The Best Fast Food Cheeseburger: A Bracket Challenge In One Day
As the top fast food investigative journalist in the world/my mind, it’s my duty to figure out which fast food chain has the best cheeseburger. I’m not talking specialty, quarter pounders, special sauce, BACON EVERYWHERE burgers. I’m talking plain, bottom of the barrel, standard, cheeseburgers. Some may call them their Jr. Cheeseburgers, but they do that so you feel like a pussy when ordering and opt for a more expensive option instead. I’m onto you, Wendy’s.
So I set out on a mission to find the best fast food cheeseburger in the only way I know how. Making it an entirely unnecessary challenge that negatively impacts my well-being. I’ll be placing all the competitors into a bracket and eating through that bracket over the course of one day.
I don’t care about price or calories or my health. Whatever tastes the best, wins. I chose 8 restaurants based on one main criteria: they had to have a drive-thru. So no Five Guys, no Shake Shack, no quasi, fast-casual chains. The whole point of fast food is enduring as little human interaction with as much convenience as possible.
The 1 seeds
Amazingly, In-N-Out fits the criteria. Universally heralded as one of the best fast food burgers, it’s basically the Chick-fil-A of burgers. Although I’ve eaten there before, I’ve never had a cheeseburger without the lettuce, tomato, and their special sauce before. Besides, this competition needs a villain to root against. It’s the clear favorite and top overall seed. It’s the Yankees of burgers, except the Yankees actually aren’t that good anymore and haven’t been since the late 90s. Bad example. How about, it’s a good burger and will probably win this challenge. Let’s hate it.
Wendy’s gets the other number 1 seed as I’ve found most of Wendy’s offerings to be a slight step above its competitors. It doesn’t have the clout of In-N-Out, but I do appreciate that it’s the biggest chain to really try something different and trendy. Pretzel buns, ciabatta, brioche, gouda, aioli, square patties, etc. It’s all very admirable. Now, does its most basic offering hold up? We’ll find out.
The 2 seeds
The original. The classic. The people’s champ. In sales at least. McDonald’s doesn’t scream “best” in anything it does besides fries, but it hasn’t served millions of billions or whatever it says on the sign without doing something right.
To be honest, I don’t know too much about Carl’s Jr/Hardee’s, but I do know that they try really hard. So that’s good enough for this competition.
The 3 seeds
I don’t love Burger King. Up until last year I had never had a good burger at Burger King. I really wanted to! I tried so many times. But every time I came away disappointed. Last year during our fast food odyssey though, one of their burgers really hit the spot, so maybe there’s some upset potential here.
Jack in the Box
I just moved out to the West Coast, so I don’t have much experience with Jack in the Box. I’ve had a few road trip experiences with them that have been positive, but I don’t think I’ve had a burger from them yet. However, I am definitely down with their fast food philosophy, which seems to be Taco Bell, but for burgers.
The 4 seeds
I have a very special place in my heart for Rally’s/Checkers. I think I’ve only ever eaten there after a drink or two, but I have never been disappointed. Their fries are amazing, and their menu is very, very solid. But this is another place I’ve never actually had their burgers, and I just don’t know what to expect.
You know Sonic from the commercials in your area that probably doesn’t even have a Sonic. They do that so the public can demand a Sonic in their area, and then Sonic knows the area can potentially be profitable. Pretty smart, even if it got my hopes up for at least 10 years before we finally got one. I think I’ve only ordered ice cream from them, which is fantastic, but I wouldn’t even be able to tell you what their burgers look like. And the picture above isn’t helping.
Here’s the problem with the In-N-Out drive thru. Other people. The worst.
It’s like this at all hours. To their credit, they’re very efficient about it. It’s similar to Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, where they sometimes employ cops to direct drive-thru traffic. And like Chick-fil-A, no matter what location you’re at, the employees are always super friendly and completely on top of their shit. It makes me want to drive through just to say hi and catch up. The price for a plain cheeseburger is slightly higher than the other restaurants ($2.55 compared to like $1 everywhere else), but still ridiculously cheap for the quality you get.
Which you might think is a negative, or even a disqualifying factor. But, I’d say it’s even better. You just drive into a parking spot, press a button, give them your order, and they bring it out to you. You don’t even have to go through the process of driving around a corner. That’s solid fast food work.
It was the first match-up of the day. Staring down the first of 14 cheeseburgers, I wasn’t quite sure the strategy to take. During our fast food odyssey, I was at a good pace for about 3 hours, then one meal too many and I basically had to meditate on not throwing up for 3 more hours before I could attempt food again. Too much fast food too quickly really takes it out of you.
It’s not just the fullness, it’s also the lethal sodium, preservative, fat cocktail that drags every function down as the decomposing fast food bomb in your stomach leaks into your blood stream, assuring every part of your body gets the full fast food experience. That may also just be cancer spreading. Regardless, the total amount of calories consumed today is going to be very similar (~4,000) to our fast food odyssey, and I think my best tactic is going to keep it slow and steady, evaluating on the fly how many rounds I can handle at a time.
Out of fairness to the 4 seed, I ate Sonic first. It’s actually not bad. It’s got an interesting flavor (artificial butter flavoring) that I haven’t tasted in most fast food burgers. But, as you can probably tell from the picture that doesn’t look to be showing any actual burger, Sonic seems to have a very pro-bun philosophy. As in, yes, you can expect bun when you bite into one of their burgers.
Switching over to the In-N-Out burger, one bite in, and it’s no contest. It’s in a different world completely. Slightly toasted bun, perfect amount of cheese, and although it doesn’t taste quite as good as it smells, it’s just a more complete, overall better burger. Sonic showed some heart here, but like most underdogs, it just isn’t as good. In-N-Out runs away with it in the end.
2 vs 3
McDonald’s vs. Burger King
The battle of highest selling. The national behemoths that inspire a resounding “meh”. Budweiser vs Miller. Democrat vs Republican. It’s the battle of most popular that no one actually likes, but pretends they do to make a statement (ELECTION YEAR BURN). Exciting stuff here folks.
I ate the Burger King burger first. It’s solid, but I just can’t get on board with their burgers. Even though the last one I had really hit the spot, the flame grilled burgers they carry are just the slightest bit off-putting.
They’re so close to the ones you make on the grill, but maybe the grill-master accidentally spritzed them with half a can of lighter fluid. Or like a younger sibling that’s almost as good as their older sibling, but maybe wasn’t watched quite as closely and was allowed to live up to the high standards of “good enough” because the parents, beaten down by years of sleepless nights, don’t “have time for this shit” and “need a drink”. All I’m saying is that Burger King burgers probably suffer from emotional abuse.
McDonald’s, on the other hand, is a model of consistency. They even consistently get your order wrong. Which is admirable. But they got it right this time, and it’s a very solid fast food burger. If you want a burger RIGHT NOW, they’ll give you one, and it’s going to satisfy you. At least, in a generous interpretation of the definition. It just seems to hit the spot when you need a burger. I wouldn’t go out of my way for one, but when I order one, I’m going to be happy that I did. It triumphs over the King as I’m beginning to feel slightly full.
Still, I’m carrying out a good pace.
1 vs 4
Wendy’s vs Rally’s/Checkers
This Rally’s/Checkers burger is good. The drive-thru person seemed very confused that I only wanted a plain cheeseburger, but we worked through it. It’s a sesame seed bun, and a very tasty burger all-in-all. Wendy’s is facing a tough challenge here. Rally’s/Checkers came to play.
The Wendy’s burger is small, and the patty is more like an interpretation of a square. But it’s also good. Like, really good. It may be small, but every bite I taste is awesome. Awesome is kind of a strong word. Let’s scale that back to “pretty great”. The meat itself is about as small as a golf ball pounded flat, but it comes through in every bite. This is close.
As much as I want the upset, the more I think about it, the Wendy’s burger is just too well-balanced. It’s small, but every part of it works. The bun is just enough, the meat is just right, and everything just works together. There’s nothing about it that doesn’t work. Wendy’s wins in a buzzer-beater.
Starting to feel a little burger fatigue here, and I think my stomach’s on to me. “This is all you’re eating today? Oh no. Nope nope nope. Fuck you. Shutting it down.” But give me a couple hours and I think I can sweet talk it back into trusting me. So that I can immediately break that trust.
2 vs 3
Carl’s Jr vs Jack in the Box
What a mess of a match-up this was. The Carl’s Jr I went to didn’t even have a drive-thru, and I’m pretty sure they gave me the wrong size cheeseburger. But on the other side, Jack in the Box forgot the plain portion of a plain cheeseburger. Listen Jack in the Box, that’s McDonald’s signature move. When I order a plain cheeseburger at McDonald’s, and it still comes with ketchup, mustard, pickles, and onions, I expect that. But I don’t know that I can let it slide from you.
So yes, this round was not ideal. But if you expected a completely scientific competition, you should know I got a C in physics.
The Carl’s Jr cheeseburger was very similar to Burger King, but without the extra lighter fluid flavor. It was also about twice the size I was hoping to eat at this juncture, and I had to get out of my car to interact with people. These are unforgivable sins.
Even so, the Jack in the Box cheeseburger disappointed me in a way more devastating and pertinent to this competition. It just wasn’t as good. I wiped off all the extras, but it was a very limp competitor. I respect Jack in the Box a lot in their attempts to make fast food awesome, but their base offering had nothing. It was like a highly talented team that just came out flat and never rebounded. And as much as Carl’s Jr offended me, it was a pretty good cheeseburger all things considered. Carl’s Jr takes it.
I took a couple hour break before this round, and even after that slight break, I rate my condition…not great. I’m 8 cheeseburgers in, and while my commitment to eating this bracket through to the end is admirable, the rational side of me is like “You know you fucked up, right?” But my mind can question my heart all it wants. All I know is that heart wins championships, and I have heart. Until it stops. But banners fly forever.
We’re through one round complete. Let’s get a live look-in on the bracket.
1 vs 2
Wendy’s vs McDonald’s
This is a tough one. Wendy’s was really solid. McDonald’s was also really solid. Though 10 cheeseburgers in, my mind may be losing its ability to make rational judgments. I enjoy McDonald’s cheeseburgers here and there, but I figured I only liked them because they were familiar, and there’d be better out there.
Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. After eating everything else out there within the past 6 hours or so, I can say that McDonald’s holds up. Wendy’s is the closest competitor (outside of In-N-Out, who looms). And they come so close. They’re almost just as good, and in some moments, I may even say better. But after finishing both on an already full stomach, my cheeseburger-riddled mind is telling me the McDonald’s is just one slight step ahead tonight. McDonald’s wins a close one.
And I continue the suffering. But it’s all for a right and just cause. Knowledge. Pageviews. Protein.
1 vs 2
In-N-Out vs Carl’s Jr
You guys know that feeling when you’ve eaten too many cheeseburgers, and your mind says no more cheeseburgers, while your body says no more cheeseburgers, and your mouth says no more cheeseburgers? But your heart says yes more cheeseburgers? That’s kinda where I’m at right now.
So look Carl’s Jr, you came to play. But you made me get out of my car. And that is the worst thing anyone has ever done to me today. Spoiler alert: you weren’t beating In-N-Out anyway.
It was down to the wire. I took a bite of the bullshit on my left that was In-N-Out. I took a bite out of what used to be a cow and cheese that was McDonald’s. They’re reversed in the next picture, but whatever.
“Fuck this, shoot me”, I thought to myself. All I can taste is the buns filling up my stomach with their completely nutrition-less garbage flour. The last of my taste buds gave up about 3 hours ago when they realized the bullshit that was going on. My mouth is barely obeying my commands to open and close. McDonald’s, our Rudy, versus In-N-Out, our Cobra Kai in a throwback mixed metaphor that doesn’t hold up to the slightest bit of scrutiny.
How did McDonald’s become the Rudy? Isn’t it great that we have so many options nowadays that the previous old guard of go-to burgers is now the underdog? Would I get through the last two cheeseburgers? I don’t know Tim, this was a dumb idea.
Honestly, I’d say if you took away In-N-Out’s toasted bun, McDonald’s isn’t too far off. But I also have excess burger leaking into my veins and clogging the blood flow to my brain.
In the end, In-N-Out wins. It’s not even close. It was never all that close. In-N-Out is just of a higher quality than the competition. I didn’t need 12 burgers to prove it. But I did. I showed a lot of heart here today, and as we all know, heart wins championships. My trophy is the week-long constipation that’s sure to follow.
Some nutrition facts on the day:
4,090 calories, 199 g fat, 88 g saturated fat, 1797 calories from fat, 580 mg cholesterol, 9,030mg sodium (393% DV), 386 g carb, 19 g fiber, 211 g protein (well over the daily limit, which means I got pretty buff doing this)