The hamburger is one of the USA’s most recognizable food icons. So much so, in fact, that in 2013, Americans were estimated to eat 50 billion burgers a year — or enough to circle the Earth 32 times. And despite some uncertainty about their specific country of origin, they’re now thought of all around the world as nothing less than purely American. It stands to reason, then, that the best hamburgers are found in the States. But where?
Countless fast food restaurants across the country sell burgers — the choice is almost limitless. Even more unhelpful is the fact that the nature of the sandwich means that there are countless different ways you can construct one. A hamburger can be almost anything, meaning the range of quality between the best and the worst of them is vast indeed. It is very important, then, that you make your choice wisely. Luckily, we’re here to help. Here are the most well-known fast food burgers, ranked worst to best.
White Castle: Slider
If we’re being totally honest here, it doesn’t strike us as a fantastic start if a burger chain isn’t even willing to market their hamburgers as hamburgers. No, White Castle prefers to refer to them as "sliders" — and, to their credit, branding them as such makes it just a little less disappointing when you order a hamburger and are instead handed one of these monstrosities.
First off, at 2×2", it’s far, far too small. Yes, fine, maybe you’re supposed to buy lots of them — but this is a ranking of America’s best and worst hamburgers, not America’s best and worst small piles of hamburgers. Then there’s the bun, which is more the kind of roll you’d buy in a supermarket, and is far too airy and big relative to the actual components of the burger; which, by the way, consist only of a thin, square patty, a load of onions and a pickle. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to eat during wartime rationing, not at a fast food joint in 2018. Zero marks.
Dairy Queen: Cheeseburger
Dairy Queen might not initially occur to you as the first port of call for when you’re craving a hamburger. And, frankly, nor should it. Their standard issue cheeseburger is utterly lacking in toppings: For your money, you’ll get no more than a ⅙ lb patty with cheese, pickles, ketchup and mustard. That really, really isn’t very much to work with.
Because of this, the bread completely overshadows the rest of it — and it’s usually suspiciously soggy, to boot. Dairy Queen does also offer the GrillBurger with Cheese, which is more like your typical strain of burger (patty, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, ketchup, pickles and a toasted bun this time). Most of the time, however, it’s nothing short of a total mess by the time it actually reaches your hands. But that’s what you get when you ask an ice-cream chain to make a burger for you.
"Look up ‘perfection’ in the dictionary and this is what you’ll see, because the Checkerburger is everything a burger oughta be." That’s what Checkerburger themselves have splayed across the burger section of their website, but we know better than to put blind faith in a burger restaurant just because they know how to rhyme.
So, the Checkerburger. Beef patty, tick. Lettuce, tick. Tomato, tick. Pickle, tick, Onion, tick. Sesame seed bun, tick. Mayo, ketchup, mustard — tick. Yep, it’s a burger alright. So where does it all go wrong? Well, the patties themselves are practically flavorless. The lettuce also tends to be iceberg lettuce, which is almost literally just water and offers nothing whatsoever to the rest of the burger. Their insistence on including three condiments rather than making their own burger sauce — or, at least, offering a choice of condiments — just strikes us as lazy, too. Another no-go, sadly.
McDonald’s: Quarter Pounder
Oh, yes. Them. They’re the ones with the clown. You can probably see them right now, through your own window. They’re the biggest; they’re the baddest. But are they the best? For the sake of fairness, let’s ignore the disappointing hamburger (and the Big Mac which is kinda cheating) and focus on the Quarter Pounder.
According to McDonald’s themselves, the Quarter Pounder "features a quarter-pound of 100 percent fresh beef that’s hot, deliciously juicy and cooked when you order. It’s seasoned with just a pinch of salt and pepper, sizzled on a flat iron grill, then topped with slivered onions, tangy pickles and two slices of melty cheese on a sesame seed bun." The concept is solid, if flawed — there are far fewer toppings, for example, than you might find in the burgers sold by better chains. And the speed-focused nature of the restaurants themselves mean that there’s a good chance your burger will be less than expertly presented. Think dry patties, messy toppings, and scant sauces, and you’re halfway to a typical McDonald’s hamburger.
Burger King: Whopper
Oh, yes. The other them. They’re the ones with the creepy monarchical allegory. You can probably see them right now, through your other window. They’re not quite as big; they’re not quite as bad. But they are better. Just.
Let’s go with the Whopper here, rather than their actual plain hamburger which, frankly, is a sad state of affairs that constitutes a lean towards austerity which we hoped we’d never have to see again after that whole White Castle debacle. The Whopper, however, is far more like it, and includes all the toppings you’d hope for from any chain worth their salt. The main issues here are a reliance on white onion (disappointing) and the disparate ratio of patty size to other toppings (unruly).
Here’s where Burger King wins out over McDonald’s, though. The flame-grilled taste of the burgers is far more flavorful than the quasi-stale attempts at beef you’re likely to find at McDonald’s, while Burger King restaurants themselves possess a strange, inherent superiority in the quality of construction of the burgers themselves. We don’t know why — they just tend to be put together better. BK with the K.O.
Shake Shack: ShackBurger
Here’s everything that’s good about Shake Shack’s ShackBurger. The option to double up on toppings is a nice flourish (even though the slim offerings of lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion are not super impressive), as is the optional applewood smoked bacon. The patty is thick — thicker than most of the others on this list, actually. It’s got a decent flavor to it and is all good and juicy. Not much seasoning, though.
Here’s everything that’s bad about the Shake Shack’s hamburger. Despite that thick patty, the burger as a whole is pretty small. The quality is often inconsistent, too, and you’ve got a good chance of getting a dud patty if luck isn’t swinging your way.
Smashburger: Classic Smash
The Classic Smash from Smashburger comes as your choice of beef, turkey or black bean (we’ll stick to beef, here) patty between two egg buns with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and their very own Smash Sauce. The seasoning is usually quite light but the patties are generously-sized and seared nicely on the grill. The beef is never-frozen, so you’ll find none of that standard fast food muck, here. The toppings are completely standard and barely worth mentioning at all, however — even the Smash Sauce is pretty much just a combination of mustard and mayo. Nothing to fuss about there, really.
We’ll give them that egg bun, though. It’s soft, fluffy and just a little sweet, resulting in a bread accompaniment that’s unlike anything offered by any other fast food chains. Apart from that, there’s not a lot to say about this one. It’s a decent burger with a nice touch; good, but not great. Next.
Carl’s Jr.: Original Six Dollar Thickburger
Okay, we’re moving into better territory here. The closest thing Carl’s Jr. has to a plain hamburger is their Original Six Dollar Thickburger. Included are: a ⅓ lb patty, cheese, pickles, lettuce, red onion, tomatoes, ketchup, mayo and mustard. Nothing too remarkable, but the charbroiled patty is nice and thick (as you’d really hope would be the case, what with the name) and is usually cooked nicely without losing any flavor. The rest of the toppings are all solid enough, and the construction — which usually keeps the lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions underneath the patty and cheese rather than on top of it — makes for a more enjoyable experience. No vegetative toppings clashing with your cheese, you see?
Other than that, though, the Six Dollar Thickburger is a largely unremarkable entry onto the list. It’s decent, sure — and it’s certainly not bad. But it struggles to make its mark when you hold it up against some of its better rivals.
Fatburger: Medium Fatburger
Actually calling your restaurant "Fatburger" seems like one hell of a statement burger-wise, and there’s a lot of pressure to live up to it if you don’t want to earn the derision and disgust of your potential customer base. But good news! They just about pull it off.
The Fatburger comes in all kinds of sizes and hits both ends of the burger spectrum — the small version is way too small while the XXXL is exactly the kind of over-the-top decadence that led to the fall of Rome. The medium version is just fine: the standard toppings (lettuce, tomato, onion, relish, mustard and mayo) are jam-packed between two toasted buns, atop a patty which is big enough to avoid getting lost in the mix. It is, if you like, a fat burger.
That patty is also decently seasoned — if a little lean for our tastes. The whole thing is well-constructed too, and stays together nicely despite its size.
Jack in the Box: Jumbo Jack
Jack in the Box‘s flagship burger is the Jumbo Jack: a beef patty topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions and mayo. The beef isn’t usually particularly well-seasoned, but it is nicely grilled and generally stands as a cut above many of its rivals. The construction is solid, with neither toppings nor patty overpowering each other, while the bun is nicely buttery and just different enough from the plainer options you’ll find at other chains to keep things interesting. For the most part, this is a decent, solid burger.
The real problem here is the sole use of mayo as a sauce. That’s not to do any disservice to the condiment in general, but — unlike ketchup or mustard — it doesn’t really work by itself on a burger. At least we can be comforted in knowing they use "real" mayonnaise on their burgers — but there’s nothing wrong with expecting more from Jack.
Steak n’ Shake: Original Steakburger
As you can probably guess from their name, Steak ‘n Shake’s twist on what we peasants might call a "hamburger" is to refer to it instead as a "steakburger."This kind of rebrand is often little more than a sly, cynical ploy on the part of fast food marketing teams — in many places, a steakburger is just a hamburger all dressed up as a high-end menu item; the actual meat, however, is rarely any different.
Not so at Steak ‘n Shake, where the burgers are made from ground meat that comes from beef brisket and chuck. This is something of a point of pride for the chain, who have levied legal complaints against rivals for using the term "steakburger" in the past. So is it worth all that fuss?
The answer: kinda. Their Original Steakburger’s toppings are decent enough (sliced cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle) and we’ll never say no to a decent toasted bun. The patty itself tends to be juicy and well-sized and does benefit a little from being made of a superior cut — but nowhere near enough to justify calling it a steakburger and then taking someone to court for trying to do the same.
Wendy’s: Dave’s Single
At Wendy’s, the closest thing you’ve got to a classically-made hamburger is the Dave’s Single. As well as their patty (which we’ll come to) you’ve got cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, mayo and onion. Good stuff and bad stuff to make note of with the Dave’s Single — on the plus side, there’s the toasted bun, which is a mainstay feature of any decent burger and decidedly lacking in some of the efforts featured earlier on this list. And if we’re going to be really, really nitpicky, we wouldn’t have said no to the inclusion of some mustard. It breaks the heart just a little to see ketchup and mayo together without it.
Otherwise, the beef is decent — with the restaurant making the fact it’s never frozen a considerable selling point in their marketing — and makes up a patty that’s actually far juicier and more enjoyable than most of Wendy’s rivals. Good stuff.
A&W: Papa Burger
Although A&W does offer their own version of the classic yet supremely disappointing value-item hamburger, we’ll be looking at their flagship Papa Burger for the purposes of this exercise. Here’s what you’re looking at: two ⅓ lb patties, two slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and their own Papa Sauce on a toasted bun.
While the lesser hamburger (as is the case with most) offers too little, the Papa Burger gives diners just enough. The ratio between the two patties and the toppings is almost 50:50, while their butter-toasted bun keeps everything together nicely. That Papa Sauce is one of the better burger sauces out there, too, giving the whole thing a nice touch of the tang which ketchup, mayo and mustard usually fails to manage. The whole two-patty shtick might prove to be a tad too much for some people, especially considering they’re ⅓ lb each — but you didn’t come here for restraint, did you?
Fuddruckers: Customizable hamburger
"World’s greatest hamburgers!" That’s what they say, at least, and while Fuddruckers may not quite lay claim to that particular title, they do make a damn good try at it all the same. To start, every burger is grilled to order, which is more than you can say for some of America’s bigger chains. The toppings are fully customizable, which is always a plus — even if the choice is a little limited. Still, to be actively encouraged to tailor-make your burger, including or excluding any lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and cheese as you so wish, is something that only usually happens at some of the better burger chains out there.
The patties themselves are great, too. They’re never frozen, come from premium cut beef and, best of all, are nice, thick and juicy. The only downside to a Fuddruckers burger is that they’re really proud of their cheesy sauce, and often encourage you to add that to your burger instead of melted cheese. That, unfortunately, is a cardinal sin, and relegates the chain to the lower end of our top five.
Culver’s: Original ButterBurger
You can tell we’re starting to taste the good stuff, now. The Culver’s Original ButterBurger uses seasoned, never-frozen beef (seared to order) served on a buttered, toasted bun. Toppings are entirely customizable, but can include red onion, pickles, lettuce, ketchup, mustard and proper Wisconsin cheddar — which is a damn sight better than the plastic neon cheese goop that too many burger chains offer.
It’s like they’re meeting all the criteria for a decent fast food burger. Fresh, customizable, made to order — and it shows in the finished product. The beef is often very flavorful indeed, if a tad dry (and a little thinner than the ones you’ll see in our top three burgers), while the toasted and buttered bun is a welcome touch that keeps everything warm and moist. Final verdict? This is the best burger you’re going to get that’s still not quite just right. Which leads us to…
Ask any Texan where they get their burgers and they’ll all tell you the exact same thing: Whataburger — and for good reason, too. Whataburger’s big gimmick is customization, with diners able to choose from any combination of tomato, lettuce, onions, pickles, ketchup, mayo, jalapenos, cheese, bacon, grilled peppers and even avocado. As far as choice goes, this is as good as it gets.
The patties themselves are fresh, grilled and nicely seasoned, while the bun is good and toasted. Oh, and they’re a decent size, too, with the Whataburger patty usually turning out far wider (as well as better) than many of its rivals. Unfortunately, the downside of such a wide patty and bun is that it’s all the flatter for it. If you want the best of both worlds, you’re going to have to add another patty to your burger. Still, though — we can’t have it all.
Five Guys: Hamburger
The Five Guys hamburger is made up of two patties in a toasted bun with the customer’s choice of (totally free) toppings. These include lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, fresh onions, jalapenos, green peppers, ketchup, mayo, mustard, relish, BBQ sauce, hot sauce and A.1. sauce. The patties are well-grilled, succulent, and nice and wide — if a little thin for our liking. But that’s why you get two of them included in each hamburger, isn’t it?
What else is there to say? The sesame buns are nice and soft, the servings of toppings aren’t so heavy they get in the way (unless you want them to) and, if you choose the right combo, each burger can be positively bursting with flavor. Few things in our fleeting, mortal lives can match up to the taste of a nice, fresh Five Guys hamburger. Friendship, maybe. Or tax rebates. They’re good, is what we’re saying. And most people will agree that only one other major restaurant in America is capable of outdoing it.
In-N-Out Burger: Hamburger
And here we have it… the best; the creme de la creme; the head honcho; the bee’s knees; the godfather; the undisputed heavyweight champion of the fast food hamburger world: In-N-Out. The toppings are simple (lettuce, onions and tomatoes) but compounded with a special sauce that more than makes up for it. Everything is entirely fresh — peek inside the kitchen of your local In-N-Out and you won’t find a microwave, heat lamp or freezer in sight. Vegetables are hand-selected, while pretty much everything is regionally-sourced and free of additives and preservatives.
The patties themselves are cooked on the grill to the point of perfection, of course, and the toppings on each burger are generous in quantity without ever becoming clumsy or overbearing. You can tell they’re fresh, too, with every piece of lettuce, onion or tomato tasting genuinely, honest-to-god real. And that’s not something you can say for the rest, is it?