Burger King
Five Guys
Shake Shack
White Castle

It's safe to say that the most popular food in the country, if not the entire world at this point, is the hamburger. They're easy to make, cheap to buy, taste delicious and can be found everywhere on every menu from a truck stop diner to a five star restaurant to your uncle's backyard barbecue. But by far, the most common place to consume a burger is the fast food chain restaurant and, advertising, brand loyalty, and convenience aside, we somewhat assume that they all taste pretty much the same. If the Wendy's is here, and the Hardee's you grew up with in Iowa is in Iowa, but you want a hamburger, you don't go buying a plane ticket. You walk into Wendy's. But are they the same? Are they all just cheap eats hovering around the same point on the bell curve? I needed to know. So I went to the eight fast food hamburger chains that we NYers have access to to find out. That means no jaunts to Iowa to get Hardee's, or flights to LA for In-N-Out, or hoofing it to the Arby's in Middle Village, or waiting for the waitress to take my order at Johnny Rockets or Cheeburger Cheeburger. I chose the signature burger, paid for it, ate it, and then ran a few miles to assuage myself of the guilt.

Whopper with cheese

Cost: 4.99
Calories: 650
NYC locations: 81
The Whopper might have, once upon a time, been the fancier version of a fast food hamburger, thanks in large part to Burger King's emphasis on the sesame seed bun, the "flame broiled" beef that never sees a heat lamp, and the "Have it your way" slogan. But these days, just about everyone uses sesame seed buns and, unless you're at a rest stop on the Turnpike, everyone cooks their hamburgers right at the point that you order it. The flame broiled taste, is, of course, a nice plus, but there are actual fancy fast food joints now and Burger King isn't one of them. I liked the Whopper, but didn't love it. It was far better than the Big Mac, and far less greasy than the Big 'n' Juicy, and I liked the tang from whatever mayo sauce goop they put on it, but it was far from amazing. The beef patty felt small and it was fighting the bun and veggies to get attention. When the beef was tasteable, that signature BK flame char taste was a nice perk, but it was in limited supply. Not to mention that at 650 calories, this isn't something your BMI wants you to add extra patties to.
Verdict: 6


Cost: $2.49
Calories: 400
NYC locations: 32
Checkers has blown into NYC en masse in the past few years, going from just two establishments to over thirty (probably thanks to the recession). They're known for being suburban, dirt cheap, and drive-through-only. Here in NYC, while they're still dirt cheap, there's only one I know of that's drive-through-only. Checkers is just a regular fast food joint... only smaller, dingier, people will go table to table trying to sell  DVDs while you eat, the manager will yell over the counter at a homeless person who decided to kill the day sitting in the corner without ordering any food, and the neighborhoods they move into are often the ones you might not want to walk through at night. But the burger is good, despite looking like something from the reject bin. For literally half the cost of the mainstream competition, you get something that's almost the same size but tastes noticeably better. It was shocking. Get the Checkerburger, not the Champ. I asked what the difference was except for the Champ's higher price tag and the guy behind the counter said "nothing but the bun". Yes, there was an "A" in the window. I know you were wondering.
Verdict: 7

Little Cheese Burger

Cost: 5.99
Calories: 550
NYC locations: 21
The Little Cheese burger, which is the single beef patty variant, is fantastic and not very little. You pick any toppings and sauces you want and they make it to order. Yeah, Five Guys decor is far from swanky. The first thing you notice is the overwhelming aroma of french fries. Then the boxes of peanuts. Then the spartanness. Not a penny was spent on style or color or decoration. Indeed, other that the lack of bums Five Guys could pass for a cleaner version of Checkers. But there's no denying the flavor. There's no denying that this is a damn good hamburger that will explode with taste like an all beef hand grenade with lettuce and onion. As an aside that has nothing to do with the competition, I appreciated the high tech soda machine that let's you make your own flavored drinks. No longer am I reduced to only Diet Coke. I can now have Diet Vanilla Cherry Coke Sprite Tea.
Verdict: 9

The Lucky's Original

Cost: $7.00
Calories: n/a
NYC Locations: 3
Fifteen minutes is a long time to wait for fast food, especially in the tight quarters of a Lucky's Original Hamburger shop and the Lucky's Original is not a cheap hamburger. In fact, at almost three times the price of the Checkerburger, it's the most expensive of any that I tried. But this is a lean, clean burger. There was no grease. Like, I didn't need a napkin. When you bite into a big-chain hamburger, the meat tastes like big-chain hamburger meat. With its uniform smooth consistency and crisp edges, that meat is practically a separate food entirely from "ground beef". Yeah, you pay more, but the very small-chain Lucky's burger (served on a Morton's potato bun) comes from hormone-free, vegetarian-feed cattle farms  and tastes like actual food. Just look at the patty in the photo. It's clearly been shaped by a hand and not in a factory (unless they fake it very well). Ironically, it's because the meat tasted so... healthy that it didn't score as high as Five Guys. The incredible volume of fat in the Five Guys burger boosts the flavor. The lack of fat here flattens it some. Side note, their fountain sodas are Boylan's. I had the Diet Black Cherry.
Verdict: 8

Big Mac

Quarter-Pounder with Cheese 

          Big Mac: $4.69
          Quarter Pounder with Cheese: $4.39
          Big Mac: 530
          Quarter Pounder with Cheese: 520
NYC locations: 241
McDonald's is the chain the world loves to hate. Any excuse to crap on Mickey D is jumped on with an almost giddy fervor, from protests over ingredients to complaints about the salady-ness of their salads, if there's something that people can get butthurt over, then someone will.  For example, upon opening a Mexican franchise, an ad campaign used the tagline "tamales are a thing of the past." How dare you shit on our heritage?!?! was the response and McDonald's was forced to make an apology. I make it a point to ignore this kind of ridiculousness and focus my energy whether the grub is worth eating. Indeed, as one friend of mine likes to say, "they wouldn't sell a billion hamburgers a year if they didn't taste good." I tend to think that, with three times the number of outlets of their nearest competitor (34,000 globally/NYC 241, to Burger Kings 13,000 globally/NYC 81) market dominance plays a significant role in this, but I see his point. All the same, this is about my completely personal objective opinion. 

In that objective opinion, there are some things that McDonald's not only does well, but does better than anyone else. Their fries, their nuggets, the McChicken dollar-menu sandwich. The Big Mac and the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, for all their gravitas as the burgers that built the brand, are not on that list. Having had far too many cheeseburgers in the last few weeks, I can say with certainty that, aside from the White Castle slider, the McDonalds cheeseburgers tasted the least like "cheeseburgers". They tasted like McDonalds. They tasted like cheeseburger-shaped proprietary beef-product. Like something lab techs created with "mouth feel" in mind. In the same sense that there's a difference between having orange juice for breakfast and having Tang, there's a difference between having a cheeseburger for lunch and having a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. It's not revolting, but it's a whole different beast.

The Big Mac is on the larger size of the burgers I tried and it was a thoroughly solid disappointment. Special sauce notwithstanding, it was a bland meal. The Big Mac needs two patties, not just because it allows you to think that you're getting more bang for your buck, but because without it, you wouldn't taste any meat. Vast acres of bread, a sea of tangy sauce. That's what you taste. There were two lukewarm patties of beef in there somewhere, which got only colder as time passed and vegetables cooled them, but I was hard pressed to notice where they were. Cheese? I could see cheese. I even have a photo proving that there was cheese. Legally speaking, this was a cheeseburger in every sense of the word. But it was actually a cold bun-sandwich with sauce. The Quarter Pounder with Cheese was better, even enjoyable. Aside from the White Castle slider, this was the most spartan of the burgers in the Smackdown. On the one hand, at least I could easily taste the McBeef, but there was no lettuce, no cheese, and the onion and pickle are diced up and tossed casually under the bun. This is literally the dollar menu burger writ large. It even tastes the same. It just costs four times as much. 

Verdict: Big Mac: 4; Quarter Pounder with Cheese: 5


Cost: $5.19
Calories: 490
NYC Locations: 12
Coffee is everywhere, from gas stations in the middle of the desert to the middle of the dessert menu at an expensive restaurant. Here in New York City it's no different. Diners, bodegas, breakfast carts, 7-Eleven, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks. We're not running out of options when it comes to getting coffee. The same can be said of burgers. They're everywhere, and in the same way that Starbucks has thrived in a saturated market despite the mostly incorrect but popular belief that they sell a more expensive product, so does Shake Shack want to thrive. It's following a very similar strategy: open up new locations that feel well designed and chic in wealthy neighborhoods or business districts and encourage the mostly incorrect but popular belief that you're buying a more expensive product. This attracts a clientele of people with more affluent tastes - people who aren't for example, homeless. If you want cheap, you can go to Checkers and hobnob with, literally, bums. If you'd prefer the guy at the table next to you to be a graphic designer or an architect, you should probably get lunch at Shake Shack. 

I hadn't had a Shake Shack cheeseburger in probably four or five years, mostly because I couldn't imagine standing on line in Madison Square Park for forty five minutes to get one (if I had an intern though...). Now that they've expanded and forty five minute lines aren't the norm, I returned and, for the first time in the challenge, when I bit into my lunch, my eyes widened. "Holy shit" was the rough translation. This is an amazing cheeseburger. Even better than Five Guys, which I honestly didn't see coming. The burger had the perfect ratio of cheese and sauce and bun and the meat was perfection. Even the bun was better than your average bun. Every flavor note that a cheeseburger should hit was hit. I may be willing to stand on that line now.
Verdict: 10

Dave's Hot 'n' Juicy Single with Cheese

Cost: $4.79
Calories: 580
NYC locations: 35
Wendy's Hot 'n' Juicy started out delicious. That first bite gave out this huge blast of great beef taste and I was beyond surprised. I mean, here I am in a recently renovated fast food establishment at lunchtime on a weekend, it's jam-packed with teenagers and parents with little kids. The staff is rushing around behind the scenes as people are ordering literally eight meals at a time. There's a line fifteen people deep. Wendy's has always been third place among the chains and one can't imagine that the food factory in the back is lovingly placing each tomato slice on each burger with the care of a surgeon. I'm not expecting much. So for that first bite, BAM! I was impressed. But the second bite was less impressive. And the third was boring. The vegetables were clearly fresh, it was nice having one solid piece of lettuce instead of the shredded mulch you normally get, and Wendy's signature square burger means a little bit more (slightly too greasy) meat between the bun, but, in the end, the Hot 'n' Juicy is a dull, inoffensive hamburger designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible so as to pull out of third place. It's a burger that tastes like something created for the purposes of retaining market share without being vibrant enough to gain some. There was a reason that I always ordered their Spicy Chicken Sandwich, and now I remember why.
Vedict: 5

Slider with Cheese

Cost: $0.95
Calories: 140
NYC locations: 27
When I told people that I was including White Castle in the Smackdown, I got two basic replies. "Why waste your time?" on the one hand, and "Damn right you are!" on the other. White Castle is just as polarizing a chain as McDonald's but for a very different reason. People are polarized around McDonald's for reasons, real or imagined, which are political. People are polarized around White Castle arguing that their food is either addictively delicious or completely disgusting (after all, if the guys at Dude Foods couldn't make the slider taste good even with $400 worth of add-ons, what hope was there?).

Unlike the other contenders in the Smackdown, White Castle has no regular sized hamburger, only sliders. So you don't go to White Castle and order a burger for lunch, you order a bag of them. Each hamburger (or in this case cheeseburger) comes in it's own little, "fuck you, Environment", cardboard box. This middle finger to Mother Earth is, however, a necessity because each burger is so delicate that all but the lightest touch will cause it to wither and deflate like an ice cube in the Arizona sun. It's almost as if the food itself is cowering under the realization that its doom is nigh, and that you are the harbinger of its destruction.

The White Castle Cheeseburger is, in all likelihood, an April Fool's joke that never ended. First, the sliders are soggy. By which I mean literally damp. The meat patty is so thin that it competes with the cheese slice for volume. When you bite down, you taste only bread, cheese, the occasional tang of a shred of pickle and the ghost of meat. In the same way that spritzing Febreze in your living room gives you the illusion of ocean mist, thus does the White Castle slider give you the illusion of beef; the faint hint of something that you aren't really experiencing.

In order to equal the volume of another chain burger one would need to order probably six sliders, making the White Castle burgers both more expensive and less healthy, while still not tasting as good or even being as filling as the aforementioned, mediocre Big Mac. Hey, if I was at a party high or drunk and there was a tray of sliders out to grab, then yeah, I'd inhale a few dozen of 'em and not think twice. They aren't disgusting. But for lunch, sitting alone by the window, holding a limp, soulless piece of mush in my hand, I couldn't help but feel as though I was ingesting the physical embodiment of depression.
Verdict: 2


Gold: Shake Shack
Silver: Five Guys
Bronze: Lucky's

I'm not one to poopoo a chain meal simply because it's a chain meal and as much of a food snob as I am, I'm more than happy to order from a food cart that hasn't been washed in a month. But in this instance, the big chains just didn't compete relative to the smaller guys. Their burgers have become too engineered and too uninteresting. Without ads from huge marketing departments and the preexisting infrastructure and capital that comes from generations of market dominance, the large chains would probably fail, especially in the big cities where the choices are many. One cannot escape the fact that Shake Shack doesn't advertise but they're growing like nobody's business, while the chains have ads everywhere but are closing stores by the day. 

The losers here were dull. Old hat. Tasteless. The winners were vibrant. Exciting (as exciting as a cheeseburger can be, anyway. I mean, it's a cheeseburger after all). Memorable.

Honorable mention to Checkers. They may be a dirty filthy pit, but the cost per square taste bud...

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