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: Grav Weldon]

Penny's Diner

1608 West Business 60, Dexter MO 63841 (map); 479-784-9233
31 other locations nationwide; visit oaktreeinn.com for a full list
The Schtick: A classic streamline-style diner serving up diner food, including classic breakfasts, griddle-smashed burgers, and shakes, at Oak Tree Inns nationwide
The Burger: The Build-Your-Own Monster Burger includes a 2/3-pound patty plus your choice of over ten toppings
Want Fries with That? Curly spiced fries come along for the ride, unless you'd rather have potato chips or a vegetable
Setting: Route 66 streamliner heaven
Price: Monster Burger (w/fries), $8.69; Penny's Pride 1/2-pound cheeseburger, $6.99

It would be a challenge to find a more Route 66-slash-Americana style diner than the Streamliners employed by Oak Tree Inn as on-site hotel eating options. Penny's Diners are sleek, slick and bedazzled in chrome, Formica, and teal pleather for that ultimate '60s diner experience.

The hotel tie-in is of interest. Rather than settle for a partnership with a corporation such as Denny's, Oak Tree Inn utilizes its own diner ideal. Each diner is open 24 hours, not just for the convenience of hotel guests but also for the average road-weary traveler who might spot the gleaming chrome-and-neon bullets and pull in to satisfy their hunger and need for nostalgia.

Penny's does this with a selection of diner favorites. Besides a classic breakfast menu (breakfast is included for Oak Tree Inn guests), there are blue plate specials featuring meatloaf and beef steak, fried bologna sandwiches, and Coke floats.

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And then there are the burgers. Using fresh, never frozen hand-pattied beef, Penny's Diner offers seven burgers from the plain Jane Penny's Pride Cheeseburger, to the Big Ron topped with ham and sautéed onions, to the Freda's Five Alarm Burger with jalapeños and pepper jack cheese.

The featured burger is the Build-Your-Own Monster Burger, a burger you customize with as many toppings as you want for no extra charge: bacon, American cheese, grilled or fresh onions, tomato, lettuce, mushrooms, pickles, jalapeño peppers, bell pepper, and/or a fried egg. We chose to split one of these 2/3 pound monsters, adding everything except the bacon and peppers.

The patty takes 10 minutes to cook. It's molded into a ring and smacked onto the griddle, where it slowly sizzles (along with the onions, if you've chosen the grilled onion option). After it's been flipped the egg gets fried right alongside.

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It comes to the table with your choice of chips or a mess of spicy curly fries. The fries are the better option—pre-cut and pre-spiced but cooked right at the balance between undercooked and over crisped.

Since the burger comes open-faced, the egg is the first thing you see, staring at you as if to say, "You ordered extra cholesterol, no?" in a Jersey accent. Under the top of the barely toasted buttered bun the egg comes first, followed by pickle, thick tomato slices, and iceberg lettuce. The patty is covered in a mass of white American cheese, grilled onions, and mushrooms, all melted together. The condiments come on the side.

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Once that yolk is broken, all napkins are in order. The burger patty, juicy and nicely crusted from the griddle, is dripping with yolk...along with the juice from the tomato slices and the liquid condiments, if you added them. The egg yolk runs freely through the whole mess, adding a sticky factor that's only partially impeded by the bun and napkins. It's a messy first bite. And second bite. If you manage to make it halfway through without putting the burger down and reaching for fork and knife, you're a better burger eater than I.

The patty is simply salted and peppered but needs an added oomph. The meat is a little lean and it's cooked to medium-well by default, but the egg brings the fat back to the table. It's hard to tell where egg begins and cheese ends, the consistency of each not being far-off from one another. Any additional vegetation is just flavoring; texture-wise, the egg takes over.

Is it worthwhile? Yes, though it's not really a monster. It may have a lot of toppings, but anything under a pound defies the monster category, in my honest opinion. The toppings are worth the extra $1.70 over a regular burger.

Surprisingly, the burger didn't sit heavy after I hit the road. ...Then again, I shared my burger with my travel companion. Eat the whole thing, and your mileage may vary.

About the author: Kat Robinson is a writer and storyteller out of Little Rock, AR who writes the Arkansas Times' Eat Arkansas blog and who explores Arkansas and the American South looking for great stories, interesting people and the next great meal.

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