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: Todd Brock]

Houlihan's

1401 Johnson Ferry Road, Marietta GA 30062 (map); 770-977-9324; 87 other locations; visit houlihans.com for list
The Schtick: Amid the all-over-the-place menu are four burgers with kooky names and crazy toppings, some of which actually work
The Burger: High-quality beef can shine; order a 10-ounce burger to offset the mountainous toppings and challah bun
Want Fries with That? What you really want are Disco Fries, hidden on the Small Plates menu for an extra $2
Setting: Comfortable neighborhood bar & grill minus the over-the-top bric-a-brac of most casual chains
Price: Each of four 8-ounce cheeseburger varieties, $9.95; upgrade to a 10-ounce patty, add $2

Houlihan's tries hard to separate itself from the pack of generic "apostrophe-S" casual dining joints. Sometimes they try too hard. Personally, I prefer their dark-wood-low-lights-and-brick-walls vibe to the overeager fun-and-wacky routine of other restaurants in this category. But the 17-state chain still strives to be everything to everyone, meaning the food can be wildly inconsistent and often guilty of the trying-too-hard approach. It's possible, though, to navigate this menu for a burger that's better than what you'll get at a nondescript T.G.I.Chilibee's.

My first, a baseline build-your-own creation with American and bacon, was a disaster. Far from medium-rare, the interior was dry and overcooked. The bacon was too crisp, shattering upon impact. Entirely too much lettuce and tomato for a half-pound burg. (Yes, I could pick some off, but I shouldn't have to.) And I'm sure that was cheddar.

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I gave Houlihan's another shot, going for the burger listed last, usually signifying the biggest, craziest offering. In name, at least, it fit the bill: the Cheesy Royale Yum Yum Good Times Burger (yes, really). I upgraded to a 10-ounce patty, assuming I'd need the extra beef to combat the previous overload of toppings.

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It was rather plain (especially for such a stupidly ridiculous name), with two slices of American cheese and shredded lettuce bathed in "special sauce." But it was very good, the additional beef cooked to medium-rare showing off the quality of the Creekstone Farms Black Angus.

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Disco Fries were the real find. Buried on the "small plates" menu, these ordinary fries are then smothered in melted mozzarella, slow-cooked pot roast and gravy, and green onions. Yes, it's Canadian-style poutine from a Kansas-based chain, and worth every penny of the two-buck-upgrade.

One pretty lousy burger, one very tasty burger; I went for the tiebreaker. Named for the year Houlihan's was founded, the Burger 72 is crowned with the menu item they're best known for: 'Shrooms. These fried jumbo mushroom caps stuffed with herb-and-garlic cream cheese totally rock as an app, but as a burger topping? Add horseradish sauce, Parmesan, and watercress (?!?), and it felt like we were straying into trying-too-hard territory.

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As expected, one bite ruptured the 'Shroom, sending filling everywhere. Messy, but again, really tasty. And with a better-than-average bun, I might add—the challah stands up to the "loaded" burgers beautifully and has a sweet aftertaste. In fact, all the tastes and textures of the Burger 72 work together for something unlike any other burger I've ever had.

Good burgers beat bad burgers 2-1 at Houlihan's. (I'll abstain from their fourth, the Spicy Fritos Burger. Neon red corn chips are not a burger topping.) Go with the 10-ounce patty to even out the avalanche of toppings and the challah bun, but feel free to explore the rest of that extensive menu, searching for hidden gems like the Disco Fries. Mix and match. Ask to sub this for that. Houlihan's is, after all, everything to everyone.

About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and recently penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.

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