A committee rates, ranks contenders

Steve Hammer

As a public service, a few months ago I published a guide to the best cheap beer in the city. It took dozens of hours sampling and evaluating these beers to determine their quality, but the time was well-spent.

The rigorous scientific process determined that the Aldi beer Northstar and the fabled Pabst Blue Ribbon are the best beers available for under $10 per case.

Those demanding standards have now been applied in a quest to find the best 99-cent fast-food hamburger. In this survey, my colleagues and myself traveled the city from border to border. Our mission: to find and expose the truth about cheap fast-food burgers.

While the entire 350-page report is still in draft form, I have been authorized to disclose our interim findings.

Here's what we've found so far.

The contenders

Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, Wendy's, 99 cents. One consistent quality among all the 99-cent burgers we tested was a lack of ambition. There is no clearer example of this than the Junior Bacon Cheeseburger. As its name implies, it is a scaled-down version of their regular burger. A single slice of American cheese and several gristly strips of bacon are complemented by a leaf of iceberg lettuce and a dash of mayo.

While the effort is admirable, the execution is extremely flawed. Several of the burgers sampled were ice-cold, while others appeared barely cooked. The committee theorizes that Wendy's allegiance to their 99-cent menu is not as strong as once appeared.

Verdict: Unacceptable.

Double Cheeseburger, McDonald's, $1. At one time, the name McDonald's symbolized all that is good about fast-food. They were cheap, fast and reliable. In recent years, however, increased competition has battered the food titan. The Big Mac has steadily shrunk in size. Their fries, once the unquestioned industry leader, have suffered in quality. And the restaurant's best-kept secret, the delicious Filet o' Fish, has priced itself out of existence except for purists.

The Double Cheeseburger, introduced in the 1990s as a promotional item, has nearly eclipsed the Big Mac as the default sandwich of choice for many customers. It's easy to see why. With inflation pushing a single cheeseburger to the 90-cent price, a double burger for 10 cents more must be better. Right?

Unfortunately, our committee must report that the primacy of the Double Cheeseburger is in doubt.

Unlike its single-pattied brother, the Double Cheeseburger is a nasty, greasy mess. Even the act of holding one can cause grease to run down both arms. Several testers' polyester clothes were ruined permanently by this substance. Its condiments - a simple mixture of rehydrated onions, a single pickle slice and a dab of ketchup - are not enough to overcome its flaws.

Asked to describe the culinary experience, one of our staff investigators wrote, "Imagine a drunken, 300-pound Kirstie Alley trying to tongue-kiss you after she just climbed out of a vat of shortening and onions."

Unfortunately, that description is far too accurate for the debacle this once-proud sandwich has become.

Verdict: Unacceptable.

Chili Dog, Rally's, 99 cents. While the predominant focus of this survey was the hamburger, our staff was intrigued by Rally's Chili Dog, an alleged "all-beef" frank coated in chili and surrounded by a platoon of chopped red onion. From the moment your server hands it to you, this chili dog demands immediate attention. If the crimson grease stain growing in an expanding semicircle at the bottom of the paper bag doesn't draw you in, its texture and flavor will. Imagine a block of salt coated in onions and tomato sauce. Then add even more onions, and more, and more, until the entire sandwich becomes an homage to the virtues of the red onion. A dollop of nacho cheese can be added for a small additional fee, making it even more of a delicious mess. Not recommended for the treatment of obesity, hypertension or bad breath.

Verdict: Recommended.

Mushroom 'N' Swiss Burger, Rally's, 99 cents (when available). Limited in availability presumably because of the worldwide mushroom shortage, as well as increased international demand for gravy, the Rally's Mushroom 'N' Swiss Burger appears on menus for only brief periods before being pulled. The Rally's basic burger is adorned with a slice of Swiss-flavored, pastuerized cheese product and a generous helping of brown mushroom gravy. The subtle flavor appeals to the palate on a textural and visceral level. In some samples, the gravy appeared to be poured on the burger with abandon, making the sandwich a bizarre middle ground between a hamburger and a soup. Whether consumed slowly over time or in an orgy of swift bites, this hamburger succeeds both as theater and as food. Its limited availability stands as a metaphor for the tenuous nature of our existence.

Verdict: Highly recommended.

White Castle Cheeseburger, White Castle, 49 cents. As a symbol of excess, the White Castle stands unchallenged. Who among us can deny gorging oneself with them during a drinking binge? Who can deny the power of the steam-grilled, onion-coated, five-hole patty offered by White Castle? Its bun, steamed and browned with burger grease, could itself be a meal. While it is said only a sack of 10 burgers can give one the complete White Castle experience, even two of these delightfully salted and seasoned burgers are enough for the committee to authoritatively assert that it doesn't get any better than this.

Verdict: Highly recommended.

The complete results of the survey - including an evaluation of more than 200 menu items from 20 restaurants - will be printed later this spring by the U.S. Government Printing Office. Our committee will continue its work until all of America is united behind a single hamburger. With your help - and God's - we shall achieve this goal in our lifetime without raising taxes and with a minimum of military force.


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