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Burger Chain Gang

June 23, 2009

I was never good with New Year’s resolutions.  One year I made a vain attempt at eating healthier.  And I resolved to only eat one hamburger a month.

This was a big deal for me, because at the time I was probably eating at least one per week.  And I love hamburgers.

Surprisingly, this was the first resolution that I ever kept for a full year.  In fact, I did so well that I kept making the same resolution year after year.   But all of this self-denial led to an unintended, but possibly expected, consequence:

Every hamburger I ordered became a significant event.

I mean, each burger I ate was over 8% of all the burgers I would have that year.  Therefore, each one needed to come from a carefully vetted and researched establishment.  And then there was the question about how much I would branch out from my old standby The Original Joe’s, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

As I mentioned, before I took on the new cruelty I was a burger fanatic living in the Bay Area.  In-N-Out Burger had not yet made its march up the coast, and was really only available in Los Angeles.

My Angeleno friends introduced me to the ways of In-N-Out on my visits to Southern California.  I became trained to salivate at the sighting of the large yellow arrow.  I learned the intricacies of the secret menu, including well-done fries animal style.  I ate the burgers in quantity, since they were such a rare treat.  And I would bring home boxes of burgers on the airplane to hand out to my Bay Area friends who would graciously pick me up at SFO.

Now after my resolution, I took a good hard look at In-N-Out burger.  By this time you only had to travel to the South Bay to get your 3-by-3 animal style.  And while I never officially ruled them out of the running, when stacked up against the other fine specimens this West Coast institution was perpetually wait-listed.

That is, until I had a meeting with Microsoft at their Silicon Valley campus.  After the meeting, my senior colleagues had a hankering for In-N-Out burger.  As it would happen, I had yet to have my burger for the month.  I begrudgingly went along, determined to enjoy my monthly burger.

And I did.  It was good.

But that was it.  Just good.  And it occurred to me then that ultimately In-N-Out burgers are fast food burgers.  Yes, they are made with fresh never-frozen beef in clean surroundings by happy well-paid people.  And yes, they clearly beat the best of the major fast food burgers, by orders of magnitude.  But they were not able to escape from the fast food form.

That was my last trip to In-N-Out.

Jump forward a few years, and I am now living in Albany.  I hear about an East Coast regional burger chain called Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries.

In many ways these two regional burger purveyors are similar and invite comparison.  They are simple, classic burger joints, with minimal menus and similar aesthetics.  Each uses higher quality ingredients than its larger chain counterparts.  And each has a rabid and dedicated fan base.

But they are also different.

While In-N-Out offers a cleaned up version of a fast-food burger, Five Guys takes the burger and elevates it beyond anything produced by a fast-food kitchen.  However, it does this with no small amount of grease.  Which I don’t mind, but could be shocking for some of the gentler West Coast eaters.

The Five Guys burger is a double burger.  The signs around the store proclaim that all their burgers are cooked well-done, but juicy.  Which seems like an oxymoron until you bite into it and experience its truth.  Each of the patties is lightly formed, and crumbles into your mouth.  And each patty has a delicious and significant crust from the grill.  Having two patties versus a larger single patty serves to double the crusty surface area.  Brilliant.  All of this delivers the beefiest flavor that blows the doors off any fast food burger I have ever consumed.

The Five Guys burger comes on the Five Guys bun, which is a piece of work itself.  Instead of the staid typical white bun, this is a rich tender morsel, more like a perfect just-undercooked challah.

And when your order is ready, you get it in a large plain brown paper bag.  Which means you get to watch as the grease from your famous burgers and fries soak through the bag to reveal the most delicious Rorschach test you have ever seen.

Plus their fries run circles around In-N-Out.

People have fierce loyalties to their favorite places.  Sometimes these loyalties cloud their vision.  But I have been a rabid fan of each.

So here I am, of sound mind and body, proclaiming that if Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries expanded to the West Coast, they would crush In-N-Out Burger.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. omaxwell permalink
    June 23, 2009 10:24 am

    Sigh. Where do I begin? I’ll start by agreeing that the Five Guys burger is defined by its grease… good reason to keep your intake to one per month. But growing up in the south, I believe a truly good burger is defined by its condiments… generous amounts of lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle which are exquisitely wilted by the heat of the griddle and the steam in the bag on your way home. (Also you need some good old fashioned mustard, the yellow kind.)

    In N Out is to Five Guys as a hoppy IPA is to a can of Bud Lite. There’s ample grease, Mr. Fussy, but it has been wisely and healthily invested in making the meat crispy at the edges so it crunches when you bite it against the crispy toasted bun But you need to customize the In N Out burger for best, southern style results. Here is your formula: “double onions, mustard instead of sauce, pickles”. Tell them that and you will get something remotely resembling the world’s best burger, obtained at Jack’s Burger House on Hillcrest in Dallas.

  2. June 23, 2009 12:49 pm

    I am DEFINATELY at rabid fan of 5 Guys. Though that’s not to say I hate In-n-Out, I just have never partaken of their burger bounty.

    Re comment above: you can made to order burgers at 5 Guys, that’s the beauty of it and man they are generous w/ their fixins!

  3. June 23, 2009 6:12 pm


    I'm sorry, that's immediately what my brain starts screaming when it hears 5 Guys. And then it starts thinking of juicy burgers.

  4. Jennifer permalink
    June 23, 2009 9:40 pm

    I freaking hate 5 Guys.

    You see, for years I ate no fast food. Years. No fast food. Both for health and ethical reasons. And then I heard about 5 guys. Sounded interesting. And then they came to Wilton and I decided to see what the fuss was about. Big mistake.

    I have two a month.

    • June 23, 2009 9:56 pm

      There seems to be a problem in Wilton.

      How can the Chipotle AND Five Guys both be bad in the same town? In the same mall even.
      Does Wilton have a mayor? Someone needs to get on the phone and get to the bottom of this.

  5. Jennifer permalink
    June 24, 2009 9:51 am

    The Wilton 5 Guys is the only one I’ve ever been to and I like it. But I don’t know how it compares to other 5 Guys.

    Who says there’s a problem there? I hadn’t heard that.

    • June 24, 2009 9:58 am

      On the first pass, I did not pick up on the irony when you wrote, “I freaking hate 5 Guys.”

      The problem, it seems is that the burgers are just too delicious.

  6. cheftanner permalink
    June 25, 2009 10:35 pm

    I miss UBurger in Boston. They have a broad range of toppings, they grind their meat all fresh, and cut their own potatoes. Roasted peppers, blue cheese, and Siracha was always my favorite. They got me through a good portion of my graduate research at BU.

    I have yet to try 5 Guys, I will have to check it out.

  7. December 20, 2009 6:35 pm

    I dunno. Tried the Five Guys in Clifton Park last summer. It’s a legitimately better fast-food burger, but, just to be clear, it’s no threat to the one you’d make at home. Somehow that never gets said in these burger discussions.

    Also, the fries are no great shakes (heh), IMO. I mean, fries you get anywhere in Montréal are good — which proves that turning out good fries ain’t hard if it’s a priority. Five Guys has a freshness program (and a large-portion program) for their fries, but they’re not shooting for excellent. Why don’t they?

    Nevertheless, if you’re (1) trapped in suburbia, (2) need a burger, (3) don’t want the $6 McWhopper experience, and (4) don’t want the $20 Red Robin (say) experience, you might well like the $11 Five Guys experience.



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