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.
745 Chastain Road, Kennesaw GA 30144 (map); 770-428-2055
californiadreaming.co, 9 locations in AL, GA, SC
The Schtick: Big portions of American cuisine
The Burger: Three basic burger varieties to choose from, with potentially wildly varying results
Want Fries With That? The fries are quite good; the Onion Ring Loaf is quite... not
Setting: An understated Cheesecake Factory
Price:American Burger, $8.50 (+50¢ for cheese or bacon); Turkey Burger, $9.50
The nine locations of California Dreaming are about as geographically far away from the Golden State as you can get and still be in the US. They're sprinkled across three southeastern states, and while a few feel at home in seaside settings like Myrtle Beach, SC...others are hopelessly landlocked in places like Kennesaw, Georgia. It's an appropriate name for the mini-chain, since "dreaming" is as close to Cali as you're likely to get on a regular basis if you live in Spanish Fort, Alabama.
But to get the general gist of California Dreaming, think The Cheesecake Factory—and then dial everything back a notch. It's big...but not sprawling. There's a bit of everything...but the menu doesn't require 36 spiral-bound pages. The portion sizes are large...but not so absurdly mammoth that you need a handled shopping bag just to get the leftovers home. The vibe is similarly upscale: dark wood, low lighting, a buzzing beehive of a bar, friendly waitstaff in white button-downs with neckties and long aprons...and palm trees smack in the middle of the place, just to remind you that this is all supposed to conjure up a uniquely West Coast feel.
With that something-for-everyone approach that typifies "American cuisine" (the website touts their "Famous Nachos," and several locations brag about having the best salads in town), burgers are a staple, with three to choose from. I steered clear of the Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger, given my often-disastrous past with this particular meat mashup, and ordered the unimaginatively-named American Burger.
Well, well, well. Looks like somebody actually understands "medium rare." The "warm, red center" promised by my server was right there in front of me. The eight-ounce beef patties aren't hand-formed in back, but aren't delivered as frozen discs, either. The patties come off the broiler plenty juicy and nicely (if subtly) seasoned, with your choice of cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, and the classic LTO (although I found two slices of tomato to be one too many, proportionally speaking).
I nixed the standard pickles and added bacon instead, but I'm not sure this burger was greatly improved by it. It was solid—not spectacular, but then again, did you expect that?—and at $9.50 (after half-dollar upcharges for cheddar and bacon), it's a chain burger I'd be ok with recommending. (Truthfully, though, the best bang for your buck at California Dreaming may be the Danish baby back ribs, as they'll double your order upon request and bring you two entire racks for about $25. You may need that handled bag after all.)
I had automatically assumed—unfairly, I admit—that the fries would suck. So I hedged my bets and also ordered an app called the Onion Ring Loaf, figuring I might have better luck with hand-battered rings than frozen fries. Wrong on both counts. The thick steak fries were actually quite good, with a light and fluffy interior encased beneath the sheerest coating of crispness. The loaf, however...eww.
Extraordinarily greasy and underseasoned (if at all), the rings weren't helped by their presentation. The blocky Jell-O mold shape of the "loaf" reminded me of day-after spaghetti that you tap out of a Tupperware container before nuking it for a leftover lunch.
The serrated blade sticking out of the top seemed overdone until I realized that cutting off a wedge and turning these rings into a knife-and-fork job was the only option. I stopped at one wedge; not even the dipping sauce (thick generic zesty ranch) helped this mess become palatable. Those honey-butter-topped croissants in the background, though? Excellent. So good, in fact, that California Dreaming charges you for them. No free bread here—they're over a buck apiece, but awfully damn good nonetheless.
My wife got the Turkey Burger ($9.50)—and a surprise. The patty looked oddly misshapen, and the interior seemed lifeless and grey, but those things matter way more to me when it comes to burgers than to the missus. What got her attention, though, was the taste. "Funky," she called it. I had to concur after a sample bite. Neither of us is the type to publicly complain about a dish (at least until I start writing later), but our server pushed hard for an assessment.
He was quite proud of the turkey burger, it turned out, because the kitchen mixes it up from scratch and hand-patties each one. (That explains the shape.) "Well, since you asked," my wife began, "it had an almost-fishy aftertaste. Was there seafood on the broiler right before my burger?" Justin did a quick scan of his other tables, perhaps looking for the offending flounder, but had the decency to raise the concern with the GM.
He seemed just as shocked, but for a different reason. "We use anchovy paste in the mix," he admitted almost disbelievingly, "But no one has ever pinpointed it before." I know anchovy paste is often used to bump up the umami sensation (fish sauce, too) in otherwise bland dishes, but a burger should never taste fishy because of it.
Hard to say what happened, exactly. Maybe they used a smidge too much in that batch. Maybe the handful that became my wife's burger contained a big blob of it that wasn't incorporated thoroughly enough. Maybe Table 46 had gotten the flounder right before us. Or maybe my wife is unknowingly a supertaster. Whatever the explanation, it's a shame. Awesome to hear about the good intentions surrounding an item that's an afterthought on so many menus, but a misfire in execution turned California Dreaming's turkey burger into a bit of a nightmare on this night.