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.
4110 Mission Blvd., San Diego CA 92109 (map)
200 locations in 33 countries, full list at tonyromas.com
The Schtick: A semi-casual chain that's "famous for ribs" but also serves several different burgers
The Burger: A decent burger for desperate times, but not especially worth going out of your way for
Want Fries With That? Yep! Seasoned fries come with the burger and they're tasty
Setting: Your typical stuck-in-the-'90s chain restaurant atmosphere
Price: Steakhouse Burger, $10; Bison Burger, $10
Big, multi-national chains like Tony Roma's are probably familiar to many AHT'ers, especially since there are over 200 locations in 33 countries from Costa Rica to China, but Tony and I have a shorter history, limited to one childhood memory: running full-tilt towards the (now closed) Fisherman's Wharf location, overjoyed at the prospect of eating corn on the cob for dinner for the second night in a row. These were simpler times, before I discovered more complicated pleasures like avant-garde desserts or, you know, red pepper.
A good two decades after my last visit, I returned with a different mission: to suss out the burgers. Tony Roma's has three different base patties—sirloin, "all-beef", and bison—loaded up with everything from crispy onions to a triple-hit of cheese. I stuck with the two upmarket options: a lean bison burger with the basic veggies and a steakhouse burger, with cabernet demi-glace, melted Havarti, and bacon flecked with rosemary. Both burgers were $10, a mere $1 upgrade from the basic beef variety, making it an easy decision.
When I ordered my burger medium-rare and our server countered with, "I can do medium," I was a bit put off. A steakhouse, of all places, shouldn't be a place where you have to negotiate temperatures, but fine. I'll eat a medium burger if there's no other option.
This one was decent—reasonably flavorful and moist, with a straightforward, if slightly steak-like flavor, but it would have been much tastier had it been a little redder in the center. Certain toppings, like the rosemary bacon and the Havarti cheese, were perfectly executed and rounded out the moisture the patty was lacking, but the promised cabernet demi-glace was undetectable. Overall, it was a totally acceptable burger, and one I'd happily eat in a pinch, but it's not one that's worth going out of your way for.
Depending on your personal tastes, you might love Tony's bison burger. The presentation skips the cheese (likely to keep it leaner, and lower in fat), but there's plenty of flavor coming from the patty, which is unmistakably gamey. Though leaner than the sirloin patty, the flavor of the buffalo was about twice as intense.
And what's that? A warm, red center? Well, turns out it is possible to get your patty less than medium at Tony Roma's, if you're lucky. The rightful owner of this patty was my +1, who, knowing the policy, jokingly ordered his burger rare, which could have something to do with its hue, or could just be inconsistency in the kitchen. Either way, I think Tony Roma should take some advice from another Tony (Bourdain) and allow people to do their "patriotic duty"—order their burger medium-rare.
Fries and a pickle spear come standard, and you want them both. Though a bit pale, the fries are plenty crisp, and extra-tasty thanks to flecks of seasoned salt.
Tony Roma's isn't my first choice for a burger, but in those situations where the only option is a chain, it'll do...and if you're worried it won't be enough to emotionally satisfy you, well, there's always the onion loaf.
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