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.
1240 S. Moorland Road, Brookfield WI 53005 (map); (262) 797-6600; champps-wi.com (local) champps.com (other locations)
The Schtick: Lively sports bar with a large menu, contests, and local flair
The Burger: Never-frozen beef and cooking to medium results in super fresh, super juicy grilled burgers
Want Fries With That? Waffle fries and sweet potato fries are frozen and boring, but whatever you do, don't get queso on top
Price: Pepperjack bacon stack, $12.49; Firehouse burger, $8.79 (or $5.99 on Monday)
Champps Americana is chain that does the sports bar concept well. It doesn't just feel like a restaurant with a few TVs at the bar tuned to the MLB channel. There are lots of drink and food specials, plenty of giant TVs tuned to many different channels, contests and activities tied to the local team's games, and even a live DJ during some of the more important sporting events. There's a lot going on.
Champps has been around for over 25 years, with most of their locations in the Midwest, East Coast, and Texas. As it's far from a mega-chain—it only has a few locations in any given state—it feels much more localized and neighborhood friendly than other chains. Bonus points for that. And more points for having pretty great burgers, especially for a chain.
I found that unless you know you really like certain burger toppings, it may be best to stick to a plain old burger or cheeseburger. It's not that the toppings were bad—they ranged from average to off-putting. But the real winners are the never-frozen, half-pound, grilled patties and the billowing sesame seed buns. Why mess with a good thing?
The beef on both burgers was cooked medium or perhaps a bit under in spots, which was perfect considering they were ordered medium and medium-rare. They have cooks who know how to grill, a rare feat around this city and among chains.The loosely packed patty had significant grill marks, slight char around the edges, and was extremely juicy, resulting in a ring of delicious burger juice around the bun.
The winner of the two burgers I tried was the Pepperjack Bacon Stack burger, a huge double that came with queso fries. The pepper jack got lost since it was pretty mild, but the bacon was crisp and the standard lettuce/tomato/onion/pickle toppings were fresh and cut through the grease of two patties. The only problem was that the double meat added double juice to the bottom bun, which resulted in a total soak-through. Can't really fault the restaurant for that when you order a double; they did their best by using a sturdy but soft, toasted bun.
According to the menu, the Firehouse burger is topped with "red and yellow bell peppers, green chiles, poblano peppers, onions, chipotle Tobasco, cajun seasoning and fresh sliced jalapeños." That sounds a ton of stuff, but when I saw what little actually came on the burger, I was disappointed. All of the peppers and onions were finely chopped and mixed together, and I imagine it sits in a container all day because it was pretty lifeless and mushy, even if the flavor was respectable. At least the fresh jalapeños added some much needed crunch.
After eating the first half of the burger, however, I noticed something very off-putting. While I like Tabasco sauce, and presumably chipotle Tabasco as well, using it as a burger topping is just not good. Why? Because once it soaked into the top bun, all I could smell was vinegar coming off the burger. And while I love pickles, eating a burger with hot vinegar wafting up your nose is not an enjoyable experience. Once you notice it, you can't un-notice it—frankly, it became a little nauseating. I'd recommend ordering the Tabasco on the side or simply ordering a different burger.
Standard fries are waffle cut, which tend to be my favorite of the frozen variety. They usually have the skin on, and have a great crunch-to-fluffy-inside ratio. The waffle fries that came with the pepperjack bacon burger, however, were covered in queso sauce—a sauce that you could tell had started out much thinner when it was hot and ladled over the fries, but then as it cooled, congealed into a pool at the bottom of the plate. It also tasted like nothing and made the fries soggy. Don't order the queso fries. If you have an option, the sweet potato fries are respectable, though I am endlessly confused (and dismayed) by the ranch dressing they come with.
I happened to visit on a Monday, and was more happy than I should have been to learn that this location has most burgers for $5.99 all night on Mondays (I love a good deal). A quick Googling reveals that many other locations have the same promotion. If the burgers at other locations are cooked as well as these were, Mondays might be a great night to give in to a burger craving.
About the author: Lacey Muszynski is an editor, freelance writer and restaurant reviewer from Milwaukee, WI. When she's not burgerblogging on AHT, she might be updating her food blog, making fun of the Food Network, or wondering what her art degree has to do with all of this. Her idols growing up included Martin Yan, Chairman Kaga, and whoever was on Great Chefs, Great Cities that day.