1593 Niagara Falls Blvd., Amherst NY 14228
Web: Cheeburger Cheeburger
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There are authentic diners - like Buffalo's Lake Effect Diner - and then there are retro diner-like chain restaurants with retro diner-like food. Most of these chains, like Johnny Rockets around here and Ruby's elsewhere, offer burgers, fries, fountain drinks, milkshakes, and a few items for health-conscious customers, but rarely do any particular item in a really special way. Cheeburger Cheeburger in Amherst is a little different. It is, like the others, part of a chain that sets up faux diners in nondescript locations, and its menu tracks exactly with the items just mentioned. But as reader Caroline said in a tip late last year (thanks, Caroline!), it offers the sort of burger and milkshake customization that will blow a first-timer's mind.
A Semi-Historic Name. Yes, the restaurant's name might imply that Cheeburger Cheeburger is the prickly Greek burger restaurant so famously satirized by John Belushi years ago on Saturday Night Live, but no, it's not: that would actually be Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern, which sued Cheeburger back in 2003 for trademark infringement and won a settlement barring the chain from using its full name within 125 miles of the city. Yet it's obvious where the theme came from; Cheeburger even put up signs obviously referencing the SNL sketch - "Pepsi-Pepsi! No Coke!" - and its menu, like the satirical rendition of Billy Goat, jokingly suggests that it doesn't serve "hamburgers," only cheeseburgers without cheese. The menu also offers wraps and salads, with fried chicken, grilled chicken, portobello mushrooms, and veggie burgers as ingredients if you don't want beef patties.
The Burgers. As glad as we are to eat cheap fast food versions now and then, we love customized burgers, and there are few foodie sights as exciting as a option-packed menu page like the one at Cheeburger Cheeburger. Burgers are priced from $5.19 to $11 based on one of five sizes - 5.5, 7, 10, 14, or 20 ounces of ground Black Angus beef - and virtually all of the toppings are included in the prices. You can pick one of 8 types of cheese, ranging from American to Pepper Jack, then many as you'd like of 28 different toppings, including everything from the classics to garlic, pineapple, onion rings, or even peanut butter. Again, that's all included. If necessary, you can opt to pay $1 extra for bacon, sauteed mushrooms, sauteed onions, or a grilled portobello mushroom. Fittingly, the burgers are served in little plastic trays with a fork and a knife.
The good news: the aggregate product will be both filling and tasty if you exercise good judgment in pairing the ingredients, which arrive literally spilling out of the bun. We really loved the restaurant's bright yellow, thin-sliced sour and spicy banana peppers, lightly roasted red peppers, and uncooked white onions on one of our burgers - ordered without cheese - though the shredded lettuce didn't do as much for us as full iceberg leaves we've had at other DIY burger places. Our other burger was ordered with sweet pickle chips, relish, and cheddar cheese; all of these toppings were fresh, and most were colorful and delicious - we felt they were the highlights of the burgers. The only disappointment was that the second burger was ordered with premium sauteed onions, which were neither on the bun nor the bill.
By comparison, Cheeburger Cheeburger's meat patties and buns were both unremarkable, even putting completely aside the lack of bun customization (see, e.g., Las Vegas's Le Burger Brasserie and SoCal's The Counter). We ordered one 7-ounce Semi-Serious ($6.19) and one 10-ounce Serious ($7.19), both cooked medium, and found the meat moist but plain - properly cooked, but light on char, more like the sort of burger a person makes at home than the taut, beautifully broiled versions at places such as Ruzzine's Rock Bottom Eatery. The patty on our bigger Serious burger actually fell apart in our hands, so we were unusually thankful that silverware had been included. Overall, and thanks mostly to the toppings, we'd rate the burgers here as "good;" even if we weren't blown away by the meat or buns, they were fun to customize, and certainly filling.
Famous Fries and Onion Rings. We've heard so much hype about "famous" french fries that we're really looking to be impressed when a restaurant makes a claim to fame, and Cheeburger's were nice enough - they leave a thin layer of skin on the fast food-sized fries, unsalted and mildly tasting of the peanut oil they'd been fried in. But the chain also touts its onion rings as famous thanks to a "secret batter," so we ordered a half-sized "Best of Both" Basket ($4.29) that turned out to have more than enough fries and rings for two people to share. As we sampled both sides of the basket, we agreed that we should have ordered only the rings, which we loved and snatched out of the basket far too quickly: the batter, the thin-sliced rings, and the deep frying were all beyond reproach - a little extra salt would have been all they'd needed to achieve something close to perfection.
Customizable Drinks. The other menu item that really caught our attention was the humble Milkshake, which once again is given a nearly full-page list of different customization options - 60-some flavors made from a combination of Edy's ice cream, Monin syrups, and other ingredients. A regular shake like the one we ordered was $4.69, while a half was $3.59. We excitedly ordered an Oreo Green Mint shake, receiving a freshly blended metal cup with a spoon and straws for two inside, and jumped right in without delay; the reward was a nicely blended drink that preserved enough ice cream consistency to feel thick, but could still be enjoyed right away using the straws. Sadly, though there was no issue with the Oreos, the mint flavor was almost absent.
Our other drink came from the classic soda fountain era - the sort of handmade Vanilla Cola ($2.19) that comes only from mixing vanilla syrup and Pepsi on the spot. Served initially in a mason jar, this drink initially tasted light on the vanilla, but it turned out that the syrup was all at the bottom of the cup and needed to be mixed in; the same thing happened on a refill. When properly mixed, the Vanilla Cola was delicious, and refills were free - a rarity for Monin syrup-enhanced beverages. Cherry and Chocolate Colas were also offered, and we'd be inclined to try them next time.
Yes, there will be a next time: as Caroline predicted, we enjoyed our meal at Cheeburger Cheeburger, and though there are other menu items - including ice cream desserts - left to explore, it's going to be very tempting to just show up and repeat the same orders again, with only modest changes - more, rather than different. We'll update this review with a final rating after another visit.