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]

Hero Certified Burgers

77 Wellesley St., Toronto ON (map)
28 locations in Ontario, plus more to come. Full list at heroburgers.com
The Schtick: Chain serving 100 percent Heritage Angus beef burgers, sourced from a select group of farmers in Western Canada
The Burger: A bland, mushy, cooked from frozen mess
Want Fries With That? The poutine isn't bad, but I'd just stick with the shakes
Setting: Brightly-lit, semi-comfortable fast casual restaurant that makes a big deal about the quality of their beef, but still serves lousy burgers
Price: four-ounce Hero Burger, $4.99; six-ounce Hero Burger, $5.99; poutine, $4.99; chocolate shake, $3.99

A lot of things have changed in the (nearly) two years since I left Toronto. Massive skyscrapers and condo developments are everywhere, there's shiny new subway cars, and Hero Certified Burgers has emerged as the leading homegrown burger chain. I still remember when the first location opened in 2003 in the swanky Hazelton Lanes food court, where you could listen to a piano player while eating lunch and it felt natural to pay extra for a better-than-average burger. In those days, a burger cost $5 to $8, and the city was still getting used to the idea of "premium burgers." Other operators had tried the concept (and failed) but Hero had a winning formula: The burgers were a significant step up from fast food fare, while being reasonably priced and consistently good.

The concept has remained consistent over the years. Burgers are available in three sizes (four, six, and eight ounces), and can be topped with 31 different toppings, including premium cheeses like Swiss Emmenthal and Fior di Latte, plus sauces like Horseradish Dijon, mango, and guacamole. About half of the toppings are free; others will run you an extra 79ยข to $1.29.

The chain has swelled to 28 locations, with two more in the works, but along the way, the quality has taken a nosedive.

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For all the hubbub that Hero makes about its beef, including that it's free range, hormone and antibiotic free, and sourced from 100 percent Angus stock (that's also halal), there's one important factor missing: It's not fresh. Yes, those premium burgers made from "certified beef" are frozen when they hit the grill.

As you might expect, that fatal flaw flatlines any chance the burger would have for texture. The meat was so thoroughly pulverized that it might as well have come out of an aerosol can. It had no char, and was rubbery, spongy, and completely void of any beef flavor. Even the best, freshest toppings couldn't have saved this burger, and mine were about as bad as the beef. The veggies were beyond bland and the ancho chipotle sauce was way over-portioned and so weirdly sweet that it was all I could taste.

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My friend's large six-ounce burger with maple chipotle barbecue sauce and the standard roughage was no better. The sauce was also way out of balance and squirted out both sides of the bun every time she tried to take a bite, which was twice. After that, both of them hit the bin. Life is too short for burgers this bad.

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Any hope for salvaging the meal rested on the poutine, which turned out to be passably ok. The skin-on fries were decently crisp and tasty, and even though the gravy was a bit too heavy (and bland), it was still much more satisfying than the burgers. Truly good poutine requires chewy curds that are so fresh, they squeak on your teeth. On Hero's version, the curds were completely melted and didn't have the prized bouncy texture. For $4.99, it's about as good as you'd expect for a fast-casual restaurant, but no better.

04202012-202715-hero-shake2.jpgOrdering a shake along with two burgers and poutine felt shameful at the time, but it turned out to be a good decision. The shake, made from vanilla soft serve blended with milk and chocolate syrup, turned out to be the best part of the meal. At first, it was so thick that it could only be consumed with a spoon (due to the fact that it's 90 percent ice cream), but it settled into a sweet, thick, slurry that was well worth $3.99.

In Toronto, you'll find better poutine at any of the official poutineries (like Smoke's, another homegrown chain, now with locations in seven provinces), but for the price, it would be difficult to find a better shake. I'd go back to try the premium flavors like mint chocolate chip or caramel, but that's the last time I eat a Hero burger.

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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