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.
5010 Mission Center Rd, San Diego, CA 92108 (map)
33 US locations, plus 3 in Taiwan, full list at gordonbiersch.com
The Schtick: According to the website, "Sophisticated gourmet food and authentic German lagers, perfectly crafted"
The Burger: At best: a utility burger that a beer or two might improve
Want Fries With That? The garlic fries are one of the restaurant's signature items and come standard
Setting: A huge, open restaurant with outdoor beer garden-esque patio and a production facility on site. Pretty cool.
Price: GB Cheeseburger, $10.50
Gordon Biersch makes some pretty bold claims about their food, calling it "world class" and "sophisticated gourmet", while the burgers are dubbed "knife and fork burgers" because they are "more than you can hold in your hands," not to mention "well balanced," "perfectly prepared," and "a perfect balance of comfort and excitement." Yikes.
Praise dumps like this have two immediate effects: instant 45-degree eyebrow cockage and the sinking feeling that the reality won't come close to the pitch. I've eaten enough burgers (of the chain and indie variety) to know that self-congratulatory menu preambles are almost never true. Still, I was starving and really wanted to be wrong.
I wasn't. My 10-ounce "grilled-to-order" burger wasn't even that, unless you count "grilled to order" as "medium or above," because medium-rare wasn't even an option. The brown-gray patty was dressed with minimal toppings (tomato, cheese, and lettuce—no pickle or onion) and a sad, thin little slice of cheddar, which really calls the whole "Fork and Knife" designation into question. Unless you have the diminutive digits of a t-rex, you'll have no problem getting the burger from the plate to your hungry maw without any need for cutlery. And really, in what universe is needing a fork and knife to eat a burger a good thing? I did that once and it was terrible.
Cooking the burger to medium sapped most of the moisture, and there wasn't even much char to show for spending that extra time on the grill. The end result was a burger that tasted like it could have been cooked from frozen. Whether or not it actually was, I'm not sure...but as far a flavor goes, it might as well have come out of an economy-sized box covered in frost.
The bun was off, too. It had a sweet, eggy flavor, like challah, that didn't jibe with the beef. Maybe if you order one of the more inspired options—like the Farmhouse Burger, with bacon jam, tomatoes, arugula, and a fried egg—the overall effect would be better, but if I were ever to go back, the only way I could eat this burger and leave satisfied is by getting more than a little loaded on one of the hand-crafted (and brewed on site) German beers.
The "legendary garlic fries," which are hyped as "the perfect start to any meal," were the best thing on the plate. Crisp, golden brown, and with just enough garlic, they were what I kept coming back to. I didn't bother with the three-tablespoon sized portion of slaw, so I can't report on that.
In conclusion: get the fries, but skip the burger unless you're also ordering a few "biersch" (sorry).
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