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: Erin Jackson]

Morton's The Steakhouse

285 J Street San Diego CA 92101 (map)
Locations in 28 states, plus six international locations. Full list at mortons.com
The Schtick: Swanky steakhouse chain, good for a a business meeting or special occasion meal
The Burger: Big, juicy, and cooked precisely to the correct temperature
Want Fries With That? Yes! Tasty shoestring fries come standard
Setting: Dim lighting, comfy leather booths, well-dressed servers
Price: Mini prime cheeseburgers, $7; prime burger and fries, $17 during happy hour, in the bar. Prices and times vary by location

As a nearly-starving recent grad, scoring a dinner at Morton's The Steakhouse was the proverbial brass ring I somehow hoped to reach. Tales of selecting your own steak from a glistening platter of meat were particularly inspiring (and depressing) as I was tucking into yet another bowl of Kraft Dinner. Even now, as a semi-employed food writer, my pesky frugality has stopped me from spending $40 for a steak (not to mention sides and some of that "famous" hot chocolate cake).

While my own self-imposed limits on fun have done exactly that, there is one way to experience Morton's without dropping a wad of cash. During "Power Hour" in the bar or lunch (in some locations), you can get a giant burger for $17, or three mini burgers for $7. It's no double-cut filet mignon, but the burgers are made with freshly-ground sirloin, so it is a reasonable compromise.

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Steakhouses like Morton's are temples of beef, so it's only right that the patty was roughly hand-formed before being broiled until a substantial layer of char formed. Despite the thick char, the coarsely ground sirloin patty was cooked to the rare side of my requested medium-rare, with a squishy, juicy pink center. Morton's does a few things differently with their burgers, as evidenced in this recipe. Besides being broiled, the patties are made with tomato juice and roughly the equivalent of half an egg. The flavor of the tomato juice didn't come through, but the egg was likely a contributing factor to the juicy, almost glossy center. Despite the deviations, this burger was still all about the beef—so much so that you might feel compelled to grunt a little while eating it.

Burgers come with cheese (cheddar, American, or blue), bacon, or sautéed mushrooms. The standard roughage comes on the side, including (at least in my case) a massive segment of red onion, and slab of tomato that was almost exactly the same size as the patty. They'll also sautée the onion upon request.

It's worth singling out the eggy sesame seed bun, which was lightly toasted and a bit spongy. The bun stood up valiantly to the deluge of burger juice and had a pleasantly sweet challah-like character that was a good counterpart to the saltiness of the beef.

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A pile of lightly salted shoestring fries comes standard with the prime burger. The skin-on spuds achieved the gold standard: a light, crisp exterior, with a fluffy and flavorful interior. A caddy of ketchup and dijon aioli is served on the side, with plenty of each to double dip each individual fry.

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If you're easing into dinner at the bar, or looking for a quick bite with your happy hour beverage, the mini burgers are the right size. You get three to a plate for $7, but you can also add an additional burger for $2.50. The smaller profile of the mini burgers skews the bread to meat ratio a bit, but the lightly toasted silver dollar rolls squish right down into almost nothing. The mini burgers are made using the exact same beef as the larger burgers, but since they're a bit thinner, you don't get the same impact as biting into a thick patty with an oozing center. Then again, that's not for everyone, all the time.

About the author: Erin Jackson is a food writer and photographer who is obsessed with discovering the best eats in San Diego. You can find all of her discoveries on her newly-launched food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax

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