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Reviews of burgers at chain restaurants.

Chain Reaction: Unexpectedly Great Burgers at The Longhorn Cafe

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. This column is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.

[Photographs: Damon Gambuto]

The Longhorn Cafe

23775 West IH10, San Antonio, TX (map); 210-698-7766; 4 other locations in Texas; visit thelonghorncafe.com for list
The Schtick: A recreation of the casual Texas burger spot
The Burger: The "Big Juicy" is slim-pattied, griddled delight.
Setting: Downcale comfortable
Want Fries with That? Nah, these spuds aren't nearly the equal of the burger
Prices: Big Juicy Cheeseburger, $4.75

When I'm not reviewing burgers, my real life finds me on the road making television. Of course, while I'm on the road I sample my share of burgers that are worthy of a review. And so the circle of my burger life closes. Recently I found myself in San Antonio in need of some lunchtime salvation—salvation that came in the form of The Longhorn Cafe.

Walking up to the I10 location, I didn't imagine I'd find much in the way of burger discovery inside. Despite being born from a taco stand dating back to the 1950s, The Longhorn Cafe gives off that downscale chain vibe that usually signifies burger disappointment. As it turned out, their cheeseburger isn't some serviceable chain fare but rather a burger worth seeking out.

The interior of the counter-service restaurant feels more comfortable than brand name chains. In fact, with buckets of beer and booths available, you could linger at Longhorn comfortably. With that in mind, I ordered a "Big Juicy" cheeseburger ($4.75) and a Shiner Bock to salve the pain of a long shoot day.

My cheeseburger arrived in a red plastic basket lined with paper as you'd expect from a spot like this. What I didn't expect was just how beautiful my burger looked. The commercial bun shone with a brush of butter, and the thin four- to five-ounce patty and melty American cheese poked out the sides with flirtatious promise. The burger "all the way" comes with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, mustard, and mayo. I am not one for half measures, so all the way it was.

The first bite was a delight. I'd hoped that it'd taste at least half as good as it looked, but this burger delivered beyond that. The beef came out in my requested medium-rare—no small feat considering the slimness of the patty. It also betrayed a nice hit of salt and mineral depth. Even better than the patty's medium coarse grind was how loosely packed it was.

The American cheese melted into a creamy, gooey topping that added fat and tang in the way that argues for its supremacy as the cheese of choice for a burger. The veggies were all fresh and in good portion. What's more, the mustard-mayo combo was a delightful fat-tang one-two punch. I often argue in favor of Thousand Island, but this combo is a worthy competitor. Set against a spongy, delightful commercial bun, this burger came together with profound balance, which means I consumed it with profound quickness. I was so pleased I went back for a second.

The second burger was in part due to the deliciousness of the first burger and in part due to the weakness of the fries. I was only able to get through a few of these substandard spuds. Pass on them as a side in favor of one of the other offerings.

The Longhorn Cafe is, despite its years of existence, still a baby chain. Knowing that it's gone through a series of owners through the years, my suspicion is that it has had its ups and downs. As it stands now, their cheeseburger is one I'd happily welcome to my hometown.

About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at seriouslydamon@gmail.com.

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