The general position of this website is that hamburgers are good, but not spectacular out of context. The context is important for evaluating each major hamburger’s merits, because without it they’re basically all big slabs of meat served between two pieces of bread. If this opinion makes you angry, find better things to be angry about, or maybe order a delicious Whataburger for reasons described below.
In-N-Out: Unquestionably the best burger for multiple contexts, but where In-N-Out really excels in is being the best burger to eat while crying alone in your car. Maybe it’s the tight packaging, the astonishing consistency, or its emotional status as West Coast comfort food. Maybe it’s all of it combined with the unique sorrow only an hour-long commute can bring, or the unreal experience of everyone there being very, very cheerful all the time no matter how bad you might feel pulling up to the drive-thru.
Whatever it is, no other burger accompanies a tearful voyage into the depths quite like the Southern California classic itself. Things may change, but the modest, consistent B plus of an In-N-Out Burger is basically a mathematical constant. Go there once and miss this point completely. Go there twenty times in a row, and begin to understand it fully.
The fries are bad by design. They remind the consumer that no one is perfect, and that expecting the flawless is a spiritual exercise in self-defeat.
Whataburger: The best hamburger for kummerspeck, aka the German word for “eating your feelings. Texas was settled in large part by even larger German settlers who had a large hand in making the state so inimitably huge. So it is only appropriate that the Lone Star State would produce the best and largest hamburger capable of carrying your horrible, pesky feelings directly into your stomach.
Once those feelings ride the wide, beefy raft of a weighty Whataburger patty into your hell-stomach, they are dissolved in harsh acid, and will never bother you again. Every time anyone has eaten at Whataburger, they have both felt better about life while also shortening it. This is why Texas has no mental health care facilities or support: The state counts Whataburger as a free clinic, and also reduces the number of people on Social Security and elder assistance.
Five Guys: Aunt Stabby suggested this when we asked her about what Five Guys purpose was: “For when you want your feelings to eat you.”
The grease quotient, heavy toppings, and sheer mass of a Five Guys burger is capable of reversing the equation altogether, turning an aware, capable human into a shambling demizombie in a matter of minutes. By redirecting obliterating all but a trickle of blood to the stomach, the Five Guys hamburger works like cheap Topamax, disabling all but the most necessary higher functions of the brain.
Warning: Do not add fries due to the risk of foundering or complete coma.
Shake Shack: The burger for the month when you fall behind financially, i.e. when you need the comfort only sensible shopping can provide. Shake Shack is fine. This is the truth about most hamburgers, actually: They’re fine enough, and after eating one the customer will not be hungry, if not overserved and slightly woozy. As the official food of America, leaving slightly woozy, too satisified, and slightly fatter is all perfectly on brand.
Shake Shack is, like every other burger-first chain, fine. Its added value comes in the satisfaction of paying slightly more for something with an extra topping: luxury at price. Shake Shack is the hamburger someone buys when they’re hungry, but also just a little class-insecure. When the bank balance is dinged by a car repair or something expensive suddenly exploding in the house? Shake Shack. When someone wants to consume 1200 calories in a single meal—including a completely unnecessary milkshake—but also needs to feel like those 1200 calories come with the blue ribbon of nice fonts, packaging, and branding? Because slightly more expensive calories are classier? That’s Shake Shack.
Sonic. The burger for when someone is definitely being pursued by the authorities, but still has time to pull over for a minute, and also really just wanted the good pebble ice they put in the drinks in the first place. The burger is secondary at best, and likely tertiary to the tater tots. Also: Sonic has a corporate policy of no snitching, which is why at select locations in Arkansas and Oklahoma one can purchase exotic animals as a side. (See: The special onion rings that cost $5,000 a pop listed in small print on the right of the menu.)
Steak ‘n Shake. The burger for families who just want one goddamn second to sit down and put the kids in front of some ice cream or milkshakes or whatever, just order them whatever so we can all sit here for twenty minutes of relative calm and quiet and get out of the car before we all start pepper spraying each other.
Steak ‘n Shake provides two essential services: being the release valve for people with small children who need somewhere to sit for a minute on long car trips, and for drunk people who’ve been banned from the Waffle House but still want somewhere to apply grease to a growing hangover. Note: Those people will eventually be banned from the Steak ‘N Shake, too. It takes longer because very Steak ‘N Shake by rule is staffed by a single employee wearing multiple disguises and four convincing mannequins.
Culver’s. Full disclosure: I’v never had it. However, it is a Midwestern chain, so I have to assume it’s the perfect burger for consuming in bitter silence with someone while insisting everything is “fine, it’s all just fine.” The custard is allegedly almost as legendary as the passive-aggression.
Smashburger. No one can fool us: this is Guy Fieri in disguise. Therefore, the perfect burger to eat while having a drunken fight with your hairdresser.
Wendy’s. The most Ohio option of them all, so the ideal hamburger for let’s read the card here...”eating while attending a rural cockfight which doubles as a den of assassins and drug dealers.” It’s waaaayyy better than fast food because it doubles as a harrowing journey into the dark underbelly of the American black market. If the cops raid the place, don’t drop your Frosty—its mysterious mix of ingredients combine to form a perfect medium for preserving saliva and catching hairs for police DNA analysis later.
Hardee’s. My god what are you even doing