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.
1023 4th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101 (map)
Quickly-expanding chain with locations in 10 states, with more planned for NY, CA, VA, and MA; full list at yardhouse.com
The Schtick: Premium casual eatery with a diverse menu and the "world's largest selection of draft beer"—over 100 options on tap
The Burger: A juicy, well-crafted burger that's definitely one of the better chain burgers out there
Want Fries With That? Yes! Upgrading to sweet potato fries and maple bacon dipping sauce is well worth the extra dollar
Setting: Big booths, loud music, and discounts on pints during happy hour make it a great place to kick back with friends
Price: Classic Cheeseburger, $10.45 (+ $1 for sweet potato fries)
The biggest compliment you can give a chain restaurant is that it doesn't seem like a chain. Restaurants that can be counted among this elite group are rare, but Yard House is one of them. At least when it comes to the downtown San Diego location, it's not immediately obvious that the restaurant is part of an empire. There's no slick corporate branding and the menu is far from predictable. The restaurant's claim to fame also sets it apart from interchangeable corporate eateries: Yard House claims to have the "world's largest selection of draft beer", and while I'm not sure if that's technically true, they do have over 100 types of beer on tap, available by the pint, goblet, or yard glass.
The menu is almost as varied as the tap list, including bar food like pizza and wings, plus sushi and an entire section of meat-free alternatives made from gardein. In terms of burgers, Yard House has nine options, from a classic cheeseburger to the Surf & Turf (or "not-really-a-burger-burger") with Maine lobster, grilled asparagus, Swiss cheese, and béarnaise sauce, plus a variety of sliders.
I tested the Classic Cheese—a grilled half-pound Angus beef burger. Cheeseburgers come with pepper jack, cheddar, or Swiss cheese on a wheat or potato bun. After reading that a potato bun took the top prize in a Burger Lab taste-test, that's what I chose. Unfortunately, it was the burger's undoing.
Yard House's classic cheeseburger was served open-faced, with aioli on the top bun and a stack of fresh veggies on the side. The only low note was the lettuce, which, like all iceberg lettuce, tasted like crunchy water. Even so, this minor misstep was completely forgiven when I cut the burger in half, revealing a loosely-packed, coarsely ground patty with a moist, red center that soaked the bun in juice. On the outside, the patty was striped with char from the grill and covered with a thoroughly melted slice of pepper jack.
The Angus beef was properly cooked to medium rare (that toothpick holding it in place didn't lie!) and was well seasoned. Unfortunately, the torrent of juice that scored major points in the taste category k-o'ed the commercial-grade potato bun. The top bun (which was insulated from the patty with a layer of roughage) remained soft and squishy, but the bottom was almost completely dissolved by the time I finished eating. A good idea when you're building your burger is to put a layer of lettuce on top and on the bottom of the patty to extend the lifespan of the bun (whaddya know—that iceberg lettuce has a purpose after all!)
The words "creamed maple bacon dip" were all I had to know about the sweet potato fries. Once I read that, there was no way I could resist upgrading from regular fries. The fries were fairly standard, with a crisp and crunchy coating and a drizzle of maple syrup on top—a nice, unexpected touch. Even without the dipping sauce, they were plenty sweet, but with it, they became more like a dessert than a side dish (which suited me fine—especially since I had no room for dessert after the half-pound burger). The creamy sauce was definitely more maple than bacon, with the only noticeable porcine element being finely diced bits of bacon floating around in the sweet slurry. Overall, it was like what I would imagine a melted Denny's maple bacon sundae would taste like.
Yard House's cheeseburger could be matched up against just about any chain burger—and win. With a few tweaks (a lettuce upgrade and a sturdier bun), I'd wager that it could even defeat your local neighborhood favorite. Skip the chicken fingers—this is a burger worth ordering.
About the author: Erin Jackson is a freelance food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best cheap and tasty eats in San Diego, including all things sweet and sugary, for her dessert blog San Diego Sugar.