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]

Joe's Crab Shack

525 East Harbor Drive San Diego, CA 92101 (map)
120 locations in 28 states, full list at joescrabshack.com
The Schtick: Houston-based chain known for serving big plates of seafood, in platter and bucket form
The Burger: Not bad for a place focused on shellfish
Want Fries With That? Sure, they come with the burger and they're spiced up with a shake of seasoned salt
Setting: Fishing-themed casual dining restaurant. Many are located on the waterfront with large outdoor seating areas
Price: Chipotle Bacon Cheeseburger, $10.19, Joe's Surf 'N Turf Burger, $10.19

Joe's Crab Shack is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think of burgers. The Houston-based fast casual chain is best known for slinging platters and buckets of shellfish, but they also have a few beef and bun options for those who are iffy about cracking crab. There's the chipotle bacon cheeseburger, and one option for those who can't choose between beef and deep-fried shrimp: the Surf 'N Turf burger, a half-pound patty with popcorn shrimp and onion strings piled on top.

The building blocks of both burgers are the same: a squishy, brioche-esque bun that's lightly toasted, a half-pound pre-formed commercial-grade beef patty, and the standard vegetable roughage. At first, I thought I was doomed for a repeat performance of what happened at McCormicks and Schmick's, since the menu states that all burgers are cooked to medium/medium well, but our server asked how I wanted them done, and medium rare wasn't an issue (this may vary by location).

Both patties were decent, but not exceptional. The beef was generally over-worked, made of a a too-fine grind that was mashed into a patty and didn't have any char to speak of. The beef wasn't particularly juicy, but it did have a reasonably robust flavor that was undeniably beefy. That being said, this isn't a patty you'd want to eat with only the standard vegetable roughage. Luckily, where Joe is concerned, this is not an issue; both burgers came loaded with lots of flavorful toppings.

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The chipotle bacon cheeseburger ($10.19) has two strips of crisp and smoky bacon, shredded cheese, and a chipotle barbecue sauce that actually has a good kick and a tasty, smoky flavor. I felt like this is what Burger King must have been going for with their new Texas BBQ Whopper. The sauce sinks into the patty, imbuing the beef with spice and heat.

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Everything else on the burger was equally good. The shredded cheese was well portioned and melted nicely, the vegetable roughage was fresh, and the bacon was crisp without being overcooked. The main issue with this burger was the temperature. The patty was cooked a shade past my requested medium rare, and didn't have much char.

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Days before visiting the Shack, I was already bracing for the impact of the Surf 'N Turf burger ($10.19); a half-pound patty with about another half pound of popcorn shrimp and deep-fried onion strings piled on top. It looks comically large, but when you squish down the bun, it is possible to get a composed bite (though not without getting the sriracha remoulade all over your face). The patty was cooked within the ballpark of my requested temp (medium rare) and had a more aggressively beefy flavor and more moisture than the other patty, which was cooked to medium.

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The biggest surprise was the shrimp and onion strings actually worked with the beef patty. The deep-fried coating adds a hot, oily crunch and a kick of salt, the shrimp tastes surprisingly good with the beef, and the remoulade ties the whole mess together. What this burger is really about is texture. It doesn't really prove that popcorn shrimp is a good burger topping as much as it proves that almost anything that's battered and deep-fried can taste good on a burger.

However, that crunchy texture comes at a cost: a major caloric payload. The complete meal has more than 1,600 calories and 104 grams of fat, making it one of the most gut-busting items on the menu, though nowhere near the worst. That dubious honor goes to The Big Hook-Up, a platter of deep-fried everything that clocks in at 2,750 calories. Then again, a place whose version of s'mores is a slice of chocolate cake topped with a chocolate bar, graham crackers, and four huge marshmallows might not be the best place to go if you're counting calories.

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Like the burger, Joe's fries are good, not great. The cooked-from-frozen potato planks are lightly fried, then tossed with seasoned salt. As a starchy, filling, side, they're fine, but with the burgers so heavily loaded, they're not good enough to be worth the extra calories. After eating a few, the thrill quickly faded. Your other option is onion strings, but I'd stick with the fries.

I wouldn't head to Joe's Crab Shack specifically for the burgers, but if you get roped into going there and don't want to go in on a big bucket of shellfish, the burgers are a reasonable alternative.

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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