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The Better Burgers of Five Burger Stands

May 9, 2017

Years ago, someone suggested the FLB organize a Tour de Burger, and I said it would never happen. Mostly because the idea of eating five burgers in one day sounded like a horrifying notion.

Plus, I figured that a tour of the best local burgers would bring us to restaurants where it might be awkward to order three burgers for six people. Taking up valuable real estate on a Saturday afternoon for these under-the-radar shenanigans just didn’t feel right.

That is, until I realized that the Capital Region is rich with seasonal burger stands. And these establishments really lined up well with what the FLB Tours are all about.

Fundamentally, there are some foods that are a part of this place. And many of them need to be enjoyed in their proper setting. So, I bring a bunch of volunteers from place to place and we try five different versions of very similar foodstuffs back to back, looking for which ones stand out, and why.

On a cold, gray, and windy Saturday, fourteen people successfully completed the Tour de Seasonal Burger Stands. And this is what we learned.

Jack’s Drive In of Wynantskill specializes in one thing, and those are thin cheeseburgers, on a cheap white bun, slathered with ketchup and grilled onions.

The Jack’s Drive-In cheeseburger. Pic by Matt M.

Yes, you can get it without any of those toppings if you so wish. You can even have them double up the patty. But if you want bacon, you’re out of luck. If you want any vegetables besides deeply caramelized onions, you best bring them from home. Jack’s isn’t playing games. They are making burgers the way they think burgers should be made.

Two buck and a quarter gets you one of these cheeseburgers, fully loaded. As it turns out, this would be the favorite stop of just one of the tour participants. Chad V. wrote, “All the elements melded well. [It’s a] good value & quick. Just what I was looking for in a road side stand.”

And he has a point. Although there are another few points made by eaters on the tour. Some, like Chantelle S., found the meat to be “bland and dry but enhanced by the fried onions” and others, like Steve N., found their burger to contain “a lot of ketchup which made it too sweet.”

All of which makes me think that it would be fun to go back and try a double cheeseburger with fried onions and no ketchup. The hope would be two slices of cheese, especially the layer in between the patties, would enrich the sandwich. Removing the ketchup from the burger would help cut the overpowering sweetness.

The double cheeseburger no onions and Jack’s Drive-In. Pic by Matt M.

Next stop, Mac’s Drive-in of Watervliet, where the chef was recognized as one of the region’s best chefs in the annual Times Union Reader’s Choice poll. So, we had high hopes indeed.

Before we continue, let’s take a step back. For this tour, I allowed different people to take different approaches for evaluating all five stops. Some opted for plain hamburgers. Others went whole hog with double bacon cheeseburgers with LTO. Ultimately, I decided to try the signature burger of each stand. If there was no signature burger, then I was going to get the bacon double cheeseburger. Why? Because it’s just so darn good.

Mac’s had no signature burger. What it did have were thick, hand formed, deeply seared patties of ground beef.

Chad V. bit the bullet and went for a plain hamburger, so he was able to truly evaluate the patty without the distraction of things like gooey cheese and salty bacon. So he was impressed with a burger he thought was dry and underseasoned.

However, if you add bacon and cheese to the mix, that changes the calculus entirely. Amy K. praised the crispy bacon and “lots of cheese”. The bun fit the burger nicely, and was even very lightly grilled.

 

A double bacon cheeseburger at Mac’s Drive-in. Pic by Daniel B.

 

Pickle slices were served on the side. Where they should be.

Yes, this thick patty was on the drier side, but because it was hand packed, the burger was still relatively tender. And since the vast majority of eaters were opting for a bunch of tasty toppings, a full nine of us listed this as the top burger of the day.

Double bacon cheeseburger w/LTO and a small fries at Mac’s Drive-in. Pic by Matt M.

I’m really curious to see what would happen if I went back and tried to order that burger to a lower internal temperature. At $7 it’s not exactly inexpensive for a double bacon cheeseburger, so for the price I expect a bit more. But there was no denying this was the tastiest burger of the day, despite its flaws.

On The Farm in Latham provided the most delightful surprise of the tour.

Chantelle S. was one of two people who found this to be the best of the day, so I’ll let her explain how this burger won her heart. “Their burger was a good size, juicy, and had more flavor despite not being chargrilled… they also had crispy lettuce.”

It should be said that neither Chantelle nor Louis, who both found On The Farm to be their favorite, were having bacon on their burgers.

Wow, On The Farm makes a juicy burger. And even more surprisingly, most eaters were thrilled that the patties weren’t cooked to death and arrived with varying degrees of pink centers. Eric T. was the rare exception, with his plain hamburger being cooked all the way though and dried out.

Bacon 2X cheeseburger with LTO at On The Farm. Pic by Matt M.

Since I was going for specialty burgers, and OTF didn’t have one per se. But the menu did list something called the cheddarburger which was indeed unique to the stand. So I went for a double version of that with bacon.

Double bacon cheddarburger at On The Farm. Pic by Matt M.

As gorgeous as this burger looked, it just didn’t quite deliver in the flavor department. Almost everyone agreed that the beef patties were in dire need of more seasoning. Even the fries came out unsalted. These aren’t foods where skimping on salt are a good idea. And yes, even the bacon didn’t quite have the same punch one might expect.

Pickles were sliced thin, and naturally were served on the side.

Salting after you cook food doesn’t quite have the same effect as adding salt during the cooking process. But I love the juicy patty, and I might be inclined to come back just for another simple cheeseburger with fried onions and mustard in the hopes that we just hit the kitchen on an off day when someone forgot how important it is to cook with salt.

Country Drive-In of Clifton Park was stop four.

Regardless of how full I may have been getting, nothing was going to stop me from trying the famous onion rings. I’m glad to have tried them, but I have to admit that I am still partial to the ones at Ted’s Fish Fry.

We can have onion ring fights later. Let’s get down to burgers.

Did you know there is such a thing as the CDI Burger? I didn’t. I had no idea what it might even be. There were no menu descriptions. But since I was going to try all the signature burgers, one bearing the name of the place is a good bet.

 

A CDI Burger (aka a patty melt) at Country Drive In. Pic by Daniel B.

 

It turns out to be a patty melt with bacon and cheese. And it totally succeeds at making a delicious sandwich out of their not so delicious flame broiled hamburger patties.

Chad V. had something not-so-charitable to say about the meat which, “oddly enough had grill marks with little grill flavor. Couldn’t save a bad patty with bad bread.” It turns out when you get an unadorned burger, you can really identify when a bun is slightly stale.

Those who got the CDI burger were treated to golden brown, griddled pieces of toast that were held together with melted american cheese. Man, that was tasty. Was it a great burger? Not really.

What I am curious about are the larger format burgers which come on hard rolls. Nobody from the group went for that experience, and it’s possible the larger burgers are juicier and more flavorful. Amanda M. and Matt M. found the LTO here to be some of the best from the tour.

Bacon 2x cheeseburger with LTO at Country Drive In. Pic by Matt M.

Everyone gets pickle slices with the burgers, but they are placed on top of the burger, lest they steam and lose their crispness inside the confines of the bun

Last stop. Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In of Scotia

It’s a good thing Jumpin’ Jack’s has a specialty burger, because there is no bacon. They have no lettuce. And the only tomato comes in ketchup form. What Jack’s does have is fried onions, cheese, and coleslaw. How you choose to apply those toppings is between you and your god.

But watching the skilled hand take orders and wield a spatula over an intense flame grill, I learned a thing or two. These patties are beautifully fatty, and those dripping juices from the glistening surface of the patty onto the bun are a sight to behold.

That said, I don’t think the signature Jackburger does it justice. Next time I’m going to order a double cheeseburger with fried onions and slaw on the side. I think that might be the best bet. In part because this final stop won the day for two eaters for two very different reasons.

The double cheeseburger at Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In. Pic by Matt M.

Eric T. was eating plain cheeseburgers all day, and it was only here where the burger “combined into a nice mouthful of grease.” Beef fat is where it’s at when you’re eating burgers.

I feel that with the bonus piece of bread in the middle, the Jackburger bun soaks up too much of that precious precious fat instead of letting it coat the inside of your mouth, like it should.

The jackburger from Jumpin’ Jack’s Drive-In. Pic by Matt M.

Burnt My Fingers on the other hand ultimately based his favorite burger on the choices of free toppings available to dress up these sub-optimal burgers. So while Jumpin’ Jack’s may not have tomatoes, they do have free red relish at the toppings bar. And that’s just one of the many treats that await the toppings curious.

Are you still here?

Congratulations to Mac’s in Watervliet! Fries weren’t figured into the score, since this was a burger tour. But it probably makes sense to add that Jon in Albany came with his family, so they split an order of fries at every place. Mac’s bested the pack in those too. It wasn’t even close.

But every place has something to love. Still, none of these are spots where you want to go for a gourmet burger. These are seasonal burger stands. This is where you go when it’s too hot to cook, you want to eat outside, and you don’t feel like dealing with eating in a restaurant.

Hopefully all this hard work will help you make better choices this summer. Thank you to all of those who came out and dedicated your bodies (and instagram feeds) to science for the day. And a special thanks to Matt M. for shooting some of the great pics above.

Keep your eyes posted for the next tour, which will be this summer, and will once again tackle ice cream. But this time, we’ll be going hard.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2017 11:56 am

    (I’m being a total wanker right now, apologies.)

    I love that you had photos on this post!! It was really hard to figure out what picture went with which description, though. If you do this format again, could you just add a bit more to the caption so easily-confused people like me know what associations I should be making? Thanks in advance :-)

    • May 9, 2017 12:19 pm

      From your fingers to Fussy’s ears.

      Sorry about any confusion. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. That was easy to fix.

      Captions have just been expanded. Hope it helps clarify which burgers are from which places.

  2. Jen N. permalink
    May 9, 2017 5:37 pm

    I’ve never eaten a burger at CDI, but their spiedies chicken sandwiches are pretty wonderful. Agree that the fries at Mac’s are truly the best in the area.

    • Randy K permalink
      May 9, 2017 11:25 pm

      I’m drooling over your pics and descriptions! Sounds like it was a fantastic day :)
      I love a good FLB tour!

  3. May 10, 2017 9:58 am

    I had not realized the lack of a previous burger tour was due to your reluctance to inconvenience the restaurant with small shared orders. A nice tip can rectify that. I propose a future tour of upscale burger chains that might include BurgerFi, Juicy Burger, Smashburger, Red Robin (the one in Saratoga can hold its own) and Crave.

    Also, how about a tour de Onion Rings?

    • albanylandlord permalink
      May 15, 2017 2:20 am

      Thats a burger tour that I would like to do. Happy to help organize it too!

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