Chain Reaction: Cracker Barrel

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.

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[Photographs: Todd Brock]

Cracker Barrel

2150 Delk Road Southeast, Marietta GA 30067 (map); 770-951-2602; 588 other locations; visit crackerbarrel.com for list
The Schtick: Get your road-trip half-pounder plain...or with thick-cut bacon and Colby cheese
The Burger: Underwhelming patty and great bacon are a lost under a hard bun as tasty sourdough toast goes to waste in the kitchen
Want Fries with That? The steak fries are weak; sub a cup of soup instead or onion rings for an upcharge
Setting: Old-time general store, with tin signs and rusted farm tools around the stone-hearth fireplace
Price: Half-Pound Bacon Cheeseburger, $8.29

Perhaps no restaurant chain is more closely associated with the Great American Road Trip than Cracker Barrel. With 588 locations—all of them just off an interstate exit ramp—in 42 states, I'm not sure you could even plan a road trip without passing at least a few of them. Their ubiquitous billboards, telling you how many "miles ahead" the next location is, push big fluffy biscuits, down-home veggies, and warm peach cobbler. But I've never seen one spotlighting their burger.

Now I know why.

Cracker Barrel is a breakfast place to me, but buried in the lunch and dinner menu is the Half-Pound Bacon Cheeseburger: "Our half pound burger with Thick Sliced Bacon and two slices of melting Colby cheese. Served up on our Toasted Bun."

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Nothing earth-shaking, but what would you expect from a place that devotes almost as much square footage to its "country store" as it does to its dining room?

Well, actually, here's exactly what I was expecting:

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A lousy picture, admittedly, taken with a crappy cell phone camera. But that's a Cracker Barrel Half-Pound Bacon Cheeseburger I got in summer 2009. While the patty is tough to spot and the cheese is far from "melting," the burger is clearly served between pieces of griddled toast. And, despite some initial misgivings, I loved it.

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The winter 2011 version, while more photogenic, was a train wreck. (Or an overturned tractor-trailer, sticking with the road trip theme.) The bun was simply bad: dense, unforgiving, bordering on hard. The beef was cooked way beyond the requested "medium" and ultimately dry and boring. The Colby was decent; I could give extra credit for using a cheese not often seen in burgerdom. The bacon, befitting a "breakfast place," was easily the best part of the meal. The steak fries were thoroughly unimpressive, maybe even undercooked.

So pleasantly surprised in '09...and so flatly disappointed just 18 months later. I asked about the toast. Were buns new? "No... unless they messed it up," my server laughed. "They probably messed it up."

But I just couldn't let it go. I sent an email to Cracker Barrel Guest Relations. (Dwell on that for a sec. The chain known for rocking chairs, oversized checkerboards, and kerosene lamps on the tables actually has lightning-fast customer service in cyberspace.) The response I received stated, in part, "all other sandwiches are served on our sourdough bread," which can obviously be toasted. "You are certainly encouraged to request that [the burger] be served that way... at no extra charge." Nice to know it's still an option (although I don't recall making a special toast order in '09), but I learned my lesson.

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On my next road trip, I'll still end up at a Cracker Barrel. But I'll play the golf-tee game, fill up on country-fried steak, stretch my legs in the general store, buy a sackful of retro candy for the road (Moon Pies in multiple flavors!) and save the burgers for another exit ramp.

About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and recently penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.

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