Editor's note: Please welcome AHT's newest contributor, Charlie Taylor, who'll be covering burgers from Philadelphia. If you have any recommendations, let him know in the comments!
Jake's Wayback Burger
503 Baltimore Pike, Springfield, PA 19064 (map); 484-472-7900; waybackburgers.com; 70+ locations in 18 states
The Schtick: Back-in-the-day, roadside-style burger joint
The Burger: Fresh, never frozen griddle seared patties are the star of the burgers, not the fresh toppings. Try 'em "Jake's Way."
Want Fries With That? Yes, but make sure they're the chili cheese version.
Setting: Clean, bright, red barnboard and white interior with simple counters, tables, and benches.
Price: Double Bacon Jake, $6.99; milkshake, $2.79 (junior), $4.49 (regular); chili cheese fries, $4.99
Notes: Kids eat free on Sunday with the purchase of an adult meal.
Started in 1991 in Newark, Delaware, Jake's—as it was called then—was well-known by the locals for some time before heading for the big time with a new name. Now with over 70 locations nationwide, the rebranded Jake's Wayback Burger is headed towards ubiquity—or at the very least, to a town near you.
Jake's burger philosophy is "Always Fresh, Never Frozen," and at one time the patties were formed by hand at each location. Now "burger balls" are pre-formed before delivery to each location, but the "always fresh, never frozen" philosophy still applies and burgers are still pressed out by hand on the grill to order, though Jake's does not assert any particular provenance for their beef.
They keep the menu pretty clean with the bulk of it taken up by their burgers, sides such as fries and onion rings, and their hand-dipped milkshakes. They also offer some grilled hot dog options and a few salads. And while you can always pick your toppings à la carte, Jake's has a few signature burgers including a burger of the month.
But the king of Jake's has to be the Bacon Double Jake ($6.99) featuring two of Jake's 3.3-ounce burger patties, bacon, and cheese-topped "Jake's way": ketchup, mustard, raw onions, pickles, lettuce, and tomato. It's all served on a soft but firm split-top roll that has the color and texture of a good potato roll.
The patty itself, made from fresh beef ground just south of a course grind, is packed fairly loosely and delivers great flavor. Despite being pressed out on the griddle, the patties are still juicy, helped by the 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio of the beef, while hovering just slightly above the default medium doneness. You can't specify any other doneness, but don't worry; they know what they're doing. The patty's flavor comes across as almost neutral in its beefiness—enough to notice it through the toppings but not so much to make you say, "Wow, how'd they do that?" The crust also contributes to the flavor, but the salt content is just short of perfect. This is where the bacon works its magic. Crisp and super thin, the bacon adds just the right amount of crunch and salt to the Double Bacon Jake to elevate it to something special.
The fries are not notable in any way, but there's a fix for that. Jake's chili cheese fries ($4.99) come topped with Jake's own chili—made with the same beef as their burgers—and shredded cheddar jack melted to order in a broiler. The crisp but unexciting fries are the perfect vehicle for both because they don't become overly soggy from the chili.
The shakes ($2.79/$4.49) are excellent as well. I would easily put them in the same category as Shake Shack's, but they're not quite as thick.
For me, Jake's is as much a standout as any of the newer "better burger" joints. I would liken Jake's to Five Guys but not as greasy and with fresher toppings, and to Shake Shack but just short on over-the-top burger flavor.