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I Tried 11 Fast-Food Cheeseburgers & One Can't Be Beat

Forget the fancy burgers and tablecloth settings and instead bite into the best humble cheeseburger out there.

These days, a cheeseburger is a ubiquitous menu item—even in the fine-dining world, where it's lovingly served on a proper plate by lauded chefs. The once lowly cheeseburger has come up in culinary estimation to where it's become a get-out-of-jail-free card in foodie-skewering movies like "The Menu." Putting together a decadent ground beef sandwich with fancy cheeses, rare meat blends, and expensive bread is all part of the game.

Remember the before times? When burgers were simply a salt-of-the-earth, cheap, and greasy answer for broke college kids and frazzled moms? I'm talking about the days of Happy Meals, the Burger King drive-thru, and socialite Paris Hilton starring in Carl's Jr. commercials. Those cheeseburgers are still out there! And when you don't have a two-hour gap in your evening to hit up the local gastropub, a takeout bag from Sonic or Rally's (that's Checkers to you South and Midwest folks) can save the day.

So, what's the best quick, easy cheeseburger out there? Remove all the trappings—no Whoppers or Big Macs—and strip it down to a plain old cheeseburger. Who does it best? I tried the standard cheeseburger at 11 popular fast-food chains, so you won't have to—and the top three might seem obvious now, but they're so far above the rest when it comes to flavor that it's worth taking note.

Let's go from worst to best so you know what to avoid, no matter how cheap it is, and the best places to spend your dollars (and calories).

Jack in the Box

jack in the box cheeseburger on a plate.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Cheeseburger):
Calories: 320
Fat: 14 g (Saturated Fat: 6 g)
Sodium: 880 mg
Carbs: 32 g (Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 6 g)
Protein: 16 g

Jack in the Box offers over a dozen different burgers on its menu, including one jazzed-up version with bacon and Swiss cheese served on sourdough bread. Its standard cheeseburger, though, is as simple as they come: American cheese, ketchup, mustard, a single pickle, and a meat patty on a lightly toasted bun. This bare-bones burger cost $2.95.

The look: This burger is small and thin—among the smallest in this survey—which is the opposite of what you want in a sandwich. The cheese is nice and melted, though, and the bun held up respectably on the short drive back to my apartment. The meat looked a little gristly but well showcased between the buns, and no other toppings are visible at first glance.

The taste: There was good flavor on the bun and the cheese, but the meat tasted like a grilled tire. The meat flavor—or lack thereof—landed this in last place. It was bad, overcooked, and too chewy. There wasn't an ounce of fat or anything succulent—so much so that this burger wasn't even a tiny bit greasy!  With a burger, that's a bad thing. It's less than $3, which is good, but the top burger on our list is only a dollar more, so price doesn't always dictate quality.

 The 21 Best Burgers in America, According to Chefs

Burger King

hand holding a burger king cheeseburger.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Cheeseburger):
Calories: 289
Fat: 13 g (Saturated Fat: 6 g)
Sodium: 780 mg
Carbs: 30.7 g (Fiber: 1.2 g, Sugar: 7.3 g)
Protein: 15.1 g

Burger King is, of course, best known for its Whopper. But there are plenty of other flame-grilled burgers on the menu as well. The most basic cheeseburger comes with American cheese, pickles, yellow mustard, and ketchup on a sesame seed bun. It cost me $3.60.

The look: This burger was so measly it was hard to photograph. I included my hand in the photo for size. It's nice that the somewhat melted cheese was visible (though it still looks stiff), and I love the texture and contrast of a sesame seed bun. No other toppings are visible. Like the Jack in the Box burger, this one also ranks among the smallest of the group.

The taste: The very sweet ketchup is the first flavor, but it's more balanced when the sharpness of the pickle comes into play. This beef has a strange taste—smoky but not great, and after a few bites, I didn't like the flavor. The bun isn't toasted much and doesn't play into the flavor. The whole sandwich would be better with less ketchup. I scraped some ketchup off, and it helped a bit, but the bad taste of the beef and blah bun kept it ranked low. This cheeseburger could've used some onion. The only reason it's not last is that the beef didn't taste as bad as the Jack in the Box option.


mcdonalds cheeseburger on a plate.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Cheeseburger):
Calories: 300
Fat: 13 g (Saturated Fat: 6 g)
Sodium: 720 mg
Carbs: 32 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 7 g)
Protein: 15 g

The plain cheeseburger at McDonald's will always carry a bit of nostalgia for me because I—just like many of you, too—ate it frequently as a kid. And just like many other menu items at the ol'Golden Arches these days, the price has gone up substantially since then. It now costs $2.59 where I live in Southern California. Even so, that's just a penny more than the cheapest burger I tried.

The look: This might've been the smallest burger of all. There's melted American cheese, then a patty with mustard—but strangely, no ketchup. The beef is chewy but has a decent taste, and there's a layer of chopped onions on the bottom bun I've always loved from the McDonald's prep. Even with all the guff Mickey D's gets about being unhealthy, it has the lowest sodium of any burger on this list.

The taste: The bun is chewy and sweet, less light and buttery, and has no sesame seeds. Not bad, though. It's got a nice toasting for a grilled flavor but no crispness. The buns are almost like pancakes, chewy and fluffy but thick. I love the chopped onion for the hints of umami it adds. As cheap as it is, though, you can still find a better burger for (slightly) less money.

 10 Restaurant Chains That Serve the Best Classic Cheeseburgers

Carl's Jr.

carl's jr cheeseburger.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Cheeseburger):
Calories: 540
Fat: 23 g (Saturated Fat: 11 g)
Sodium: 1,240 mg
Carbs: 56 g (Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 0 g)
Protein: 3 g

The Big Hamburger with Cheese at Carl's Jr. is similar in construction to the versions at McDonald's and Burger King—topped with pickles, onions, mustard, and ketchupbut it's markedly bigger. It also costs more. This burger set me back $4.61.

The look: Better than it tastes. Though similar to the basic options at Burger King and McDonald's, I'd say the Carl's Jr. burger feels more "serious." I love the sesame seeds and the onion and pickle peeking out. The cheese slice is pleasing to the eye, but again, not very melty.

The taste: We've got more bad-tasting beef on our hands, but it tastes meatier and fattier than Burger King and McDonald's. The bun is thinner and less airy but adds a nice wheaty flavor. The substantial onion, in rings, not chopped, is an excellent addition, and there's a thick layer of crunchy pickles. This is the first one that's not so bad. Nevertheless, I regret eating it, and I also wouldn't order it again.


rally's cheeseburger on a plate.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Cheeseburger):
Calories: 330
Fat: 18 g (Saturated Fat: 7 g)
Sodium: 1,050 mg
Carbs: 31 g (Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 8 g)
Protein: 13 g

That was my first time eating a burger at Rally's—aka Checkers for folks in other parts of the country—and it was way better than I expected. A standard Rally's Burger with cheese cost $2.58, one of the cheapest in the entire group.

The look: The first thing I noticed was the red onion slice instead of a white one. Interesting! I love an outlier. The sesame seed bun looks very classic, and this is the first burger in the survey to include lettuce and tomato that's visible on first glance—it's also got mayo, which is a game changer.

The taste: Really good for the price. The cheese is thickly sliced, and the flavor comes through. Though it looks good, the bun tastes stale and store-bought, like ones you'd crack open from a plastic bag when making homemade hamburgers on the grill. The bottom bun is grilled, but the top bun quickly gets too wet from a mess of condiments. The onions and pickles bring great flavor, and the beef tastes good, even if the patty is a little thin. Overall, the beef isn't too prominent in the mix, but the balance is nice. This burger isn't too salty, but it's also not overly sweet.

 15 Healthiest Fast-Food Burgers, According to Dietitians


sonic cheeseburger on. a plate.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Cheeseburger):
Calories: 720
Fat: 42 g (Saturated Fat: 11 g)
Sodium: 1,380 mg
Carbs: 53 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 12 g)
Protein: 31 g

Sonic is perhaps best known for its chili- and cheese-topped Coney Island-style hot dogs, but like any good drive-in, it also offers an array of burgers. Its standard cheeseburger comes topped with pickles, ketchup, onions, mayo, lettuce, and tomatoes on a toasted bun. This one cost me $6.99.

The look: Puzzling. Why is the cheese on the bottom of a Sonic burger? That's the strangest thing I've ever seen. It's supposed to go on top and melt into the ridges of the meat, right? Weird. (A brief Google search showed me that this topic has been much discussed, but I'm just not a regular Sonic patron, so I'm digesting this for the first time.) The beef patty, meanwhile, looks thin but is a good width.

The taste: The beef is the dominant flavor, and the ketchup adds a nice balance. The super-soft bun contrasts so well with the great flavor of the beef. But having the cheese on the bottom doesn't just look weird, it seems to conceal the flavor as well. I can't taste it at all!

When you're eating it, the soft bun gets soggy too quickly. It's a less salty burger than some and has a little too much lettuce for my taste. There's lots of mayo, but it didn't add much flavor. Caveat—everyone at Sonic was so nice; it made a huge difference in my experience. The counter staff even put a little mint in the bag. Can excellent service impact how you feel about flavor? Apparently so. In a category with only small differences in taste, quality, and price among the options, the niceties at Sonic probably go far. It made me want to go back.


hand holding wendy's cheeseburger.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Single Cheeseburger):
Calories: 590
Fat: 37 g (Saturated Fat: 15 g)
Sodium: 1,050 mg
Carbs: 37 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 8 g)
Protein: 29 g

These days, Wendy's is more commonly associated with souped-up burgers like the massive Baconator, but you can find simpler pleasures, too, like Dave's Single: a quarter-pound patty, topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, ketchup, mayo, and onion on a toasted bun. This classic cheeseburger cost me $7.65.

The look: I was surprised by how nice this Wendy's burger looked when I pulled it from the packaging. I've been harping about unmelted cheese, and this is the first burger where it looks visually melted. It's not hard to melt cheese when you have a griddle at your disposal! Love the nice thick swatch of lettuce and the contrast between that green and the red tomato. To me, this looks like what a cheeseburger should look like.

The taste: One of Wendy's brand quirks is that the burger patty is square, which you may notice while eating, but it doesn't impact the taste. The bun is toasted but still soft and offers a mix of sweet and bready flavors. The lettuce is fresh and adds a nice crunch. The meat is salty, fatty, and has way more flavor than many other fast-food options.

I guess all those "never frozen" taglines on Wendy's commercials are true, as this beef tastes a lot better than anything that came before. The meat tastes like real beef. I wanted to keep eating it past the first few taste-test bites. Then again, it's almost triple the price. Overall, it's a delicious burger and worth the extra money if you have it. (The service here was also way better than most of the fast food drive-thrus, where things can be slow or surly as a rule.)

 7 Healthiest Veggie Burgers—and 5 To Avoid, According to Dietitians


fatburger on a plate.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Original Cheeseburger):
Calories: 590
Fat: 31 g (Saturated Fat: 9 g)
Sodium: 1,190 mg
Carbs: 46 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 8 g)
Protein: 33 g

Fatburger is everywhere in California, but I never tried it until this test. I ordered the Original Fatburger with cheese and all the standard recommended toppings—mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, chopped onions, relish, mustard, beef, and cheese. All together, it cost $10.28—the second most expensive burger in this survey.

The look: Surprisingly good, and yes, it is fat. I like the shredded lettuce and hints of relish, mustard, and cheese that show through At first glance, it's a more substantial patty than others, and it has some nice crispiness around the edges—a good sign.

The taste: This is one of the few places that does relish standard as part of the works, and let me warn you that the topping adds a ton of sweetness. I didn't love it and felt like it completely overwhelmed the other flavors. Pro tip: get it without.

The meat, on the other hand, is super high quality and reminds me more of a restaurant burger than fast food. I highly recommend this burger, except for the relish, which throws it off balance. The bun is excellent and holds up to the heartiness of the patty. I scraped off as much relish as I could about halfway through, and the burger was way more balanced. After that, I could also taste some of the crunchy, crusty edge on the patty, which reminded me of In-N-Out.

Five Guys

five guys cheeseburger.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Cheeseburger):
Calories: 980
Fat: 55 g (Saturated Fat: 9 g)
Sodium: 1,050 mg
Carbs: 40 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 9 g)
Protein: 47 g

Five Guys does things a little differently than other quick-service burger chains. Its original cheeseburger comes standard with two patties to make it a double. This naturally inflates the price tag. I actually gasped when I placed my order, which rang up at $14.21. I got this cheeseburger with Five Guys' recommended toppings: mayo, lettuce, lots of pickles, tomatoes, two patties with cheese, chopped onion, and grilled mushrooms on the bottom.

The look: Messy, but I kind of love it? You've got super melty cheese and gobs of ketchup everywhere. The beef patty was crumbling a bit, which is a good sign (fatty, juicy), and the big diamond-shaped chunks of chopped onion were enticing.

The taste: The beef has great flavor and tends to dominate the palate, and the bun is too thin and measly. It simply cannot withstand the two patties it's appointed to contain. The heft of the whole sandwich is different because of the double-layered beef. If Five Guys could get a more substantial bun, it would improve the whole experience. As for the toppings, I probably would've done without the mushrooms, but they didn't ruin the burger as the relish at Fatburger did.

 10 Best Fast-Food Burgers Under $5

Shake Shack

shake shack cheeseburger.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Single ShackBurger (Per Serving)
Calories: 500
Fat: 30 g (Saturated Fat: 12 g, Trans Fat: 1 g)
Sodium: 1,250 mg
Carbs: 26 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 6 g)
Protein: 29 g

Fast-food fans last year honored Shake Shack as having the #1 best-quality beef patty in the industry. That beloved patty figures prominently in the chain's signature ShackBurger which comes with lettuce, tomato, and the house's own ShackSauce on a toasted potato bun. This burger cost me $7.99.

The look: This burger is much smaller than I remember, closer in size to McDonald's or Burger King than Carl's Jr. or Sonic. It's a cutie, though, with a slouchy bun, a crispy, latticed patty, and a melty jot of cheese. The vibrant color on the lettuce lets you know it's a higher-end green than most use, which checks out since nice ingredients are a big part of Shack Shack founder Danny Meyer's ethos.

The taste: Shake Shack has always had really good buns, and even though they're soft, they hold up fine because of how crispy and thin the patty is. The meat is cooked smash burger-style. The burger is nice and salty, but the cheese isn't very present, and the tomato is weak. The ShackSauce is strong, present, and good. The meat is amazing and has a pleasing, flaky texture that no other burger had. This is a pretty small burger but with super strong flavors. Honestly, it could've benefited from a pickle or some onions. And it's Shake Shack, so expect a long wait at popular locations.

Despite all the perks, though, there's still one cheeseburger that I liked even better.


in n out cheeseburger on a red tray.
Photo: Caitlin White, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 1 Cheeseburger):
Calories: 430
Fat: 21 g (Saturated Fat: 8 g)
Sodium: 1,070 mg
Carbs: 39 g (Fiber: 2 g, Sugar: 8 g)
Protein: 20 g

I'm not originally from California, so I didn't have In-N-Out until my early 20s, but once I did, I fell in love with this picturesque cheeseburger. It starts with a 100% American beef patty, topped with American cheese, fresh-sliced onion, lettuce, tomato, and In-N-Out's own special sauce. This burger cost $3.95.

The look: It's really pretty. I love the special sauce oozing out of the bottom, the airy sheen on the bun, and the way the cheese is just beginning to melt. The only other burger that looked this good out of the gate was Wendy's.

The taste: I didn't think In-N-Out would win, but once I was doing the back-to-back tastings, nothing else came close—except Shake Shack, and that burger had less tomato and special sauce than the In-N-Out burger, which put it over the edge.

One thing I've always appreciated about an In-N-Out burger is the crunchiness on the outside of the patty, which nevertheless remains soft on the inside. The cheese is nice and melted, and you've got a good standard, restaurant-quality beef taste. It's not too salty, and it's got onion for crunch. The tomato and lettuce are fresh and crisp, with four to five slices of lettuce. My one quibble is that it gets drippy pretty quickly because of the sauce. My other quibble is the thin patty, which is probably why the double-double is so popular. The bun is soft and sweet but not too buttery.

It's also worth noting that this is the cheapest option of the higher-rated burgers, so it's both the best quality and the best price. It's not a perfect burger, but when you've only got $4 and less than 15 minutes to spare, it's about as close as you'll get.

Caitlin White
Caitlin White is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle reporter with an expertise in food and travel. Read more about Caitlin