Chain Reaction: Chili's

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[Photographs: David Kover]

Chili's

899 El Camino Real, San Bruno CA 94066 (map); 650-952-2692; plus over 1000 other locations worldwide; chilis.com
The schtick: Saltillo tiles, chili-related flair, margaritas, baby back baby back baby back ribs, and burgers
The burger: A halfway decent patty surrounded by sloppy kitchen work hinted that others Chili's locations might turn out an okay product—but only if we give them the serious benefit of the doubt
Want Fries with That? They come standard, but they're not great
Price: Oldtimer, $6.99; other burgers, $7.99 to $9.99; add cheese, +75ยข

When I think of Chili's, the first thing that comes to mind is always that ear-worm of a baby back ribs jingle that could easily be used to torture enemy combatants (or, say, the doctor that botched your vasectomy). As for food, I'd always assumed the chain considered Tex-Mex cuisine its specialty—you know, the whole chili pepper and all. But, actually, when the first Chili's opened in Dallas in 1975, it was as a burger joint. So it's not just a case of a generic chain adding a generically popular item to their menu that resulted in the Chili's Big Mouth Burger line.

But just because hamburgers represent an official part of the Chili's creation story, does that mean this mega-chain knows how to cook them passably well? I'm having a hard time deciding. When I stopped in at my local branch, sloppy construction turned a decent enough patty into a hamburger I'd rather not eat again. Yet if the cooks at the other thousand-plus Chili's operate with a bit more care, I wonder if you might not end up with something slightly better at your local branch.

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My Chili's waitress told me that my Oldtimer with cheese—the most basic offering on a full-page burger menu—would be made with a hand-formed patty of fresh, USDA Choice beef supplied by Sysco. Indeed, the patty looked hand-formed, if inexpertly so, with a flat bottom, thin edges, and bulging top—more flying saucer than patty. Chili's advertises burgers "grilled to PERFECTION" (they're yelling, not me), and mine did arrive with a rosy interior.

The first bite produced a rush of liquid, though this somehow seemed my patty's dying breath, as the rest of the burger remained moist-but-not-juicy and I sat staring at the little puddle in my sandwich basket thinking, "Wait, come back!" Still, break off a chunk of the patty, and the well-salted meat tasted beefy enough. Find yourself on a road trip with uncertain dinner prospects and you could do worse than eat a burger built around this patty.

Except, what's the point of a patty that's been completely overwhelmed by the condiments? And rather humdrum condiments, at that. Gobs of generic yellow mustard had been spread all over the bottom of the toasted sesame seed bun, rendering any other flavor indistinguishable. Sloppy kitchen work marked the other toppings on my burger as well. Shredded lettuce—which struggles to stay on a burger in the best of times—had been heaped on so haphazardly that it rained off like confetti while I ate. Discs of pickle and slices of red onion seemed to jut out at odd angles after a few bites. At least the cheddar cheese came nicely melted.

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Fries come standard with the burger at Chili's, but don't add much value to the meal. Mine were barely crisp and went mostly uneaten. A few random chunks of tortilla chip mixed in with the potatoes didn't help me feel like they had been prepared with care. Though, as at most mid-scale fast food chains, Chili's offers a host of fried sides, so you don't have to settle for the lousy fries. I preferred the Crispy Onion String & Jalapeno Stack ($3.49), an unruly nest of onions and pepper discs that had been breaded and fried.

Faced with this fine-enough patty and not-so-fine fixings, I'm inclined to give Chili's the benefit of the doubt and say that a more careful cook might turn out a better product. Though, were I to pay Chili's a return visit, I might opt to take that generic yellow mustard out of the kitchen's hands entirely by ordering one of the slightly dressier burgers on the menu that comes without. But mostly, I'm hoping the far-flung AHT community will chime in here and stop me from having to guess—do other Chili's locations make a halfway-decent burger?

About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. He'd choose mustard over ketchup, but requests that cooks apply it in manageable quantities. Follow him on twitter @pizzakover.

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