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Episodes: America's regional hamburger chains, ranked


Emily VanDerWerff

Feb 20 2016

6 min read



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One of the great joys in my life (as we've established) is travel. And one of the great joys of my travel is getting to eat at regional restaurant chains that haven't made the leap to cross-country phenomena yet. In particular, I like eating at hamburger chains, even though many of them are awful. Still, I'd almost always rather sample a Blake's Lotaburger or something than hit Burger King. That way madness lies.

Rules for this list. 1.) I have to have eaten there. If it's not ranked, I probably haven't. 2.) The chain needs to have at least 25 locations (except for a couple of outliers I felt the need to rank). 3.) It cannot have more than 1,000, or be in more than 25 states. 4.) Chains that have different names in different regions but are functionally the same thing don't count. Sorry Hardee's.

On with the ranking.

1.) In and Out Burger: For a while, there was this argument over whether In and Out or Five Guys was better, and then I kept going back to In and Out and stopped going to Five Guys, mostly. This is probably pro-California bias talking, but there is nothing quite like In and Out after midnight.

2.) Boom's: This restaurant has only three locations in rural South Dakota. It is the only restaurant in the United States worth eating at. Take it from me, an overweight man who has trouble reconciling his past with his present.

3.) Shake Shack: This chain is going to go the way of Five Guys and be everywhere eventually (just as In and Out is playing it cool and sticking to its power base of California, while sneaking quietly across the bottom of the country to launch a SNEAK ATTACK on the East Coast). As of right now, though, they're just a baby chain. Great hamburgers, but my primary memory of Shake Shack now is my father-in-law insisting we keep going back to one in DC because he liked one of their milkshakes that much. Like, literally, that was his suggestion for every meal. Great.

4.) Good Times: You probably haven't eaten at Good Times, because you probably haven't been to the Rocky Mountains recently. But this is a good hamburger, and it even tastes like it's made from quality ingredients, which is nice when you're crying in a Boulder parking lot.

5.) Smashburger: I like Smashburger a lot, but it loses points because it, clearly, will soon be everywhere.

6.) Culver's: I don't honestly know that its "Butter Burgers" are authentic butter burgers, but they're pretty tasty. Also, frozen custard sounds more decadent than it really is. Like most foods that originated in Wisconsin, they're fattening without really having a good reason to be fattening. Wisconsin: Pointlessly fattening.

7.) Dick's Drive-In: There are only six of these in Seattle. I'm literally only listing this to remind my wife about the time I made her go to one at 1 in the morning to say I had tried it. Hi, hon.

8.) Burgerville: I suspect this would move up the charts a bit if I were in the Pacific Northwest, where it's based. I've only had it the one time, but it was a solid burger.

9.) Whataburger: I would really prefer to rank this lower, as it's a pretty bland burger, but former colleague Kelsey McKinney would kill me if I did. So I'll LET IT be in the top 10.

10.) Blake's Lotaburger: This sometimes turned up in Breaking Bad, which is fun.

11.) Iceberg or something? I don't know. It's in Utah. The shakes are great, and by "great," I mean they're giant piles of ice cream somebody indifferently mixes flavors into. Yum.

12.) Steak 'n Shake: This list was inspired by seeing there's a Steak 'n Shake in Santa Monica now, for some reason. I actually really love Steak 'n Shake, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's in more than 25 states at this point. I did no real research for this list.

13./14./15.) Farmer Boys/Baker's/Tommy's: There are a LOT of weird burger chains in southern California, and they're all virtually indistinguishable from each other. If forced to choose, I might go with Baker's, because I used to go to the comic book store, then eat at Baker's on my lunch break back when I lived in Riverside. I would guess both that comic book store and that Baker's location, to say nothing of the entire city of Riverside, are closed. Memories.

If you are in the Milwaukee area: Eat at Kopp's.

If you are in the Twin Cities area: Eat at Lion's Tap.

If you want a taco, and you are for some reason in Wyoming or states nearby: Eat at Taco John's.

Also pretty good: Bojangle's Chicken

Also, also pretty good: Idaho Fry Company (I think?). It's just fries, with lots of weird ketchups. Better than that sounds.

Weirdest chain I've eaten at: Something in Utah called "Wingerz," which was, I guess, Hooters, but for Mormons. It had terrible wings, but it did have lots of fry sauce. That sounds exciting, until you realize it's just ketchup mixed with mayo.

Should this article be making me hungry: No.

Is it though: Yes.

Have I wasted my life: Almost certainly.

If I didn't rank your favorite: I probably haven't eaten there. Or I hate you. Either way.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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