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 5, 2013 in and around San Diego, CA.
8th place: Jack in the Box's "Big Cheeseburger"
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.
7th place: Carl's Jr's "Big Burger with Cheese"
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.
6th place: Burger King's "Cheeseburger"
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.
5th place: Sonic's "Cheeseburger"
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.