Reality Check

Reviews of fast food burgers and a look at how the real life version compares to the advertised beauty shot.

Reality Check: Steak 'n Shake's Oktoberfest Burger

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[Photographs: Above, Steak 'n Shake on Facebook; rest, Ewan Macdonald]

Indianopolis-based Steak 'n Shake may pride themselves on sticking to time-honored traditions, but their Oktoberfest Burger, available for the next few months, currently tops their specials list. Relatively few chains offer such a German-themed burger, with fast-casual Red Robin clearly being the model for Steak 'n Shake's latest offering.

Steak 'n Shake start with what they're good at: They press two puck-shaped patties onto the grill, maximize surface area, and thus produce an excellent foundation for any sandwich. Instead of American cheese, though, they use Swiss—and that's just the start of the changes.

Gone are any regular toppings you might be used to, except onions. But these are no ordinary onions. Instead they're sautéed in a mustard sauce until yellow and translucent. On top of that comes a pile of Black Forest ham. Finally, a toasted pretzel bun gets another squirt of mustard, and the burger is complete.

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For $5.49 with (mandatory) fries, the price is about right for a double. And while no burger can match its PR shot, this one didn't look too bad, either: Pretzel buns are always attractive, the Swiss was promisingly melted, and there was some nice contrast on show between the rest of the toppings. Of course, I had to ruin all that by cutting into it, but such is the price of science.

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Sadly, though, the burger didn't taste quite as good as it looked. It certainly wasn't bad—Steak 'n Shake don't do bad burgers—but it was one in which balance was sacrificed at the altar of the gimmick. Steak 'n Shake's patties are normally the star around which everything else revolves, but his time they were just lost amid the other ingredients. The ham was piled on unevenly, with too much of it being in the middle of the burger, and it dominated the burger with sweetness. The onions had virtually no flavor and were annoyingly stringy.

The Swiss threatened to pull things back towards respectability, being the right amount to add a bit of sweet, nutty flavor, while the mustard was mercifully neither yellow mustard nor sweet Bavarian mustard, but a wholegrain deli concoction that at least tempered some of the overpowering ham flavor.

Against it all, though, was that bun. Yes, it was pretty to look at, it held its shape well, and it matches the Oktoberfest theme, but it was far too doughy. It didn't have much of a yeasty pretzel flavor—which will either be a pro or a con, depending on your own views—and it was far too substantial, even for the flavor mix that lay between it.

It's not a burger I regret having tried, but nor is it what I go to Steak 'n Shake for. Steak 'n Shake have spent decades on their product and have produced an American classic utterly perfect in its balance. A double Steakburger with cheese is one of the better fast food experiences around. If that formula's to be messed with, it should be done with due care and attention. This was not the case with the Oktoberfest Burger. Unlike the real Oktoberfest—212 years old and counting—this hopefully isn't the start of an annual tradition.

About the author: Ewan Macdonald is a soccer writer who will probably die with a hamburger in his mouth. Born in Scotland, he was lured to the Dallas area by cheap beef and a love of 100 degree evenings with 60% relative humidity.

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