Chain Reaction: Dairy Queen
1779 Canton Road, Marietta GA 30066 (map); 770-427-0036
5,700+ locations worldwide. Full list at dairyqueen.com
The Schtick: The ice cream chain champ is also a full-service restaurant, with burgers, dogs, chicken strips and sandwiches, even wraps & salads
The Burger: Neither the "value menu" standard nor the trademarked GrillBurgers are sensational. As pre-ice cream fare, they're serviceable...some more than others.
Want Fries With That? DQ's fries stand up to any fast food outlet's. Their onion rings are also top-notch.
Setting: Depends on the franchisee. Some are flashily modern; some haven't been revamped since the '70s.
Price: Cheeseburger. $1.59; 1/4-pound GrillBurger w/cheese, $2.79; 1/2lb. FlameThrower GrillBurger, $3.99; french fries, $1.59/1.99; onion rings, $1.69; Peanut Buster Parfait, $3.99
When AHT's fearless leader Robyn asked me to give my local Dairy Queen the Chain Reaction treatment, my knee-jerk reaction was, "Ooh, an excuse to eat a Peanut Buster Parfait!" I mean, yes, DQ does serve food. God love 'em, they keep trying to ram that "We're-a-restaurant-too" concept down our throats, from the old "Brazier" days to the "Hot Eats, Cool Treats" tagline to the recent "Grill & Chill" re-branding effort. But for most of us, I think, a trip to Dairy Queen primarily means ice cream. And if there's a need to squeeze a meal in prior, then we can generally find a menu option that's basically a means to a soft-serve end.
But with an open mind and an empty belly, I test-drove three different DQ burgers to see which might be worth your before-Blizzard buck.
The standard Cheeseburger stood up fairly well to the PR photo. It should; there's not much to this basic starter model. A sixth of a pound of what the chain touts as "100% USA beef" is nestled into a sesame seed bun, with American cheese, ketchup, and mustard joining the party. Oh, and pickles. I had completely forgotten about those until I bit in and got a sour surprise.
It is a cheeseburger in the strictest technical sense, but unsurprisingly given its (lack of) size, the toppings dominate the taste profile: overwhelming condiments and way more bun than burg. As a "value menu" kind of option, it's not terrible. Your kids will like it just fine ('cos I promise they're already mentally at "ice cream"), but I'm hard-pressed to concoct a scenario in my head where I actually order one for myself.
DQ's GrillBurger with Cheese is available as a quarter-pounder or half-pounder. My quarter-pound version wasn't as perfectly stacked and dripping in fakery as the publicity shot, but I was okay with that. Mine actually looked better. It looked real; it reminded me of the classic cheeseburger wrapped in wax paper you'd get on the cheap from a beachside shack somewhere: American cheese (although the online nutritional breakdown wrongly references cheddar), LTO, ketchup, mayo, and pickles all on a butter-toasted Kaiser bun. It all came together nicely, although the "thick-cut tomato slice" was absurdly thick—thicker than the beef patty—and the raw onions were perhaps more abundant than they needed to be. Overall, though, I guess I'd order this one again.
The big dog of the DQ burger menu is the Half-Pound FlameThrower GrillBurger. And mine looked like a dog when compared with the promo pic. Holy crap, what was going on back in that kitchen? On second thought, don't answer that. The top bun, already smashed riDQlously thin, slid right off the stack as it posed for my Canon. Visibly-wilted lettuce was draped over the whole thing like an attacking sea monster. Someone had once again taken the "thick-cut tomato" thing a touch too far, limp (supposedly jalapeño-flavored) bacon poked out one side, and the pepper jack cheese had congealed around the twin patties.
The real heat behind this burger is generated by the chain's FlameThrower Sauce, which is simply Tabasco-spiked mayo. It's unnaturally bright orange and extraordinarily artificial-tasting. (Tabasco may have brand recognition and market share out the ying-yang, but they don't take home many taste test trophies.) You ever get bad Buffalo wings where the hot sauce is just hot... but with no real depth of flavor? Yeah, it's like that. Not good at all. But at least they slather it all over both bun halves so you've got nowhere to hide from this abomination. No amount of ice cream is worth suffering through this.
The beef (on all of the burgers) showed no char or grill marks whatsoever—it was pretty bland and grey...and tasted pretty bland and grey. The more I looked at the details of these burgers, the less I wanted to see, and the less I wanted to eat them. I just wanted to get on with the damn ice cream.
But I'm nothing if not thorough, so I gave the sides a shot, too. DQ's fries were surprisingly good. Sturdy and crisp, they were on the thick side (similar in size to Burger King's new fries, which I was quite impressed with in our recent French fry cage match) and very nicely seasoned. I even noticed flecks of black pepper on mine.
The onion rings were another eye-opener. My carton was overflowing with large onion slices, coated in a fine, tight crumb that was the textbook shade of golden brown. They were crisp and crunchy, with a clean bite of real onion, and not too greasy. Had these been tested alongside the Big Four in April's ring roundup, DQ might have actually pulled the upset and won.
(I should point out here that I know some DQs in the Midwest offer deep-fried cheese curds. They, of course, totally rock my pants off and put both the fries and rings to side-item shame.)
Finally. The Peanut Buster Parfait I'd been waiting for. But I have to admit, the peanutty, hot-fudgy, vanilla-y layered classic (introduced in 1967!) suddenly struck me as being a helluva lot smaller than the treat I remember from my youth. Five inches?!? No way. I realize that I'm taller than I was as a nine-year-old so my perspective is skewed, but those cups used to be more like seven or eight inches tall, didn't they? The taste did take me back, though...along with the annoyances I recall from every PBP I've ever eaten: wondering why they couldn't be just a bit more heavy-handed with the hot fudge layers, wishing for just a few more peanuts, and despising the shape of the cup for trapping way too much of the good stuff in those stupid fluted sides. Maybe that's why I made the move to Blizzards as my "Cool Treat" of choice years ago.
As for the "Hot Eats," I feel like I could navigate my way through a meal if I had to—as long as there's a plastic red spoon waiting for me at the end.
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 for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and 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.