Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
117 W. Broadway, Glendale, CA 91204 (map); 818-545-3555; 52 other locations in the US; visit islandsrestaurants.comfor list
The Schtick: The classic Hawaiian burger shack is reimagined as a fast casual, family restaurant
The Burger: This is a really solid, slim-pattied burger that gets the basics just right
Setting: Fast casual
Want Fries with That? Yes; classic slim-cut spuds are excellent
Prices: Big Wave, $8.95, Point Break, $10.45
After years of writing about burgers here on AHT there aren't too many places that I long to review. Sure, there's the new hot spot that that alights my hopes, but I've had the privilege of talking about most of the places that have left their burger-shaped marks on my heart. One of the few I have yet to mention in my burger history is Islands.
Years ago a pair of war buddies decided to work together to build this fast casual chain. Tony DeGrazier had the dream of recreating his memories of the Hawaiian beach burger shack he loved while stationed in Oahu as a restaurant for the masses and his buddy Jake had the means to help him out. It's Jake that makes Islands a matter of personal history for me; many years ago I found myself dating Jake's vivacious daughter and fell for her and her Dad's burger restaurant.
I have to admit that when I first stepped into Islands, the self-conscious, beachy décor and a menu with pictures seemed exactly the kind of place I'd make a point to avoid, but it didn't take me long to realize that there was something authentic underneath this particular version of American simulacrum. That is to say, they made some pretty damn good burgers.
Long before everybody was riding the burger wave to fast casual success, Islands placed its hopes on its own Big Wave. Their signature burger comes topped with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, and mustard. Yes, that last ingredient is a bit of a surprise—not so much because of the presence of mustard, but more because they leave the ketchup off. It's always puzzled me because it seems a less public-friendly choice, but I liked that it smacked of an owner's small moment of insistence that you try the burger his way.
The patty is a slim, roughly six-ounce affair that won't blow you away with its provenance, but it's a quality commercial grind that's handled well. The Islands bun is, on the other hand, something special. It's a standard commercial bun, but it is so well executed that I've always wondered why they don't get more imitators.
My recent trip to Islands in Glendale, California, reconfirmed this long-held confusion. My burger came out looking beautiful on a bed of delicious fries (more on those in a bit). The taste was just as I'd remembered, and that means pretty darn good. The patty was well seasoned and the toppings were fresh as ever. I opted to add a slice of American cheese to up the fat content, which I think is the way to go with the Big Wave. The toppings were all fresh and full of crunch, making the soft, spongy commercial bun all the better with the texture balance. Add to that a favorable temperature considering Islands will only go as cool as medium.
In all I really enjoyed my Big Wave, although I'd say you'd be within your rights to ask them to tone down the mustard. I like the kick from it, but my burger came out a bit overdressed.
My choice for favorite name goes to the recently added Point Break Burger (yes, I am sucker for that movie). It gets an wallop of bold toppings with caramelized bacon, pickled onions, and mayo along with both Gruyère and blue cheese. I'd thought there was no chance I'd enjoy all these strong flavors, but Islands goes with a decidedly mild blue cheese and the bacon isn't piled on, making this burger much more subtle than you'd expect.
That said, I still don't see it as an argument from moving past the standard Big Wave with cheese. In fact, despite the varied list of specialty burgers there isn't one I think matches the straightforward appeal of the Big Wave (and I've tried them all).
I also tried the sliders and was delighted to find something that actually qualified as slider and not just a mini-hamburger. The flavors were all pretty spot on and made me think I'd actually order them again, an uncommon thought when it comes to most restaurant's sliders.
I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to give the fries their due. The restaurant boasts the bottomless basket of fries should you order them à la carte. I'd recommend you exercise caution with these spuds; they're so good that you might hurt yourself. Normally in a "Chain Reaction" post I'd throw out a qualification about the offerings—the "good for a chain" assessment—but not here: Islands' fries, medium cut and cooked to just shy of perfection, are flavorful and delicious fries, plain and simple. They also have a secret seasoning mixture that adds one level more depth than just salt (my normal preference) and makes them distinct.
Islands is, in the end, a simple concept: a dressed up burger shack with a polished and well-trained service staff that serves tasty food. It's not an aspirational restaurant concept, but one wishes more eateries would take the Islands' lesson of getting the important stuff right.