Chain Reaction: Sonic
11105 Crabapple Road, Roswell GA 30075 (Map); 770-573-9775
3,500+ locations nationwide. Find one at sonicdrivein.com/locator
The Schtick: "America's Drive-In," where carhops deliver burgers, dogs, and such to your driver's side window, with almost 400,000 drink options
The Burger: Varieties don't stray too far from the classics. Typically unremarkable fast-food beef, overapplied veggie toppings, bonus points for good bacon
Want Fries With That? Ick. Go onion rings or chili cheese tots instead
Setting: The interior of your car, maybe a nearby picnic table
Price: Sonic Cheeseburger, $3.19; SuperSonic Double Bacon Cheeseburger, $4.59; Bacon Cheeseburger Toaster Sandwich, $4.69; French fries, $1.00/1.49/1.80; Onion rings, $1.69/1.99; Chili Cheese Tots, $1.99/2.59/2.99
Who knew there were so many hardcore Sonic fans out there? Not me, that's for sure. When I ranked the chain's onion rings last in AHT's Onion Ring Roundup last month, no one was more surprised than I was when Sonic apologists crawled out of the cyberwoodwork to defend "America's Drive-In." Most seemed to believe that the translucent puddle at the bottom of my bag and the extreme greasiness that soaked every ring across two orders was an anomaly, an exception to the rule, an unfortunate case of that particular location dropping the deep-fried ball.
Maybe they were right. I mean, it had certainly happened with my BK Chef's Choice experience. Maybe Sonic deserved another shot, I decided. And maybe, as long as I'm going, I should put the burger menu through its paces, too.
My baseline Sonic Cheeseburger was a remarkably accurate replica of the official PR photo. The chain's standard quarter-pound patty wasn't dwarfed by a too-big bun, as is often the case with a fast food menu's base burger model. A decent melt on the American cheese, visible garden crops peeking out from underneath the beef—there was reason to hope here. While Sonic's menu says your cheeseburger will come with your choice of ketchup, mustard, or mayo, I wasn't asked for my preference. Whether or not mayo is the default or just what the kitchen crew felt like using that day, mayo is what I got. Fine.
The beef wasn't really juicy per se, but this burger had a nice proportion of beef-to-everything-else going on. I personally dislike shredded lettuce on a burger, as I typically end up with more shrapnel in my lap than lettuce in my mouth. And while I could neither see nor really taste the chopped onions theoretically hidden in the lettuce, this cheeseburger was far better than other fast-food value menu offerings, and it was worth the $3 price tag. Not a destination burger, but if you're near a Sonic with a slight burger jones and not much cash, this should fix you up nicely.
The SuperSonic Double Bacon Cheeseburger wasn't as close a match to its company mug shot, but it was still a pretty darn tasty-looking lunch. I tend to gravitate toward double-meat burgers (much to my cardiologist's chagrin), and was totally digging the meat-to-bun ratio of this bad boy. Best of all, atop the twin individually-cheesed patties was some beautifully cooked bacon. Sonic does offer all-day breakfast, so getting bacon right is pretty much a non-negotiable dealbreaker in my book. Score one for Sonic. Not the flaccid, translucent baconesque substance foisted upon us by some chains, these strips were curled and meaty and definitely held their own inside this heavy-duty handful. The sheer height of this burger necessitated some squeezing, and that roughed up the lightweight bun considerably, but that was my only major complaint with this near-$5 burg.
The third burger of my test drive, the Bacon Cheeseburger Toaster Sandwich compared favorably to its publicity still. Burgers served on Texas toast are often lost underneath, but this beef was prominently displayed. The lettuce, tomato, and pickle were playing hide-and-seek for the most part, but the bacon once again looked spot-on and even the onion ring was making a cameo appearance.
Granted, using just a single ring as a burger topping looks a little pathetic, and left the first and last bites completely ringless, but since I'm not a huge fan of onion-ring-topped burgers anyway, it was no huge loss.
The Toaster seemingly attempts to combat all that bread by overloading the veggies. Four pickle slices on one burger is probably excessive, and I wouldn't mind if Sonic dropped its tomato usage from two slices per burger to one. And as is almost always the case, the (hickory) barbecue sauce threatened to overpower everything else in sight.
Sonic's beef is pretty bland with that grey, industrial look so many fast-food patties suffer from; despite a pretty picture, I couldn't help but wonder if either a second meat disc or slightly-tweaked topping distribution wouldn't help the Toaster immensely.
Three burgers gave me three side opportunities. I started with the onion rings I had bashed just a few weeks earlier. Hooray for second chances; these were fantastic. Heavy in the hand for their size, there was no grease at all—not in the bag and not on the rings—a fine crumb coat covering a bready inner layer, and a noticeable sweetness to both the onion and the casing. It absolutely pops. These rings even had an audible crunch to them. Whether I got a bad batch before or the Sonic in Woodstock, Georgia, just doesn't know what it's doing, the Roswell store kicked its ass in the onion ring department. If these were what I'd sampled during April's roundup, they might have given BK a run for the top spot.
Thanks, AHT'ers, for convincing me to get in the ring with Sonic again. Time, budget, and gastronomic constraints don't allow us reviewers to try each and every item multiple times and at multiple locations as would be ideal, but I'm glad it worked out here.
Sonic's fries, however, have assumed the rings' former title of crappiest side I've had in a while. A thicker cut than McDonald's but not quite of the dimensions of Wendy's, these were well salted right out of the sleeve. Past the nice fry job, though, these spuds were overly starchy, unpleasantly dense, and just plain bland. I quit after three and never went back. Besides, now that I found a good ring, why eat bad fries?
But then again, when chili cheese tots are an option, I'll just skip the rings and fries. While not doused in a super-high-quality chili, this side was my favorite by far, with a tot itself that featured a lightly crisp shell and a fluffy interior. After a few minutes, the chili, cheese sauce, and tots had congealed into a single, tasty mass. Picking a single tot off the pile was no longer possible; I had to use a fork to pry off a meaty, cheesy, melty, fluffy, starchy wedge. And was happy to do so.
In the end, I'm not sure Sonic won me over enough that it vaults into my regular rotation of go-to fast-fooderies. Eating in your car while it's in motion is an occasional necessity. Eating in your car while it's parked? Why??? Maybe back in the golden age of the drive-in, when Richie and Fonzie and the T-Birds were showing off their carburetors, tailfins, and suicide doors with a doo-wop soundtrack blaring.
But whether it's my advanced age or my hopelessly uncool car, eating a burger while hunched over the steering wheel of a stationary automobile just doesn't sound like fun to me. Even with roller skating carhops. And yes, I know that most Sonics have picnic tables for out-of-car-body eating experiences, but if I'm now unbuckling my seatbelt to eat there, why choose Sonic over other fast-food chains? Not for the burgers alone; they're just not THAT good. For their Half-Price Happy Hour, when I can liquid lunch for less with 398,929 fountain drink and slush combinations? Possibly. And if I'm feeling peckish before crawling into a 44-ounce cherry limeade, I now know that I can find some halfway decent options here. Hell, maybe even onion rings.
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.