Chain Reaction: Applebee's Cowboy Burger

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. This column 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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[Photograph: Carey Jones]

Applebee's

Atlantic Center, 139 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11217 (map)
Over 2,000 locations worldwide; full list at applebees.com
The Schtick: Nationwide chain advertises "Applebee's Realburgers from Across America"
The Burger: A wildly variable burger that's awkwardly constructed, but in some cases, pretty tasty
Want Fries With That? Fries are included. On one visit, they had no color and no crisp, not worth eating; on another, they were golden brown and salty and we ordered a second round
Setting: Sports bar-restaurant with as many TVs as patrons
Price: Cowboy Burger, $9.99

Any chain as aggressively all-American as Applebee's is going to have a few burgers on its menu; and sure enough, there's a whole page of the laminated photo menu devoted to them. There are cheeseburgers and bacon burgers; a "Philly Burger" with grilled onions, sautéed peppers, mushrooms, and cheese sauce; a "Quesadilla Burger" ("Take your taste buds for a Southwest joyride!") in a pepper-Jack and cheddar quesadilla. And then there's the Cowboy Burger ($9.99), which caught our eye with the simple but promising toppings of cheddar, bacon, and crispy onion strings.

Given the number of promised ingredients, it shouldn't have surprised us that this was a massive, awkwardly constructed burger. One huge lettuce leaf, thick core still attached, sat just above the bottom bun, destabilizing everything else; the ascending layers of onion, tomato, pickles, burger, bacon, and onion strings, plus a too-thick top bun, meant that even the mightiest two-hand squish couldn't get this burger into a normal-sized mouth.

But once you dispose of the lettuce and the pink, mealy tomato, things get a lot better.

Applebee's lets you specify whether you want your burger "pink" or "not pink"; on a first visit, the "pink" burger I ordered was nothing near, cooked through with not a spot of color. That said, the meat had a bit of a crust (impressive!) and, though the beef was too tightly packed, it was reasonably juicy, well-seasoned, and had a discernible beefy flavor. Nothing remarkable, but probably on par with your average backyard cookout burger.

Here's the thing. On a return visit the next day, at an Applebee's just three blocks away from the first one we visited—hey, gotta do your due diligence—it couldn't have been more different. This time, when I ordered a "pink" burger, my waitress responded: "You mean, actually pink? Rare pink?" and I nodded in assent, hoping at least for medium rare, praying I wouldn't get raw meat on a bun. Sure enough, this Applebee's was more willing to deliver on the pink promise; the burger was somewhere on the rare side of medium rare, pink pretty much throughout, and, in this case, a much better burger, far juicier than the first. There are people back there flipping your burgers, after all; some variation is built into the experience.

In both cases, the bun was a bit stiff and just too big, though it was butter-toasted (which we appreciated). The onion strings were crisp and salty and, remarkably, not all that greasy; they added a little extra sweetness and crunch. The promised "BBQ Sauce" was too meager to add or detract; the sharp cheddar melted nicely, adding no moisture, but considerable flavor. The Applewood smoked bacon was the surprise winner. Thick and crunchy and smoky, it covered the top of the burger and added quite a bit to the overall effect. I found myself idly eating fallen-off bacon bits long after I'd tired of the burger as a whole.

Overall? It's not a burger I'd run back for, but it's preferable to anything else I've ever eaten at Applebee's. It's best when you yank off the veggies (spring tomato never made any burger better) and squish it all down—and when you hit upon an Applebee's that really will cook to temperature. Though not a burger without flaws, its onions, bacon, and reasonably tasty meat make for a very edible meal.

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