While the fried chicken sandwich basks under the heat lamp of the ongoing craze, the humble cheeseburger remains the cornerstone of the American fast food experience. It’s omnipresent, the hook on which most fast food empires hang their undoubtedly smelly hats. These cheeseburgers run the gamut -- from basic value menu burgers to beloved drive-in icons with rabid cult-like followings.
Burgers have a lot of drive-thru clout. But who makes the best? To figure it out, we dispatched our most trusted fast food experts from around the country to hit each major chain. To avoid apples-to-oranges comparisons, we skipped the ultra-basic offerings and limited-time-only specials, opting for each restaurant’s premium burger, the option that best defines the menu. Each burger was ordered exactly how it comes -- no secret menu hacks here -- and judged based on its ingredients, aesthetics, freshness, and overall deliciousness. Then we all took a collective nap. Here’s how they stacked up:
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15. Checkers/Rally’s: Cheese Champ Burger
The Build: Gray cafeteria-like burger patty, American cheese, red onion, shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup, mustard, and mayo on a toasted bun
When you first unwrap this burger, you’ll be momentarily pleased by its thickness and heftiness… before you realize there’s basically a small salad of mostly shredded lettuce and onions on top of the meat. If you flipped it upside down and removed the bun’s bottom, it might even look like a salad topped with a beef disk. Worse yet, this patty is too thin and gray (not enough char) to stand against the vegetables. This cheeseburger is unworthy of the “Champ” title. -- Tony Merevick
14. Dairy Queen Grill & Chill: 1/2lb. GrillBurger with Cheese
The Build: Shredded lettuce, white onions, pickles, thick tomato, cheese, mayo, and ketchup... hiding two dry beef patties
Not every Dairy Queen location serves food, but if you do come across a DQ with a full kitchen (they’re called Grill & Chill locations), then you’ll find cheap fast food staples to serve as the meal before your Blizzard/dipped cone/Peanut Buster Parfait dessert. You can’t go wrong with crispy chicken strips and fries as part of the “2 for $4 Super Snack” deal. However, the same can’t be said for the burger selection. While the crinkle-cut dill pickles were a tangy delight, the beef patties on my GrillBurger were charred to the point of near-total dryness. Shredded lettuce usually scores a point or two in my book (it prevents the patties, other toppings from sliding as much), but these lifeless greens added an extra layer of sad to this burger. Be prepared to drown your sorrow in a Choco Brownie Extreme Blizzard. -- TM
13. A&W: The Double
The Build: Two beef patties with a slice of American cheese on top of each, ketchup, mustard, and pickles on a plain bun
For those who only associate A&W with root beer floats (made with pure cane sugar!), the closest point of comparison for the Double is probably the McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Yet A&W's burger doesn't rise to the heights of the Golden Arches' classic. The cheese, sauce, and pickles are doing a lot of heavy lifting to balance the saltiness and the dryness of the burger, as well as the rather plain bun. Those toppings are good, but this isn't a ranking of pickles and cheese. Stick to the root beer. -- Dustin Nelson
12. Burger King: The Whopper
The Build: Iceberg lettuce, white onion, tomato, and crinkle cut pickles concealing a wide, thin, flame-kissed patty topped with American cheese; crumbly sesame-seed bun slightly coated in mayo and ketchup
The Whopper used to do the crown proud, a hearty, flame-broiled behemoth stacked high with veggies that inspired frequent pangs of desire in my slightly clogged heart. But as burgers got bigger, the Whopper seems to have lost its confidence.
At first, I thought it was a fluke when I got my burger and was confronted with wilted lettuce, tiny tomatoes, and a burger whose char -- while genuinely the result of flames -- completely overpowered everything else, even raw onions. It was dry as kindling, yet its minuscule moisture made the stale-tasting bun crumble into a heap. But it wasn't a fluke. Subsequent visits have confirmed this the norm, and now the Whopper reminds me more of one of those reheated gas-station burgers than the genuine treat I grew up with. Perhaps it’s because the king diverted the realm's attention to the Impossible Whopper, a genuinely good offering that tastes more like a glory days Whopper than the original does. -- Andy Kryza
11. White Castle: Cheese Slider
The Build: Tiny steamed bun, tiny square burger with five holes, tiny onions, tiny slice of American cheese, tiny pangs of euphoria, followed by tiny pangs of regret
Scoff if you must, but you’ve gotta respect a burger for sticking to what it is. Sure, what it is is a square patty punched through with holes and steamed with onions. But at a certain time -- generally 2am while listening to the Beastie Boys -- it fills a void. No frills. No bullshit. Whether you get them in a case or at the grocery store, White Castle burgers will never be anything more or less than you expect. And with Whitey’s-style burgers having a moment -- restaurants in Portland ranging from buzzy Canard to sandwich stalwart Lardo are offering steamed-burger homages, because Portland is also a place that is exactly what you think it is -- now’s the perfect time to reevaluate. -- AK
10. Del Taco: Del Double Cheeseburger
The Build: Double medium-thick patties, double cheese, taco-style shredded lettuce, tomato slices, diced onions, and Thousand Island-ish spread underneath, as is tradition in California
This is a relatively small offering, and therefore a little inconsequential. The spread is mayo-based, the stacked patties are bland but juicy, the sesame-seed bun is sturdy, and… wait, what were we talking about? Oh, right. I kind of forgot about this thing already. You're not here for a burger. You're here for delicious fast food tacos. But big ups for being a place that has a decent burger to supplement those tacos, as opposed to the standard fast food move of having terrible tacos to supplement mediocre burgers. -- AK
9. Sonic: SuperSonic Double Cheeseburger
The Build: Two thin patties glued together by two slices of American cheese; shredded lettuce and diced onions cut small so can re-enjoy them when removing them from the cracks in your seat; tomato slices and crinkle-cut pickles; choice of mustard, mayo, ketchup; standard-issue diner bun
“Where the hell is there a Sonic?” is a phrase frequently uttered by city folk inundated with the fast food chain’s long-running commercials, featuring two moderately funny guys yukking it up in a '50s style drive-in. But it’s also a nifty trick because the absence of a Sonic in most big cities means that when you see one off a highway, you’re immediately drawn to it. You find yourself driving down backroads, becoming increasingly hungry until you finally arrive, order a SuperSonic Double Cheeseburger, and scarf it down in rod-weary desperation. The anticipation and increased hunger create a psychological illusion that the burger is something more than an ultra-basic, forgettable experience, one heightened by the presence of tater tots and a bevy of exceptionally delicious shakes.
It’s just a theory... one that I thought about as I drove 20 miles through Los Angeles traffic to get a taste of Sonic -- my first since driving down a winding mountain highway road in rural Oregon -- only to discover that the place was closed because, yup, they were filming one of those commercials. When I finally got my hands on this burger, though, the heightened anticipation was like a blast of MSG on the first bite, which was exhilarating. After that, it was a solidly OK burger. -- AK
8. Jollibee: The Big Yum
The Build: Thick, juicy patty topped with cheddar cheese; ketchup that isn't Jollibee's signature banana ketchup; mayo; squishy bun
Beloved Filipino chain Jollibee is rapidly expanding in the United States, but let’s be real. On a fast food menu featuring incredible fried chicken, hot dog- and banana ketchup-laced spaghetti, shrimp-spiked panic palabok, and tuna hand pies, the Big Yum burger is kind of an afterthought. It’s serviceable but bland, as if somebody was forced by corporate to put together a burger and just kind of played fast food bingo until a combo of lettuce, tomato, cheese, and mayo filled up the card. On a menu chock full of character, it commits the cardinal sin of being boring. -- AK
7. Jack in the Box: The Jumbo Jack
The Build: Medium-thick patty topped with American cheese loaded with pickles, lettuce, tomato slices, and diced onions; split top bun swiped with mayo
Jack in the Box gets a lot of attention for its stoner-friendly mashups, mega-stack chicken sandwiches, and the presence of egg rolls and tacos where they otherwise have no business existing. Its signature Jumbo Jack is pretty straightforward and milquetoast by comparison, and that’s a good thing. Unlike heir to the throne, the Buttery Jack -- an unholy mess with garlic butter and Swiss cheese -- the Jumbo Jack is standard fare calibrated to hit the comfort food marks. The split-top bun is sturdy, which is a good thing, considering this sucker has a surplus of vegetation on top. And the burger itself, hugged by slices of American cheese, is pleasantly salty with a slight char that doesn’t overwhelm and a little kiss of mayo and ketchup to balance things out. It’s a solid burger. Forgettable? Maybe. But seeing as the rest of the menu seems patently designed to be consumed while under the influence of memory-compromising substances, it’s understandable. -- AK
6. Carl’s Jr: The 1/3lb. Original Six Dollar Thickburger
The Build: Thick 1/3lb burger; American cheese; thick tomato slices, red onions, and leaf lettuce on bottom; bun spread with ketchup and mayo
Carl’s Jr. is basically the three-beers-deep grill-dad of fast food burgers. And the Six Dollar Thickburger (which is actually $7, though prices will vary from place to place) is what would happen if said dad decided to make a Whopper clone. That means the lettuce, red onion, and tomato are grocery-store fresh. The patty is charmingly misshapen and over-charred in areas, but it’s undeniably juicy (or greasy… it was hard to tell the difference). That might be a problem if the fresh-baked bun wasn’t so sturdy. All said, Carl's Jr. burgers are better than they get credit for, even if each bite tastes totally different. -- AK
The Baconator remains a strong holdover from America’s brief over-obsession with bacon, but Dave’s Double remains a banger of simple, well-thought-out burger execution. This thing is generous with the toppings, piling lettuce and tomato on top of those signature square patties, but the burger's flavor is never overpowered by the other ingredients. It stands alone... so much so that even the Single is formidable on its own (the Triple? You crazy.) Wendy’s has been doing its “never frozen” thing since well before its Twitter feed started shit-talking McDonald’s, and the chasm in quality between it and its many competitors speaks volumes to the difference it makes. There’s really nothing here masking the beef itself. Just a little salt and a lot of juice. -- AK
4. Whataburger: Double Meat Whataburger
The Build: Two Texas-sized, thin grilled patties on a plain bun; tomato, lettuce, pickles, and diced onions; cheese upon request (do this); proprietary mustard
The double-meat version of Whataburger’s eponymous sandwich is a Texas icon: two five-inch beef patties slapped between toasted buns, topped with tomato, pickles, diced onions, and lettuce, and finished with a smear of Whataburger’s obligatory mustard. If you throw cheese into the mix (and you should), the resulting hefty burger seems like almost too much to handle. Of course, any Texan will tell you otherwise. Anchored by mustard and melted cheese, the thin-yet-wide patties provide a solid stage upon which the mass of fresh toppings can shine, even if many of them will inevitably fall out before you’re done. If America runs on Dunkin’, then Texas undoubtedly runs on Whataburger. -- Gianni Jaccoma
3. McDonald’s: Quarter Pounder with Cheese
The Build: Ultra-juicy and thick 1/4lb patty with little pockets of grill char; American cheese on the top and bottom; thick strips of onion; pickles; ketchup and mustard; sesame-seed bun
McDonald’s didn’t reinvent the wheel when it switched its Quarter Pounder with Cheese to fresh (as opposed to frozen) meat last year. But damned if it didn’t tweak a classic, saving it from the doldrums of a stacked menu and making it a star again, probably much to the chagrin of the Big Mac (has-been!).
The build’s the same as it ever was, a thing of simple beauty. The sliced raw onions are still thick and bountiful, the pickles still there to give a little acidic punch. But the real star is that patty, which is now nigh impossibly juicy and perfectly salty, with a good chew and a tendency to get little pockets of burnt drippings stuck to it, which provide a concentrated blast of savory bliss. It's basically a dopamine shot hidden between two slices of American cheese, which also function to prevent bun saturation. It’s the comeback kid this burger ranking needs, a classic that returned to the spotlight to remind you what you were missing. -- AK
2. In-N-Out Burger: Double-Double
The Build: Spongy bun; two thin, fresh patties topped with American cheese and separated by a strategically placed onion slice; tomato, lettuce, and Animal Sauce on the bottom
As its slogan suggests (and contrary to the opinions of some writers here), In-N-Out is what a hamburger's all about -- and so its Double-Double sits rightfully in our ranking as one of the top fast food burgers your money can buy. You can use the not-so-secret menu to customize it nearly endlessly, but it's perfectly great without any code-speak.
The fresh beef patties are ground within In-N-Out’s own facilities and are delivered fresh -- never frozen -- to every location. This results in inexplicably juicy patties that marry well with slices of melty American cheese and all the other In-N-Out fixin’s that come with a Double-Double: rings of biting raw onions; plump tomatoes; In-N-Out’s bright and creamy “animal sauce” bejeweled with pickle relish; and crisp iceberg lettuce all sandwiched between plush, toasted buns. There’s a reason that In-N-Out is a mandatory burger for anyone visiting the West Coast. It’s affordable, it’s accessible, and it’s California’s beefy, beating heart. -- Kat Thompson
1. Culver’s: Double ButterBurger with Cheese
The Build: Two fresh-grilled, hand-formed patties topped with slices of Wisconsin-made American cheese; red onions, pickles, and tomatoes on the bottom; grilled Kaiser-adjacent fluffy bun dabbed with butter
Hailing from Wisconsin -- wearing a lightly toasted bun, cloaked with cheese, and dripping with flavor -- it's your champion: the almighty ButterBurger. Named such due to the buttery grilled buns (though some versions of this uniquely Wisconsin treat are actually grilled in melted butter), the burger is on the thin side, but it's still juicy with a texture that complements the toppings and the slight crunch from the toasted bun and shredded lettuce.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a chain that won't boast about its "high-quality" ingredients, but it's absolutely true here: You won't be getting any flaccid lettuce or translucent tomatoes. Every one of these beauties is made-to-order and emerges piping hot, with its Wisconsin-made cheese adding a wonderfully balanced touch of sharpness atypical of American cheese. This is the ideal fast food burger, one that feels like it came from a mom n’ pop shop, and whose flavor is all the more transcendent with a side of cheese curds and a frozen custard. Don't know what those are? Don't worry. Culver's is rapidly expanding beyond its Midwest base. If you're lucky, "ButterBurger," "concrete," and "curd" will soon be entering your lexicon -- and your mouth -- with shocking regularity. -- DN
Introducing The Fasties, Thrillist's first fast food awards. Think glitzy TV and movie award show, but to honor the best things that came out of fast food restaurants in 2019. We rolled out the ketchup carpet for fast food’s biggest names and handed out golden burger trophies in 16 categories. Watch the full awards show and check out the winners here.
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