There is no more welcome sight in this world to a road weary traveler than the sign on the side of the highway telling them that one of America's fast food burger chains is coming up at the next exit.
Scattered across the countryside, and in virtually every small, medium and large city in the United States, burger joints are the food of choice for those in a hurry, those on a budget, or just an aficionado of meat laden sandwiches.
Today we'll compare ten of America's best known burger franchises, looking for taste versus value.
Number 10. McDonald's
No surprises is what comes to mind when one stops at a McDonald's these days. The largest of the meat shacks by far with over 31,000 stores worldwide as of 2012, McDonald's has served more burgers than any of it's competitors bar none. Started in 1940 as a barbecue eatery in San Bernadino, California, the copying of the East Coast's White Castle's Speedee Service System quickly catapulted McDonald's to franchise supremacy.
Being the top dog in an industry sometimes has it's drawbacks as McDonald's found out the hard way. From being accused to being a contributor to the obesity problem in America to lawsuits over hot coffee, (remember that one?) McDonald's has had to revamp their menu several times over the years to accommodate an increasingly health conscious public.
Today's menu at McDonald's includes all the old favorites such as the Big Mac, (the special sauce is only thousand island dressing!), the Quarter Pounder, and the once novel Filet of Fish Sandwich. Modern offerings include an array of chicken sandwiches, burgers wrapped in tortillas, ten different types of prepackaged salads, smoothies, lattes, fruit cups, and the classic McRib sandwich.
Listed here as number 10 only due to the sheer boring aspect of their food offerings, McDonald's nonetheless has earned it's rightful spot among America's premier fast food burger joints.
Number 9. Burger King
Started in 1953 in Jacksonville, Florida under the name 'Insta-Burger King', by 1959, the restaurant had earned enough claim to fame to begin franchising out. Today, with around 12,000 worldwide locations, Burger King is second only to McDonald's in sheer volume of product sold.
Famous for the Whopper sandwich line which featured what was once considered a huge beef patty grilled over an open flame instead of the usual flat kitchen grill, the Whopper has given way in recent years to a more hearty menu that includes Burger King's BK Topper line. The bad news for Burger King is that they had an absolute winner with 2011's introduction of the jalapeno and cheddar stuffed BK Topper burger which was absolutely perfect as far as fast food burgers go, but then, after only a couple of weeks, it was pulled from the menu in favor of the old standby lackluster offerings.
Burger King also offers their own versions of chicken sandwiches and the improvement of their french fries to thick cut earned them the spot above McDonald's. But the main problem with Burger King as with McDonald's is that when one orders food as seen in their ever present television commercials, the food comes looking nothing like the neat, orderly stacked burgers shown in their ads, and in fact, in most cases, one ends up with a sloppy, half off the bun mess.
Number 8. White Castle
Those of us who have lived in or around New York, or the mid-west areas of the country fortunate enough to have a White Castle burger franchise nearby, know exactly what I'm talking about when I say the White Castle slogan of "It's What You Crave!".
Around since 1921 when the first White Castle store opened in Wichita, Kansas, today the franchise boasts almost 500 restaurants, all in the U.S.
Famous for their small square patties that are cooked with onion slivers underneath the burgers on a grill, then steamed with the bun on top to allow the meat and onion flavors to permeate the bun, White Castle is the destination of choice for partiers after a long night at the clubs. A pickle slice is inserted into all their sandwiches, and one can purchase what is called a Crave Case, consisting of anywhere from 10 to 30 of these delectable little burgers.
The only reason White Castle doesn't make it higher up the list is the lack of restaurants in the western part of the country.
Number 7. Jack In The Box
The clown symbol atop the restaurants started in San Diego, California by Robert Peterson in 1941 are no longer there. Trying to compete with McDonald's by moving towards the East Coast and targeting families with children, Jack In The Box began to suffer losses enough to make it abandon it's plans and revamp their marketing style. The clown symbol gave way to a more sophisticated look and feel for the franchises in order to attract the more affluent 'yuppie' crowd. Now the clown wore a suit and tie, and delivered beyond the original Jumbo Jack burger that put this place on the map.
Offering a new line of burgers, such as the Sirloin Swiss and Grilled Onion burger, or the Sourdough Steak melt, Jack In The Box also diversified their menu to include tacos, chicken sandwiches, and salads. To be sure, it has been my experience that out of all the burger joints around the country that offer tacos, Jack In The Box makes a very good one. They use corn, not flour tortillas and that makes all the difference.
Some of their other fare includes a grilled sandwich piled up with salami, turkey, ham, provolone cheese, pickles, and Italian dressing. Can you say Yum?
Number 6. Dairy Queen
John 'Grandpa' McCullough opened the first Dairy Queen restaurant in Joliet, Illinois in 1940 after first pioneering the soft serve ice cream so popular today at his friend's restaurant in 1938. So enthralled were his customers by the new form of dessert, that on the first day it was offered, they sold over 1,600 servings. The rest is history as they say, and today Dairy Queen boasts more than 4,500 franchises worldwide.
Serving The Grillburger and hot dogs almost exclusively along with their soft serve ice cream for many years, recent additions have come to include chicken sandwiches, wraps, a grilled turkey club sandwich, a shrimp basket, salads, and a variety of different burgers.
When it comes to taste, Dairy Queen's burger and sandwich offerings are very basic and bland. Yes, if you're in a rush and you're really hungry, DQ, as it's called, would be a place to refuel. But most people don't come here for the burgers and fries anyway. They flock to DQ for their absolutely fantastic ice cream concoctions, including chocolate dipped cones, the Oreo brownie earthquake, banana splits of all kinds, waffle cone sundaes and of course the famous Blizzard, which can be tailored with cookies, candy and fruit to make whatever your sugar craving desires.
On top of all that, DQ also offers a large variety of ice cream cakes for your next party or just to have as a dessert.
Number 5. Wendy's
In 2011, Wendy's restaurants outsold Burger King for the first time since Dave Thomas opened his little Wendy's restaurant in Columbus, Ohio back in 1969. Named after his fourth daughter, Melinda 'Wendy' Thomas, Wendy's was the first fast food burger chain to offer it's customers an all you can eat salad bar. Today there are 7,000 franchises worldwide.
Taking the approach of serving hot, freshly made to order burgers, Dave Thomas had a loyal following with his 'Dave's Hot And Juicy' burgers. No heat lamps were to be found in Wendy's restaurants, so unlike the older, more established franchises, customers knew their food hadn't been sitting around for an hour until they placed their order. More recent burger additions are the Baconator, which is as good as it sounds.
Of course, in keeping with the times, Wendy's offers several chicken sandwiches, with the best being the Hot N' Spicy one. Featuring chili, macaroni and cheese, baked potatoes, and even chili cheese fries as side dishes makes Wendy's a far better bet than some of the other chains, as one can always experiment with a little mix and match during each visit. A must have is the Frosty Float, which is served in several flavors, like Coke, root beer, orange, and even Sprite.
Number 4. Five Guys Burgers And Fries
Not just any chain burger for sure, Five Guys began in 1986 in Arlington, Virginia serving made to order burgers and hot dogs. Flirting briefly with chicken sandwiches, the idea was swiftly thrown out when the chicken fare didn't meet up to the standards of the Murrell family which runs this now 1,000 strong chain.
Offering a simple burger and kosher hot dog menu, the burgers are some of the best in the business and come with a long list of free condiments to choose from. Everything from jalapenos to to grilled mushrooms to A-1 Steak Sauce has made Five Guys a must stop in and eat for any true hamburger lover. Hailed as Washington D.C.'s number one burger for the past seven years.
Not cheap on the meat, Five Guys' burgers are a little higher priced than average, but the price is well worth the flavor. The other drawback as this little chain that could expands westward, is that they are sometimes hard to find, choosing locations mostly in and around shopping malls.
Number 3. In-N-Out Burger
Californians will tell you that eating at In-N-Out Burger is almost a rite of passage for those born on the west coast. And even though there are currently only about 300 locations spread out across America's western states, plans for expansion east are in the works.
In-N-Out was started by Harry Snyder in Baldwin Park, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1948. Serving above average hamburgers and using high quality ingredients, the restaurant swiftly gathered a dedicated customer base.
One of the oddities at In-N-Out is their so called 'secret menu'. Customers in the know may order any number of varieties to the already fantastic burgers by quoting from the secret menu. Burgers that are 'mustard grilled' for instance, a feat that involves grilling one side of the burger, slathering the other side with mustard, then flipping it mustard side down to grill the mustard into the meat. One can order a 4 by 4, which is four meat patties along with four slices of cheese.
Other 'secret' delectables include the burger with chopped chilis, wherein the chilis are pressed into the burger and seared into the meat, as well as the popular Animal Burger which consists of grilled onions cooked down in the meat choice, mustard grilled patties, extra thousand island dressing, and extra pickles.
In-N-Out is so popular that people have been known to fly into L.A. from the east coast just to eat there.
Number 2. Sonic Drive in
Boasting almost 4,000 locations, Sonic has come come a long way from it's humble roots as a $700 a week root beer and hot dog stand. Serving some of the country's best burgers and Coney style hot dogs anywhere, Sonic operates currently in 43 U.S. states.
Sonic's signature burgers include the Super Sonic bacon Double Cheeseburger and the Bacon Cheeseburger Toaster Sandwich, which has everything but the kitchen sink on it, plus BBQ sauce.
The Coneys offered are many, such as the New Yorker, a grilled beef dog slathered in spicy brown mustard and topped with grilled onions and sauerkraut. The Chicago is another monstrosity which bursts it's celery seed bun with a grilled beef dog, a sliced pickle, relish, tomato, peppers, celery salt and mustard.
Some side dishes are their chili cheese tater tots, Ched R Peppers, (like poppers, only with cheddar cheese,), and mozzarella sticks.
One of the only burger chains to offer carside service, where actual wait staff will come out to your car with your food, Sonic is most assuredly one of the best burger stops in America.
Number 1. Carl's Junior/Hardee's
Depending upon which area of the country you are in, one can see either a Carl's Junior burger joint or their sibling company, called Hardee's. Both owned by CKE Holding Company, the menus are fairly similar, with both offering something called The Southwest Patty Melt. This burger is so good, with it's 1/3 pound flame broiled burger patty, piled up with grilled jalapenos and onions, pepper jack cheese and a spicy Sante Fe sauce all shoved between grilled sourdough bread, that one may be tempted to try and eat two of them in one sitting. Only for those with the heartiest of appetites, this already huge burger can also be had with two patties!
Although from there the menus differ a little to cater to the different tastes in each part of the country, both restaurants boast being the 5th largest chains in America.
Some fare from Hardee's includes Turkey Burgers for the weight conscious, BBQ chicken sandwiches, bacon and cheddar fries, and even beer battered onion rings. Carl's Junior has a teriyaki burger, honey mustard chicken sandwich, fried zucchini, and criss cross cut french fries.
Both offer the decadent Oreo Cookie Ice Cream Malted, but if you have already devoured the above mentioned Southwest Patty melt, you can't possibly have room left for this dessert. Because we both know that we all had the chili cheese fries with that burger and are too full to move towards the counter to order that malted anyway.
In a publicity stunt several years back, Carl's Junior began offering the Southwest Patty Melt as the Six Dollar Burger. They set up a fake restaurant to appear as though it was a high class sit down place and invited people to try this burger that they told them was 14 bucks. The customers loved the burger so much that they were willing to pay that much for it, no problem. So yes, we have America's best fast food chain burger, and it resides at Carl's Junior/Hardee's.
Now of course all of these rankings can be changed around to your own likes and dislikes, because, as I dip my chili cheese fry into first the mustard and then the ketchup, pop it into my mouth and let out a loving sigh, this has all been after all, just my humble opinion..................