Chain Reaction

Reviews of burgers at chain restaurants.

Chain Reaction: The Cheesecake Factory

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.

In honor of July 30 being National Cheesecake Day (for reasons we don't know), we're bringing you a review of the Cheesecake Factory's burgers. Today the Cheesecake Factory is celebrating by offering any slice of cheesecake for half the price (also tomorrow if you bring in a coupon).

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[Photographs: Erin Jackson]

The Cheesecake Factory

7067 Friars Road San Diego CA 92108 (map)
151 locations, full list at thecheesecakefactory.com
The Schtick: Full-service chain restaurant where the portions are huge and the menu is very long (over 250 items, including 50 cheesecakes and specialty desserts)
The Burger: Decent for a chain (and the price) but not worth the trip unless you're primarily there for dessert
Want Fries With That? Fries come standard, but they're bland and boring. You'd be better off with the green salad
Setting: Big, bustling dining room and a near-constant line-up of people waiting for tables during dinnertime
Price: Classic Cheeseburger, $11.95; Macaroni and Cheese Burger, $12.95; Skinnylicious Burger, $8.95

The Cheesecake Factory is a peculiar place. Usually an ever-present line, packed dining area, and palpable levels of excitement are reliable indications of great food, but I've never had a truly outstanding entrée. Instead, it seems like everyone is participating in a collective delusion that they are there to enjoy a wholesome meal when really, the food is just an obstacle that stands between them and a thousand-calorie slice of cheesecake.

I might be wrong. Several of the entrées could be spectacular. Maybe they do a bang-up job on the Thai-inspired "bang-bang chicken and shrimp," or the Factory Meatloaf is better than your Mom's (I say yours because mine never really nailed it). In any case, my latest visit was all about the burgers, three of them, to be exact: the classic burger, a Skinnylicious burger, and its exact opposite: a macaroni and cheese burger.

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The classic burger is listed as a "chop house hamburger", which refers to the size of the patty: a hefty 10 ounces. It was by far the most disappointing. The patty was over-worked and cooked way past my requested medium rare. I'll give the cook some points for char (there was a thick crust of it), but when that comes at the expense of any flavor or moisture, nobody wins. The beef was dry, and besides getting some good flavor from the char, essentially tasteless. Toppings included a grilled hunk of onion, the standard lettuce and tomato, and some exceptionally tasty pickles that were easily the best thing on the plate (but not enough to redeem the burger). One of the burger brigadiers I recruited for the mission opted to dunk his burger in ranch dressing. Ketchup would have helped too, if you swing that way.

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Other classic-type options include the Old Fashioned Hamburger, a smaller, six-ounce version that Damon reviewed on National Cheesecake Day last year, the Factory burger, which is served with cheese, on a sourdough loaf, and the Americana cheeseburger, with secret sauce and potato crisps.

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The macaroni and cheese burger is a good representation of the Cheesecake Factory, in burger form. It features a half-pound patty topped with a giant ball of breaded and deep fried mac and cheese that's smothered in thick cheddar cheese sauce. By the time we received our burger, the sauce had congealed and the ball was soggy.

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The patty was almost identical to the 10-ounce patty on the classic hamburger, but cooked a bit closer to medium rare. Unfortunately, what presumably would have translated into more flavor was totally lost. The dominant ingredient was the ball of mac and cheese, which had the texture of a poached egg and the flavor of Velveeta. Barf.

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Redemption, or the closet thing to it, came in the form of the Skinnylicious burger. The quarter-pound burger had a lean, steak-like flavor, and was much juicier than the other burgers, partly because it wasn't overcooked (if anything, it was on the rare side of medium-rare). It didn't have nearly as much char as the other patties, though it did sport some visible grill marks. It's unclear whether the beef in this burger is a different blend, or just less of the regular beef, but it did taste markedly different, with a cleaner, more prominent beefy flavor than the other patties.

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Consistency is clearly an issue. Of the three burgers I ordered (all medium rare), none of them truly hit the mark. One was medium well, another was medium, and the Skinnylicious was medium rare in some bites, but rare in others.

Both the sweet potato and regular fries weren't worth eating. The lifeless spuds were bland and boring. The green salad that came standard with the Skinnylicious burger was much better.

Knowing this, if you insist on eating "real food" before cheesecake, the Skinnylicious is the way to go. It's small, tasty, reasonably priced, and with the entire meal under 590 calories, you can roll over those savings into your dessert budget. The Classic Burger, by contrast, has 1,375 calories, according to calorielab.com. The Cheesecake Factory does not disclose nutritional information on their website.

Related:

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 food blog EJeats.com. On Twitter, she's @ErinJax

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