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.
350 Robson Street, Nanaimo, BC V9R 2V5, Canada (map)
Dozens of locations in all Canadian provinces (except PEI) plus Washington, Arizona, Texas and Colorado; full list at kegsteakhouse.com
The Schtick: Your local neighborhood steakhouse—a good place to get a great steak at a reasonable price
The Burger: A mass-produced, cooked-from-frozen patty of shame. Definitely not on par with anything else on the menu
Want Fries With That? Might as well since they come with the burger. Upgrade to a Caesar if possible
Setting: Most locations have an upscale, supper club feel with dim lighting and modern furnishings. Several locations are former mansions
Price: Prime Rib Burger, $11.95
As I was growing up, The Keg was a popular place to celebrate milestones like birthdays and high school graduations. Elegant details like cloth napkins, cushy booths, and leather(ette) covered menus signalled that this wasn't just another family dinner at Swiss Chalet (no disrespect to "the Swish"—my favorite restaurant for a solid two decades). The Keg is a great spot to celebrate: The atmosphere, service, and food are excellent, and meals are very reasonably priced (especially compared to other steak houses). At the US locations, a complete 8-ounce sirloin dinner, including a giant fresh-baked roll, Caesar salad, baked potato, vegetables, and mushrooms, is only $22.95.
All of the 16 US locations are out of my reach, but while I was in British Columbia, I hit up the Keg twice: once in Vancouver for a steak dinner, and once in Nanaimo for a burger. After hearing rave reviews about the Keg's prime rib sandwich (another option on the bar menu), my expectations for the prime rib burger were high—and quickly shattered.
My first clue that something was amiss with The Keg's prime rib burger was it couldn't be cooked to order—something that shouldn't be a problem in a steakhouse. When I cut the patty in half, it was pretty clear why: The edges were so perfectly formed, and the meat so thinly ground and tightly packed, that it looked suspiciously like it was cooked from frozen, making it impossible to cook medium rare.
Feeling slightly deflated, I took a bite and grew even more certain that unlike the prime rib sandwich, which is made with fresh slices of prime rib from the roast, the prime rib burger is a totally different animal. Aside from a dash of seasoning, everything about the patty, including the texture, taste, and even the smell, was exactly like frozen grocery store patties, like these Keg patties, which come six to a box for about $8.
The patty was cooked through, and barely had any juice. The beef was mashed so tightly together that the texture was rubbery. All of the flavor came from the house-brand seasoning salt, which was tasty, but didn't make up for the fact that the burger was severely lacking in juice and texture. Short version: It was a flop.
The fries were about as exciting as the burger, which is to say, not very. Aside from being sprinkled with the same seasoning salt, they were your standard mass-produced potato planks. Filling, and ok with ketchup, but otherwise forgettable.
When I got home and emailed the Keg, my fears were confirmed: The burgers are cooked from frozen, and only difference between the grocery stores patties and what you get in the restaurant is the restaurant patties are two ounces bigger.
The Keg's belly-flop of a burger won't keep me from going back, but I would never order it again. For casual meals, stick with the prime rib sandwich or better yet, just go directly to the steak. There's no sense suffering through a boring burger when the rest of the menu is legitimately good.
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.