silly, as it means you basically get that pickle mix just once during your meal, but other than that, and a slightly dry bun, it was a nice little reunion.
3. Wendy’s “Dave’s Hot 'N Juicy 1/4lb Single”
Price: $4.29 The build: Bakery-style bun, lettuce, tomato, red onion, ketchup, mayo, beef patty, American cheese Wait time: 2 min 32 seconds Tasting notes: When I just asked for a “regular cheeseburger,” the server at Wendy’s took one look at my very expensive sweatpants and decided that a man of my stature must've meant the higher price point option, rather than any of the cheaper "junior" cheeseburgers, and it paid off. Though it was the second most expensive burger I tasted, it also had the distinction of tasting like a more expensive, non-fast-food burger. The bakery bun, coupled with the extremely melty American cheese, the slightly more fancy and biting red onion, and the salty, seasoned square of beef made me feel like I was at a fast-casual sit-down restaurant. And yet it still came to me extremely quickly. Very impressive. In unrelated news, I really like Frosties.
2. In-N-Out’s “Cheeseburger”
Price: $2.20 The build: Seedless bun, leaf lettuce, tomato, American cheese, beef patty, “spread” Wait time: 8 min Tasting notes: As someone who lives in California, and has loved In-N-Out burger forever, I expected that they would breeze through as the winner. And, as always, it was damn delicious. The thin, griddled patty, the sweet 'n sour mix of the spread, the freshly washed crunch of the lettuce... everything was as I imagined. Also, the price point is right in the middle of many of the larger national chains, and none of them touch the quality for the money. But with all else being pretty equal between the top two, that wait time plays a factor. I waited 30% longer here than I did anywhere else, and though it does help to build anticipation, it was significant enough to push my beloved home burger joint out of the winner’s circle.
1. Five Guys’ “Little Cheeseburger”
Price: $4.39 The build: (NOTE: Because nothing comes on it, I added the standard fast food burger fixings) Sesame bun, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, ketchup, mustard Wait time: 4 min 56 seconds Tasting notes: Wow. No wonder these things are opening at an alarmingly delicious speed. The darling of the Mid-Atlantic, Five Guys' “little” (the standard comes with two patties) makes the beef the star of the show/flavor profile, plus the lettuce is crisp, there's good acidity from the pickles, and the sesame bun was soft, yet held up thanks to some time on the grill. It really was delicious. On top of that, I waited five min to get it during a relatively busy lunch hour, which was substantially faster than at In-N-Out, but also faster than Burger King, and nearly on par with Sonic. Yes, naysayers will say, "but it’s the most expensive!" Well, considering it was only 10 cents more expensive than Wendy’s, Five Guys is clearly worth dropping the extra scratch.
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s national food/drink executive editor, and also enjoys Jalapeño & Cheese Whataburgers, though sadly they don’t exist in California. Follow his gradual descent into obesity at @KAlexander03.