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[Photographs: Nick Solares]

Culver's

400 outlets in 18 states; see culvers.com for locations
Style: Butter burger
Cooking Method: Griddle-smashed
Short Order:Freshly made, a Butter Burger here can offer a pleasing experience, but inconsistency might be an issue at this fast-casual chain
Want Fries with That? They're OK, but try the cheese curds instead
Price:Butter Burger, $1.79; w/cheese, $1.99; double, $2.69; double w/cheese, $3.09

My first Culver's hamburger was bitterly disappointing. My expectations were buoyed by my first Steak 'n Shake hamburger just days before—and with the vision of a true Wisconsin butter burger, such as I had read about and witnessed on video, gleaming in my mind's eye.

But when I came to unwrap my first butter burger from the Wisconsin-based Culver's to reveal the tepid and flaccid burger within, my heart sank. Culver's is similar to Steak 'n Shake in that it occupies one of the most rapidly growing segments of the food service industry—the fast-casual restaurant. The similarities go beyond the business model.

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Although Culver's got its start in 1984, decades after Steak 'n Shake's 1932 debut, it has employed the same franchise system and the same method of preparing burgers—smashing them on a searing griddle. But while Steak 'n Shake is now a publicly traded company whose headquarters are in Texas, miles away from the chain's Illinois roots, Culver's remains Wisconsin-based and family-owned; Craig Culver, founder George Culver's son, is the company's CEO.

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While the menu at Culver's has all sorts of comfort foods such pot roast, fried chicken, and shrimp, the principal draw remains its butter burger and frozen custard. So much so that the two menu items are the tag line on the chain's sign.

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With this in mind I ordered a plain, single butter burger and a frozen custard when I visited my first Culver's in a sleepy suburb of Indianapolis. I had high expectations—I had yet to eat a smashed burger that I did not enjoy, having consumed the aforementioned style at Steak 'n Shake, at Smashburger, and at Bill's Bar & Burger in New York City, all within a few weeks of venturing to Culver's. The custard was very good, creamy and airy, but the burger was quite the opposite.

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It was missing even a hint of butter—the patty was dense, leathery, and arid, the bun soggy, and the whole contraption on the cold side of palatable. It had obviously been cooked ahead of time. Frankly, it was no better than the dreck sold by the national chains.

But I couldn't help feel that there was a far better burger lurking at Culver's, something that I happily confirmed a few days later at a Culver's off the highway in Ohio on my way back to NYC.

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Here I had a freshly made single butter burger with cheese as well as a deluxe version—topped with the rabbit food and mayo. Both were leagues above my first Culver's experience—and indeed above the national chains. The beef was crisp and mildly flavorful, it was not as juicy as a Steak 'n Shake burger but there was some moisture there. The bun, airy and warm this time around, served as the perfect vessel for the beef, the cheese adding a welcome creaminess.

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Toppings helped the burger here, whereas I found that it detracted from the experience at Steak 'n Shake.

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Skip the fries in favor of the cheese curds.

At its best Culver's serves a generally pleasing hamburger, although not one that I found to be life-changing. But my first experience indicates that inconsistency is an issue. If I have compared the chain to Steak 'n Shake, it is with good reason. The hamburgers they serve are similar and they compete in many of the same markets. Given the choice I would opt for Steak 'n Shake, but at its best Culver's serves a better hamburger than the national chains.

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