Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Yes, but... (or, I eat at Juicy Burgers and am sent on another rant about value)

It's funny.  I'm a big burger guy, but I haven't found myself talking about them much on the blog.  And for a while, I don't think I even ate many around town after moving here.  One at City Beer Hall, one at Five Guys.

But then I had one at Ruby Tuesday, and it was good.  I'm not one to advocate chain restaurants, typically try to avoid them, but I can appreciate quality and value when I get it.  And for $9.99, Ruby Tuesday offered a properly-cooked "handcrafted burger" with two sides (I chose mashed cauliflower and grilled string beans from an extensive list).  Service was good, the Sam Adams Alpine Spring beer wasn't bad, and all in all K and I left as a couple of well-fed, satisfied customers.

Since then, I also finally got out to Guilderland to try a cheeseburger I'd read a bunch of good things about, the one from from Juicy Burgers.  I won't deny that Juicy Burgers can make a tasty burger, but my feelings after eating there are complicated and leave me wanting to dig a little deeper into the whole idea of "cheap eats" in this area, and why I think that concept is flawed on so many levels.

Albany's Juicy Burgers location is tucked away in a corner strip mall in Guilderland (next to a pizza place I need to try one of these days) and not exactly full of quaintness or charm.  It could be any chain burger joint, really, the dining room lacking in ambiance, unless you like bright red and yellow walls and TVs on every corner.  But that's not something that should concern anyone who's out for a good burger.

And that's something you certainly can get at Juicy Burgers.  Their menu is fairly small; K and I both went with a cheeseburger ($7.25) and decided to just share a side of half and half onion rings and fries, since sides were a la carte.

The burger lived up to the restaurant's name even though mine wasn't cooked exactly as I wished.  Part of that blame I'll put on Juicy Burgers' ordering system, which asks that you specify "red, pink, or brown" instead of rare, medium-rare, and so on.  I said pink, because I don't like my burgers totally rare, but my burger ended up being cooked unevenly--basically half of it was what I'd call medium-well, and half of it was closer to the medium-rare that I'd hoped for.

It did have good flavor and was still pretty juicy, though.  The burgers are said to be made of "ground chuck and ground sirloin seasoned with Italian sea salt."  You can taste the seasoning in the meat, and the cooking style, mentioned in that link, does lead to a patty that holds in a good amount of juiciness.  And the bun was fluffy, just enough to hold up to the one-third pound burger.

But here's the thing: this isn't some huge burger (not saying I need one, but it's definitely smaller than the one from Ruby Tuesday), so for a glorified fast food restaurant where you order at the counter and have your food brought out to you on a tray, $7.25 feels like a hefty price when no sides are included.  Fries alone (a half pound) are $2.25 on the side; with sodas going for $1.95, a simple meal of burger, fries, and soda will set you back $11.45 before tax and any tip you might want to leave.

"The O" in Pittsburgh
So we were under the impression that the 1/2 pound of fries and onion rings ($2.95) would be enough for the two of us to share, sort of like our old days at "The O" in Pittsburgh, where an order of steaming hot, crispy fries for $3.69 were piled high across an entire brown plastic tray, no exaggeration.

If the onion rings and fries at Juicy Burgers came out to half a pound then I have no idea how to measure weight anymore.  There were five or six small to medium-sized onion rings, and a smattering of fairly skinny, not very crispy, fries in a small container, maybe enough to fill one of those little McDonald's Happy Meal sacks.  We left the restaurant feeling like we'd paid a hefty price for fast food that hadn't filled us, and might have considered trying a slice next door at Marisa's if they hadn't already closed.  Compared to the mashed cauliflower and grilled string beans at Ruby Tuesday, this wasn't a close contest--there's no question that the national chain with full table service won in terms of overall value and quality of sides, and the burgers were about a draw.

I'm constantly confused by the way folks in the Capital Region are willing to pay what feel like premium prices on the most basic of meals.  We're not living in some swanky city, competition in just about every regard is minimal, and quality typically isn't even in the same ballpark as cost.  Yes, I've been beating this horse to a pulp recently and probably sounding like some miserable cheap ass, but it's only because I'm constantly gobsmacked by the lack of value I'm getting when eating out.

And the thing is, I've spent time talking about this in terms of food, but I could go on about how things are overpriced in this region in lots of other ways.  Most noticeably, K and I have both lived in lots of places, from bigger, more exciting cities to rural towns, and have always been able to find quality rental housing for considerably less than we could in the Albany area.  There are little things, too; I'm still trying to find a good men's haircut, but the prices I've paid for lousy ones have been really high.

As for fast food, K and I used to think that Five Guys was kind of pricey for what it offered.  A cheeseburger there starts at $6.49, though, and feels more substantial (and in a different way brings a lot of good flavor) than Juicy Burgers'.  An order of regular fries at Five Guys is $3.39, which again feels kind of expensive, but at least the fries are typically crisp, full of potato skin and flavor, and feel like enough to share if you want.  Plus there are the peanuts.

I also can't help but think back to last year in North Carolina, where I had the pleasure of having an outpost of the Cook-Out burger chain within a short drive of our house.  Maybe there's just something about burger joints with Biblical verses on their packaging (my beloved In-N-Out chain fits the bill, too), but Cook-Out ranked crazy high on my "flavor per dollar" scale (I need to formalize this and get someone to design me a fancy graphic).

The burgers are char-broiled, getting a nice touch of blackness around the sides of the burger, but thick enough, depending on the size of burger you order, to still have some pink in the middle.  The cheese was gooey, and you could customize the burgers to your specifications (I always liked grilled onions and mustard).  Even a double burger ("huge" on the menu) would only cost you $3, and a side of fries or onion rings or even hush puppies off their enormous menu was only between 99 cents and $1.50 more.  Add in the basic, yet delicious (and featuring like 30 flavors) milkshakes, and you've got so much more--and in many ways better quality--than Juicy Burgers that it's impossible not to look back longingly.

When it comes to In-N-Out, yeah, I'll admit there's some nostalgia for my college years in California that probably makes me remember their burgers as better than they really are, but trust me--for those who haven't been out west to try one, they are good.  There's nothing better after landing--and circling the runway for an hour--at LAX than getting a Double Double and a milkshake at the In-N-Out on Sepulveda.

But part of the appeal is that it's also cheap.  I just love that in Southern California, they were debating whether the value was still good after prices were raised by pennies a few years ago--leaving a Double Double costing a whopping $3.05.  Oh, the shame!

And here's the thing: it ain't cheap in California.  You know--housing, gas.  Taxes are a bitch.  But it's also sunny and awfully pretty in a lot of places.  And yet you can find actual cheap eats all around the cities of the golden state.

Maybe I should just quote Albany Jane after her recent visit to San Francisco: "I GET IT. I TOTALLY GET IT. I SO GET IT NOW. People are nice. They care about quality. Prices are reasonable for what you get."

Here in Albany, we have a Cheap Eats section in our major regional newspaper that continually considers meals for four for $120 to fall in that category.  I'm not the first--and I know I won't be the last--to use this as evidence of some kind of problem with the whole damn system in this area.  Not to say there aren't some places around where you can get good food at what feels like appropriate pricing--like the fried chicken at The Flying Chicken, or the noodle dishes at Taiwan Noodle.  But I will say that continually feeling like I haven't gotten my money's worth (which is all relative depending on where you're eating) stings a little more with each passing day as I continue to struggle to find full-time employment since moving to this area nearly nine months ago.

So yeah, Juicy Burgers does make a tasty burger.  But it's flawed because of an imprecise scale of how the burgers should be cooked, it's priced like a burger at a nice sit-down place with table service, and the sides are lacking and overpriced.  It's kind of out of the way most of the time for us, so as it stands, I doubt I'll be looking to return anytime soon.

Juicy Burgers and More is located at 5 New Karner Rd. in Guilderland and 15 Trieble Ave. in Ballston Spa.


  1. Yep. That's about right.

    There are a few shining examples of places that have great value to food quality in the region. And I've got a few hundred posts about them on the FLB and a few dozen on AOA.

    But thanks for helping to fight the good fight.

    1. I'll admit I feel a little better having gotten this rant off my chest (and a reasonably-priced haircut that might just be all right), but I do feel like some negativity is sometimes necessary. You've struck a good balance on your site, highlighting enough good places while also being honest about places/things that are not so great.

      It's tough because I know there are a handful of places where I can feel confident in getting a good meal, but I also want to keep trying new stuff (not unlike my compulsive buying of singles of beer instead of six packs), and then I regret it for getting burned.

  2. Get yourself to the Capital City Gastropub on a Wednesday night for an 8oz Tildale Farms burger with fries for $7.00. The beer selctions are solid as well with Happy Hour (5-7) choices for $3. Excellent value, I think. (Full disclosure: I work at their sister restaurant on Lark Street. I also eat at the Gastropub 2 or 3 times a month)

    1. I really need to get over there--even got myself a gift certificate--but have been busy on Wednesday nights for a while now and wish it was more convenient. Soon, though! I've heard enough good things about the Gastropub to have some faith.

  3. Agree about the high prices for cheap food in the Cap District, but find it odd that Juicy Burger is given as an example. You are supposed to load up the burger and it then becomes a great value at $7.95 or whatever. And if the fries/rings didn't feel like half a pound you should have said something. Maybe just an inexperienced server. I've always gotten full value on those. (Though I go to the Milton branch, which is always full of Navy guys/gals who won't put up with any crap.)

    1. I guess I'm generally just a purist when it comes to burgers (the one at Mingle being an exception), so it feels a little wrong to have to pay $7.25 for a basic cheeseburger. Maybe I'm just not the ideal customer at Juicy Burgers; I never bother with Red Robin and their overloaded burgers, after all.

      It reminds me a bit of Fuddruckers, which I rather enjoyed back when we were in SW Missouri, but I think the value there was a lot better--bigger burgers, plentiful fries--so you still felt like you were getting your money's worth even if you didn't load things up.

  4. Still looking for a good haircut? I recommend Jackson's on Everett Rd (formerly mens room). She charges $17 but does not rush and pays attention to detail. You would want to make an appointment but they are 30 min time slots so she does not have to rush you out.

    1. Thanks for the tip--I did get a haircut just after this post, but we'll see how it grows out. I'll definitely file away this suggestion.