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.
8288 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90046 (map); 323-654-3800; 10 other locations in the US; visit hamburgermarys.com for list
The Schtick: A premium burger chain with gay-friendly atmosphere
The Burger: The namesake Mary Burger is a half-pound patty that takes its cues from the fast food classic
Setting: Let's call it "Drag Queen Chic"
Want Fries with That? Nope; fresh-cut, but over-seasoned spuds
Prices: Mary Burger (w/cheese and fries), $11.24
You might imagine that a gay-themed burger franchise is a relatively new addition to the American restaurant scene, but the small (though nationwide) chain called Hamburger Mary's was actually started back in 1972. Where was their first outlet? You guessed it, San Francisco.
The restaurant chain has eleven locations across the country and can lay claim to being "the ONLY national franchise actively marketing to the gay community." They market themselves as a family-friendly restaurant and bar, but the fun is geared toward the adults with themed drinks and the like. The menu and convivial atmosphere is certainly enough to win over the kids should you bring them by.
Hamburger Mary's won't let you down with its friendly service and commitment to good times (drag shows and legendary bingo nights abound), but the burgers are another matter. Are they bad? Not by a long shot, but they have room for improvement.
It's worth noting that Mary's, while chock full of their own creations is, at its heart, a customizable burger spot. You choose your patty from grain-fed chuck, grass-fed chuck, Kobe, ostrich, salmon, turkey, ahi tuna, buffalo, chicken breast, or vegan. The bun isn't up for as much discussion as Mary's seems set on using a full-size King's Hawaiian classic sweet burger bun.
I ordered the Mary Burger, the most classic of their many burger offerings. It comes topped with lettuce, tomato, and pickle, along with Thousand Island dressing for good measure. I added American cheese to the eight-ounce grain-fed chuck patty.
Mary's will bring your burger out medium unless you specify otherwise, so I made sure to get my medium-rare preference. It arrived somewhere between the two, but I'd say it was cooked pretty close to perfection for my tastes. The grill marks on the patty were evident and there was some char in the flavor, but I could have used a little more crunch in the crust. Along with that was a noticeable under-salting. Instead I got a whiff of a seasoning blend that seemed better suited to a steak.
The toppings were all fresh and actually enjoyable (even the tomato!), and even more pleasing was the patty's hefty juiciness. The King's Hawaiian bun had one of the most pliant and pleasing textures of any commercial bun I've come across, but the downside was its signature sweetness. Although I can usually enjoy that sugary note, on the Mary Burger I found it a bit cloying when added to the sweetness of the Thousand Island. That said, the texture was spot on.
The fresh-cut fries had a great potato flavor that, sadly, was overwhelmed by the heaps of seasoning that covered them. If you're in the mood for fries, I'd suggest asking them to hold the seasoning.
On balance, Hamburger Mary's makes a solid burger. The ingredients are fresh and the meat is properly handled on the grill, yet somehow they just fall short of coming together for burger greatness. Would I go for just the burger? Probably not, but then again, that's not all Mary's is selling. They're selling a gay-friendly, good time spot that makes some solid food. On all those counts they succeed. And considering the state in which Mary's was born is still figuring out our nation's promise of equality, this is one time when I have no problem supporting a fair burger.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.