AFTER you factor out vegans and vegetarians, there is no one who isn't a fan of the single greatest culinary achievement of American cuisine.
I'm talking about a hamburger — the genuine article here, mind you, not faux burgers made of ground turkey or texturized tofu. Real beef, ground and cooked over an open flame on a flat-top grill at your neighborhood diner or in a skillet at home, is the only thing that qualifies.
Restaurants of all kinds offer a burger, from McDonald's dollar menu to an off-the-scale item at New York's pricy 21 Club, the "21" Burger, which comes on a toasted Parker House bun with frisee, preserved tomatoes, sauteed onions, haricots verts and French fries for $34. Yeah, that's thirty-four dollars for a burger; the beer is extra, and no free refills. Those haricots verts, an astoundingly pretentious French term for green beans, should be sent back to the chef, though. They should never be allowed on the same plate as a $34 hamburger. Apostasy!
Even Olive Garden, that Americanized purveyor of Italian-style food, just introduced what it hopes might be an acceptable version of a Burger Italiano, forced into it by competition. It's a 6 oz. meat patty topped with prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, arugula, marinated tomatoes and garlic aioli and served with a side order of parmesan garlic fries for the price of $9.99, comfortably under the 21 Club menu.
Who is the best at prepping our ultimate food? Almost every town can claim one joint that stands above all the rest, and I will concede that those local shops that have to live or die by their version of the hamburger are the ones who do it best.
For me, it will always be the Speed Burger from Speed's in Battle Creek, Mich. It's a cheeseburger topped with everything, including another burger and a tossed salad. The meat is ground on the premises, of course. Feel absolutely free to disagree with me on this, and let me know your favorite spot.
What about the chains that feature burgers? The one item that is the standard by which all others are judged is the McDonald's quarter-pounder, not because it's particularly good but because almost everyone in America — and quite a few people in the rest of the world — have had one. If you say something is better or worse than what Mickey D serves, you have a decent point of reference.
That brings me to the 2013 "Quick Service Restaurant Benchmark Study." To quote the methodology, people were asked to "rate their recent visit to a burger chain based on a number of factors, and a 'percent delighted' score was calculated based on overall satisfaction, likelihood of revisiting, value for the money and the likelihood of recommending."
Number one by a healthy margin, with a 66% rating, was In-N-Out Burger, that famous West Coast chain with a fanatical following akin to 1960s Coors beer. Like Coors, though, the magic will deflate if they decide to expand eastward.
Coors went from being the stuff of legend (it was even the centerpiece of the first "Smokey & the Bandit" movie in 1977) when it was only brewed in Colorado and six-packs were smuggled out of the state to becoming just another lite beer after it went "big time" with national distribution a few years later.
In second place in the study, with 57%, was Five Guys, which has retained its aura after several years of rapid expansion outside of its Washington, D.C., home base.
At the back of the pack were Hardee's/Carl's Jr., Wendy's, McDonald's and Checkers. Holding down the cellar dweller spot was Burger King, a mediocre chain that just won't die no matter how bad it gets.
There you have it: a list of places that serve everything from nothing more than gut-busting belly fillers to genuine haute cuisine on a bun.
Hats off to industry legends like Frank and Charlie Menches, Oscar Bilby, Louis Lassen, Burt Gary, Walter Anderson and J. Wellington Wimpy, with a grudging bit of a nod to Ray Kroc, too, who proclaimed that "It doesn't have to be good; it just has to be consistent" and sired a hamburger explosion in the mid-1950s.
*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.