As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become the worst kind of person. I once happily double fisted Bud Lights or Miller Lites at parties, now I’m a beer snob. I used to be fine with Trader Joe’s two buck Chuck, now I’m a wine snob. Dominos and Papa Johns were acceptable pizzas several years ago, now I’d rather pay up for Antico. Now, to my horror, I’ve become a burger snob. If I have a choice, I’ll go to a dine-in local place with a great burger rather than fast food. However, you don’t always have that choice, especially if you travel a lot, but the fast food industry is far more competitive than it used to be. There were a handful of regional and national chains when we were kids, now there are several different major chains from which to choose. I’ve been fortunate to try each of the major chains multiple times in my life. Variety is the spice of life, might as well try what you can before you get diabetes or heart problems from eating too much beef with bovine growth hormone. But I digress.
Let me be clear. This is a definitive ranking of burgers only. This does not account for other items on the menu which may be better. Frankly, if you call yourself a burger place, your burger had better be one of the best things on the menu anyways. So let’s get started here.
1. Shake Shack
I didn’t have a chance to try Shake Shack until a couple of years ago when one opened up about a mile or two down the road from where I live. I was absolutely blown away. The Shake Shack burger was worth the hype. It has the perfect bun:meat:cheese ratio. The cheese is perfectly melted onto the patty rather than lazily slapped on during the latter stages of cooking. It’s nice and greasy and is ideal sober or drunk. Not to mention it’s one of the few burger chains that serve beer at their locations.
Here’s where all the haters are going to come out and say In-N-Out is garbage. Until I tried Shake Shack, I pegged In-N-Out as the best fast food burger in America. The flexibility of the “secret menu” is an added bonus, but let’s talk about the burger itself. This is another chain that has perfected the bun:meat:cheese ratio. They also focus on ideal cheese melt, giving you a high quality, tasty burger. The secret sauce doesn’t overwhelm the flavor of the burger, and there are videos and recipes all over the internet of people trying to replicate it. The flexibility is awesome, too, as you can stack as many patties as you want on a burger. Double double. Triple triple. I’ve walked marg drunk from Venice Beach, CA to the In-N-Out on Washington Blvd and ate a 4×4. This should be the undisputed #2, maybe even a tie for #1.
3. Five Guys
Five Guys fries are bomb, but their burger does not disappoint, either. Once again, they too understand the value of the bun:meat:cheese ratio as well as properly melting cheese on the patty. As with Shake Shack and In-N-Out, you never get robbed on the meat and the cheese, and it’s a very tasty burger. Also, having a long list of free toppings definitely adds points. The top three on this list are very close, but this is how it ironed out.
Smashburger’s brand is totally based around taking a piece of meat, smashing it, and putting it on a bun. Pretty tacky, I know, but it does make for a tender, tasty patty. Gotta break down those proteins. I’m not as big a fan of the bun:meat:cheese ratio, but they make up for it by having a wide variety of burgers as well as a build your own burger. Its benefits are similar to Steak and Shake except with higher quality meat and other ingredients. And thoroughly tested flavor combinations.
5. Steak and Shake
Steak and Shake is an American classic. The steak burgers, however, aren’t as high quality as Smashburger but still have an excellent variety and a greasy but tasty flavor. I’m partial to the Wisconsin Buttery because I apparently hate my arteries, but they also have a Royale with cheese. And you can’t beat the price for the quality and flavor you get.
I’m going to get slammed for this one, but it’s the brutal truth. Whataburger is not a top five burger at all. It’s lucky it’s this high on the list. The closest one to me is in Fort Walton Beach, FL, so when I head down to the gulf coast I try to stop by. Why? I really want to like it. People are so rabid about it and I really, really want to like it. I want to know if I’m missing something. But it’s just not that great. It’s an average or slightly above average fast food burger. You could put a Burger King burger and a Whataburger in front of me, blindfold me, and have me taste test and I’d probably not be able to guess which is which if not for the better cheese on the Whataburger. I can totally respect why Texans like it, because people who live in Texas think everything from Texas is the best, but Whataburger just is not the best, by a long shot.
I threw in the Checkers burger at the last minute because it is marginally better than the Burger King burger. You really go to Checkers for the fries, but the burger is not bad.
8. Burger King
All I really have to say about Burger King is that, in terms of quality, it is better than McDonalds. It’s a YUGE drop from Whataburger and Checkers, but is only slightly better than McDonalds. Double Whopper with Cheese if there’s nothing else available.
I grew up a McDonald’s kid. Micky-D’s will always have a special taste to me because it reminds me of my childhood when we’d get a Big Mac, their salty fries, and a shake after a little league game, but it’s a cheap, salty burger. I might get a McDonald’s burger if there’s nothing better nearby, but nowadays there’s almost always a better place. Like Chick Fil A. Thank God those are popping up everywhere these days.
10. Krystal/White Castle
Krystal and White Castle are basically the same burgers and same crappy quality. But if you’re drunk, they taste like heaven. They are a top tier burger when your BAC is .15, and then you head home with a sackful and cheese fries and make sex noises as you eat them. However, trying it sober is a wakeup call.
The rest of the major chains are honorable mention. I heard Hardees has gotten better, but I never found them appealing. I’m sure there are some great local chains out there with great burgers, but in terms of regional and national chains this is certainly the definitive ranking..