Thursday, August 12, 2010

#9 Burger -- Five Guys Burgers

(pic courtesy of the Plate of the Day Food Blog)

(I wrote this back in 2004 or 2005, and it refers mainly to the first handful of stores Five Guys had in the metro DC area. Since then, Five Guys have opened close to 500 stores across the country. While I lived in the Pacific Northwest from 2007 to 2009, two Five Guys opened in the Portland area. Even though it had been a few years since I had tasted one, they were as good--if not better--than I remembered. Now I'm in Texas, and there are two in the Austin area and one in San Antonio. They continue to be one of my favorite burgers. Since Five Guys is a "carpetbagger" --a company based outside of Texas--they don't get the same amount of respect as Texas burger places such as The Grape, The Alamo Springs Cafe, The Counter Cafe and The Cove. But I think Five Guys may be the best burger I've eaten in Texas so far.)

This is my favorite burger outside of Southern California, bar none. Its discovery signaled an exciting time in my life, when I no longer had to spend hours pining away for a Tommyburger or thinking of the utter magnificence of the Sunset Grill or The Apple Pan. At last I could have a burger on the East Coast that was at least the equal of the burgers I’d grown up with in Los Angeles.

I discovered Five Guys Burgers, strangely enough, on my way to Johnny Rockets in Pentagon City, Virginia. My wife at the time pointed out the banner across the storefront which proclaimed that Five Guys had the best burgers in the Washington DC Metro area. At first I balked, because patting your own back is usually a bad sign in the world of burger joints. The Apple Pan doesn’t have a big sign across its window. Neither does Cassell’s. In fact, a few places here do claim to have the best burgers in LA, and every single one of them is, in my opinion, a disappointment. So I reluctantly drove into the Bailey’s Crossroads location of Five Guys, walked in, and was instantly knocked off my feet.

First of all, no-frills is the operative word of Five Guys. In the first few locations, there’s no place to eat. It seems kind of weird to have a burger place offer take-out only, because burgers are meant to be eaten fresh off the grill, within minutes. But I started noticing little details that charmed me. The first thing is the big brown grocery sack filled with roasted peanuts sitting in the waiting area. They encourage you to throw the shells on the ground, and by the end of the day it’s hard to walk around. I think it’s a nice touch because Five Guys is always busy, and you will have to wait a bit for your burger, and you have to sit there and smell them cooking, and you’ll go a little nuts after a while. So here, have a peanut.

The second charming thing you’ll notice is the small blackboard near the entrance which informs where today’s potatoes came from. Usually they’re from Maryland, but I’ve seen Maine, Delaware and yes, even Idaho represented. I know I’ve said that the potato isn’t ultimately that important in the making of a great fry, but I like this little touch. It’s fun. And Five Guys does have excellent boardwalk-style fries, halfway in between shoestring and square cuts, made fresh like In-N-Out’s only better. And the Cajun style fries with the seasoning out of the big plastic jug are really, really good.

Another interesting thing you’ll notice is that when you walk in, you’ll be instantly asked by one of the cooks how many burgers you’ll be ordering. Unlike In-N-Out, they want to get started as soon as possible so that by the time you reach the front of the long, long line, there might be a chance that it’ll be ready for you. And if it isn’t, have another peanut.

At Five Guys they offer two burgers, a “small” and a regular. The small is a single patty, the regular is a double. That might throw you off, but it isn’t that big of a deal because the patties at Five Guys aren’t that huge. They’re not undersized like Tommy’s or In-N-Out, but you won’t bust a gut eating one of their regular burgers. The fascinating thing about Five Guys burgers, for me anyway, is the fact that they’re kitchen-sink burgers and I really don’t mind. Sure, I still ask them to hold the tomato, but everything else stays, mostly because Five Guys puts a little of everything on the burger, but not too much, because the burger stays in perfect balance. Marinated mushrooms, relish, lettuce, onions, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, A-1 steak sauce, bacon, cheese, even the optional hot peppers, hot sauce and bell peppers all co-exist peacefully with one another because they’re used sparingly. This burger is nowhere near as big as it sounds. The size is just about perfect.

When I left the East Coast in 1998, there were four locations, all in Northern Virginia. The last time I checked, there are 130 locations from Florida to Connecticut. If anything, this is the East Coast version of In-N-Out, a burger chain that is succeeding wildly due to an outstanding product and very high standards. Five Guys was, incidentally, started by a couple with their five sons who were all fresh out of college and eager to start their business. I can still remember seeing the sons in their stores, all sporting crew cuts, running very tight ships. I can only hope that things are still the same since I haven’t been there in a while. In other words, I hope they haven’t pulled a Wendy’s.

(They haven't!)

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