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.
Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville
500 Duval Street, Key West FL 33040 (map); (305) 292-1435
13 other locations; visit margaritaville.com for a full list
The Schtick: A number of laid-back traditional burgers, seafood specialties and food you'd find in the Keys, catering to Parrotheads
The Burger: Just like the song says, not phenomenal but good for what it is
Want Fries with That? Pencil-thin, yellow, crunchy and a little salty, they're standing by, waiting for ketchup.
Setting: An open-air beach bum friendly dining room packed for elbow-to-elbow seating, plenty of bar stools, and a good place to start looking for that lost shaker of salt
Price: Cheeseburger in Paradise w/french fries or onion rings, $9.95
Jimmy Buffett's hit "Cheeseburger in Paradise" is almost as popular as the Parrothead national anthem, "Margaritaville." And what hamburger lover couldn't get behind the chorus of such a hit:
Cheeseburger in Paradise Heaven on Earth with an onion slice Not too particular, not too precise Just a Cheeseburger in Paradise
I like mine with lettuce and tomato Heinz 57 and french fried potato Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer Well good God Almighty which way do I steer?
To determine whether the burger lived up to the song, I headed to Key West to eat lunch at the original Margaritaville Café. They offer six kinds of burgers—choices include a Mushroom Cheeseburger and a Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger—and all of the burgers can be substituted with turkey or Boca burger patties. The Cheeseburger in Paradise is listed as, "The one that started it all. Just like the song says, and the Heinz 57 is on the table."
The burger comes out on its own special labeled plate. The iceberg lettuce was a little disappointing, being devoid of the color green. That being said, the rest looked tasty: a nicely toasted seeded bun, an impossibly red chunk of tomato, and a slice of high-quality American cheese melted into the meat. I almost ditched the white onions when I went to apply the Heinz, but realized that would defeat the purpose of trying it like the song said. The fries were skinless yellow dipping fries that were slightly salty and crunchy, begging for some ketchup. The "big kosher pickle" was a flat Vlassic-style slice.
Then there was the meat, a third-pound hand formed patty. I approved of the reddish tone that I could see through the bit of crust. It looked a little smashed on the outside, and when I went to see if the bun was toasted I noticed a little grill gristle common to hand patted smashers.
The burger patty itself? Pink, though a little closer to medium than my requested medium rare. Juicy. Firmly packed towards the center and nicely flavored with salt, pepper, and perhaps a touch of cumin and thyme, though light on the spice for my tastes—that is until I added the Heinz 57 steak sauce and tried it again. The addition of that one key ingredient elevates the burger from an average one to something of signature flavor.
It's not the best burger I've ever had, and it certainly isn't the worst, but I can appreciate it for what it's worth. If I find myself back that way I might order it again—but I'm probably more likely to order up a Mother Ocean platter with lots of seafood. My tablemates for the most part ordered seafood dishes and were roundly pleased with what they received.
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