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.
Wild Wing Cafe
5530 Windward Parkway, Alpharetta GA 30004 (Map); 678-990-WING; wildwingcafe.com, 33 locations in 7 states
The Schtick: Wings are the thing at this Southeastern sports bar chain...
The Burger: ...but the burgers are actually pretty badass, too
Want Fries With That? They do spuds several ways, but wings may be the better add-on here
Setting: Typical sports bar with interrogation-room lighting, neon beer signs, and sports gear tacked up around the flat screens
Price: 4 burger varieties, $10.49; Build-your-own burgers start at $7.99
Branching out from what you're known for is always dangerous. Twisted Sister had a nice little hair-metal career going there until they decided that a doo-wop cover version of Leader of the Pack was a good idea. And is it just a coincidence that Sylvester Stallone's stock kinda went toilet-bound with the "comedy" Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and never fully recovered?
So perhaps a healthy dash of skepticism can be forgiven when my latest Chain Reaction burger review took me to Wild Wing Cafe, a Southeastern chain famous for drums and flats in 35 flavors.
In fairness, I should admit here that I love Wild Wing Cafe and am not an infrequent visitor, especially on those NFL Sundays when travel takes me away from my satellite TV package. But working my way down a wing list that includes variations like Atomic Meltdown, China Syndrome, and Braveheart over all of those visits, I've never once even thought about ordering a burger at Wild Wing Cafe.
And yet there's an entire page of the menu devoted to their Great Grillers that does a pretty decent sell job. It touts half-pound patties of never-frozen, hand-formed Angus chuck. But the our-burgers-are-so-extreme-that-we-have-to-serve-them-with-a-steak-knife-plunged-through-the-center schtick is way overdone and a little eye-roll-inducing to anyone who's been out to eat in the last ten years—and I totally expected this burger to fall into that sad T.G.I.Chilibee's tier.
My Bleu Cheese Basil Burger ($10.49), however, showed promise upon arrival. Obvious grill marks striped the patty, which was topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, bacon, and blue cheese crumbles. But the real wow factor here came from a tasty combination of basil mayo and the marinade that's used to baste the chain's Italian-flavored wings.
Dunking a hamburger in some sort of sauce or overloading it with crazy condiments is usually just weak camouflage for a crap burger, but I loved it here. In fact, the Build-Your-Own Burger option lets you pick from any one of the kitchen's wing flavors for a mere half-dollar. The result on my Bleu Cheese Basil was a seriously-seasoned patty, with plenty of rich creaminess added by the cheese and some welcome crunchy texture provided by the bacon. Best of all, my medium-rare was plenty pink on the inside.
If you're looking for a basic baseline cheeseburger, you'll have to build it yourself and hope you don't get called out for being a wuss. Of the kitchen's four burger concoctions, the "plainest" is the Ultimate Bacon Cheeseburger. There's also one with a fried egg on it, and then there's the Holy Jalapeño Burger.
This one's meant for the flame-lovers, with pepper jack cheese, sliced jalapeños, and a liberal dousing of Jalapeño Cheddar marinade, one of the wing menu's longtime standouts. Spicy, sure, but not prohibitively so; it's low on the heat scale, more cheesy than fiery.
Most of Wild Wing's sauces are exceptional, and they made these burgers significantly better than I had expected them to be. But all that liquid flavor-booster also highlights these burgers' biggest weakness: a generic sesame-seeded bun that simply doesn't hold up to either the added moisture of the burgers themselves or the extra hand-squeezing required to eat these things.
The sides are all serviceable at a place like this. "Regular" fries are steak-cut wedges called Big Fat Fries. Sweet Potato Fries will cost you an extra 75 cents. But the kitchen also does some mean House Chips, and can then go back and redecorate your spuds of any variety with cheeses and spices and sauces (duh) to make things really interesting. Even the long onion ring that topped each burger was good, with a super-crisp batter and a clean bite all the way through.
Although the Big Fat Fries and Sweet Potato Fries at my table were all decent enough, the best side was the order of 10 wings (Ranchilada and Red Dragon, thankyouverymuch) we got to go with the burgers. Originally conceived as a way to salvage something from this trip—assuming the burgers would blow—they turned out to be an excellent way to sample the best of both worlds.
I turned in my Twisted Sister fan card after Leader of the Pack. And I never even bothered with Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. But on my next visit to Wild Wing Cafe, there's a very good chance I'll do another burger/wing combo platter and keep a more open mind about branching out into new territories.