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Hamburger Diaries: Five Guys Burgers & Fries

Sunday, 10 April, 2011

Good information on Five Guys is difficult to find. They simply do not bother with standard forms of promotion. They are on Wikipedia. Aside from a mention in Inc. and abundant newspaper articles mentioning either their recent presence in town or irresponsibly glowing reviews practical information remains scarce.

I know nothing of the founding Murrell family’s politics, personal habits or pet charities. In one man’s opinion, this is as it should be. You humble narrator feels a little creepy when compelled to Carl’s Jr. or Chic-fil-a, and I suspect others have similar feelings toward, say, Apple Inc. or The Body Shop.*

We are seeing a piqued interest in regional fare, like a New-York-style pizza joint in Texas or a Texas-style BBQ stand in California. Metropolitan Washington DC is a long-established haven for Hamburger lovers. Five Guys was established in suburban Arlington during 1986. These days they are regarded as a proud local institution and can be found at Washington National and Dulles Airports and the Nationals Park. If you are going to do Burger business in DC, you have got to bring an A game. For my money, Five Guys is sending the authentic Washington DC Burger to the remainder of North America. 

In my part of the world, the mid-eighties were all about the new 99¢ price point for a 4-to-1 burger or other featured sandwich. Rally’s, Checkers, Grand Junction, and several others were established around that time. Almost all of these chains have either consolidated or are simply gone. Some twenty-five years later the industry regards that number as a magical price point. I cannot imagine the audacity one must have within that environment to establish a business which provides a mere Hamburger in a quick-service environment for a multiple of then-dominant McDonald’s price point. That’s just crazy.

But is it any good?

Before I continue, I must remind my readers that I reside in Austin, Texas. Restaurants in Austin are judged by the fashionable or kitsch decor, either obsequious or indifferent service, furniture either recently handcrafted by the craftsmen of this quarter’s fashionable nation or procured, broken, through thrift stores and so on. The quality of the actual food with which one may be presented, and you may define “quality” any way you wish, is seldom a consideration.

Among the things Austin cannot abide is function. Everything has to be a little bit difficult, known only to the insider or have adjectives, stickers, glitter, et al. attached to it. It is a peculiar environment. The very best fried chicken in town may be procured, not at a Mom-and-Pop diner, but through a specific grocery. The leading celebrity-sight-seeing lunch spot is the “Café” attached to another grocery store anchoring a shopping center in a poor neighborhood. Our remaining tourists and those long-term residents exasperated with the Austintatious have little recourse but to stay away, attend well represented national chain restaurants, or move to adjacent and allegedly mundane counties which experience explosive growth decade after decade.

In this environment, Five Guys is a revelation. Merely entering the restaurant is like being teleported to a place where cleanliness, function and perhaps even the overall quality of the food are the paramount concerns. As you may imagine, your humble narrator and his trustworthy co-conspirator recently have done just this. The staff and management of the Hamburger Diaries visited Five Guys Burgers and Fries, 4301 W. William Cannon Dr., Austin on Saturday April 2, 2011.

Obsessive readers may note this is directly across the street from the subject of the first Hamburger Diary, P.Terry’s Burger Stand. Another of the three Austin Five Guys locations is situated quite close to another P.Terry’s, near the University district, and the third is located compellingly close to another local premium-Burger outlet Mighty Fine, whose review is forthcoming. Your reporter is merely making an observation.

Among the controversial aspects of Five Guys in the Austin context is the overall aesthetic. Rather, the anti-aesthetic of tile floors and most of the walls, seating direct from the restaurant-supply catalog, stainless steel everywhere in the very visible kitchen. As you enter you are greeted with cases of potatoes which underlines the dedication to fresh ingredients but is also an element of this anti-aesthetic. Similarly, the cases of roasted-in-the-shell peanuts, which surely have some practical application even if I cannot imagine what that might be, with stainless steel scoop and paperboard fry boats so you may help yourself.

The menu board has been cranked out by a local vinyl-sign company and is little different from the listings here. Burgers, fries and hot dogs. That’s it. “Little” burgers have one patty; the standard is two. Fries are available with “Cajun” seasoning in lieu of mere salt. A “veggie” is a simply the little Burger with no meat at all. If, like In-N-Out, they have a “secret” menu, your reporter remains unaware.

If you want fish, there’s a fish place down the street. If you want a “wrap”, Taco Cabana isn’t that far away. No kid’s meal. No salads. No gimmicks, unless the absence of gimmicks is now a gimmick and this could be the case. When I go on about elaborate menus and how they confound new customers, this is the antidote I recommend. Pick your battles. Focus, people!

Everything not stainless steel is white, flooring of the locations vary, with accents of red. Although untiled portions of the walls in the kitchen are black. The red-and-white checkerboard pattern, echoed by the humble light fixtures, being something of a hallmark of the company. The decor, such as it is, being merely reproductions of particularly raving reviews within plexiglass frames that appear to be 1990s style color-laser copies and excerpts on huge white posters all in utterly mundane type. Even the very logo of the chain uses type and layout not unfamiliar to Microsoft Office users. Your reporter believes Five Guys has better things to do than be slick. Indeed, this anti-aesthetic is utterly welcoming and as much of a relief as removing your shoes at the end of the work day.

Putting such rave reviews right in your face as you enter creates an anticipation which no mere Burger joint could ever fulfill. Can Five Guys be worthy of all this hype?

The counter is stainless steel with two stations. You may peek over the shoulder of your counter clerk into the kitchen. That is to say, it is right there. No windows or doors, the kitchen right there in front of you. Steak ‘n Shake once used a slogan which was confounding without context, “In sight, it must be right.” It was supposed to remind you of their open, diner-like kitchen. The purveyors of today’s meal similarly have nothing to hide. Nothing frozen, ever. Like In-N-Out freezers are not installed on the premises. A white board adjacent to the counter states where today’s potatoes were grown, specifically Circle C Ranch, Dubois, Idaho.

Five Guys splits the spuds right there in front of you with a device for this purpose. Right then and there plopped into 100% peanut oil. I don’t know whether other steps are involved behind the scenes, and I was under the impression proper frites were more involved than this.

As an aside: The franchised Steak ‘n Shakes down in Texas have a hidden kitchen and the quality is simply not up to the standard served in their original operating areas. A review may not be forthcoming.

Our order: Bacon Cheeseburger, all the way, Little Cheeseburger, full dress, and to my companion’s dismay only one small fries. I don’t really know the difference between “full dress” and “all the way”. I suspect “all the way” includes the “on request only” items, save hot peppers.

Service is almost suspiciously friendly and to the point. The kitchen staff, on slower days such as this, are listening in and getting on with business before payment is made.

They have two fountains featuring a stunning variety of Coca-Cola products. I first saw Coca-Cola Zero on the fountain at another Five Guys in 2008. Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, caffeine-free variants of both, Cherry Coke. Powerade Mountain Blast, Fanta Orange and Strawberry, Sprite, Sprite Zero and a few may have been forgotten. Nestea Raspberry Iced Tea is the only tea available. While I’ll go for  Coca-Cola Zero instead, I carry as a kind of rule that iced tea is available and should be both sweetened and unsweetened. As every restaurant reviewed so far, the fountain is self-service with free refills. No shakes. I can only imagine a shake to Five Guys’ standard would involve more than a little additional equipment.

A confession is in order. Between ingesting the generous fountain choices, finding a table and getting another boat of peanuts, your narrator didn’t really keep track of the time. This inattention was magnified by the only just too loud music of XM Classic Rewind, a mix of your AM-radio favorites from the seventies and eighties which provides the perfect finishing touch to the anti-aesthetic. Between ordering and our number being called, not more than ten minutes passed. Don’t quote this.

References to the importance of the food on the tray have been mentioned within the Hamburger Diaries. This is not relevant to our subject today. Everything is served in unlogoed brown bags, ready to take with you. Perhaps the cost of the bags are similar to the cost of tray liners. It is a welcome touch I recognize from the industrial Midwest. This business with the bags also provides the ability to do the following.

In theory a small fries at Five Guys is served in a twenty-ounce cold cup, a large moves up to a thirty-two. In practice you have a cup of fries, then your bag is inundated with dangerously hot, utterly fresh fries. In the past, its been difficult to so much as reach in to retrieve your Burger due to all that hot oil and salt primed to engage newly created wounds. These fries are the ideal. Utterly fresh, skin-on, the appropriate amount of salt, and thick enough that they are quite hot even after you finish your burger. In the interest of utter clarity, one small fries satisfies two diners even if one of them is Stan.

I eagerly anticipate the adoption of onion rings to the menu. Although, this statement was typed in hopes of inspiring the idea.

I do not add condiments to fries, except at Five Guys. Heinz Malt Vinegar is available and is a strikingly good addition to this magnificent experience. My dining companion chose more traditional ketchup, although she did not recognize it as any particular variety.

The Burger review shall become quite involved. This direct quote from my dining companion is all you really need to know:

This is the best Hamburger I’ve ever eaten.

I’m approaching two-thousand words and this is all which needs to be said.

The terms for starting a Five Guys franchise are notoriously strict. Buns of a specific recipe must be delivered daily from a local bakery. Beef of specific varieties of cattle at especially specific marble. The home office arranges for potatoes. The condiments are non-negotiable. Unlike some chain’s desire for consistency, these rules also promote quality of a wholly unrequired standard.

Every element is of the right temperature and texture. The lightly toasted (15%) bun over cool crisp veg and hot, salt-and-peppered flavorful honest-to-God beef. The bacon is hearty flavorful and crisp. Plentiful, beautiful condiments make up a third of the volume of your sandwich providing an orchestration of clearly defined flavors; each bite somewhat different from the next.

Cheese. You can’t have a Cheeseburger, much less a bacon Cheeseburger without cheese. The cheese is flavorful, rich without overpowering and as you might expect melted into the patty. My laborious and largely fruitless search has been successful in this respect. Five Guys serves …

Kraft American singles. No kidding. Your humble narrator is knocked down a peg and occasionally requires this sort of reminder. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

If you want to know what the Hamburger Diaries considers the consummate American Hamburger experience, you are hereby compelled to visit your closest Five Guys Burgers & Fries. From the structure of the company, their justified pride in their accomplishments, the experience of the establishment itself and the quality of the food in the sack, this is the do not miss Hamburger joint.

Five Guys is a favorite target of health lobbyists, who pretend people are eating my 920 calorie Bacon Cheeseburger every day. They offer only fountain beverages; that is neither shakes nor iced tea. The fresh, never-frozen patties are a distinctive 3.3 ounces, rather than the customary four. The presence of peanuts and peanut oil on the premises effect people with that uniquely American malaise of our relative wealth, peanut allergy. I suspect the number of people with Hyperbolic Goober-Pea Anaphylaxis is far fewer than might be imagined, but they sure know how to get press.

To be straight with you, I could not care less about any of the above. Here’s what I do care about. Our humble order, two sandwiches, two beverages and fries came to $23. This is the most expensive single meal reported thus far within the Hamburger Diaries. When I attend Five Guys alone, it’s difficult to acquire this experience for much under $15. This represents a one-third premium over mainstream burger joints and nearly double the cost at a value store such as Short Stop or Jack in the Box. Regional delight Short Stop offers a “Bag O’ Burgers” with four burgers and four fries for $11.95. Five Guys is difficult to defend on price alone.

Is it worth it? For those who know me in meatspace, prepare for a shock.

Yes. Your humble narrator is not in any way in a position to tell you what you should enjoy. However, if you do not enjoy the experience and the exemplary food at Five Guys, something is very seriously wrong with you. Five Guys is so good, it really is worth double every other joint in town. Even to me.

* Non-restaurants are mentioned here only because prominent pinko restaurants are unknown to your author.

  1. Graeme permalink
    Sunday, 10 April, 2011 22:23

    Outside Seattle, where I ate 5 Guys we were able to score free bacon by asking for it when we picked up our order. You may want to try that?

    I did like 5 Guys, too. Been awhile, and I’ve only been once. This review is a reminder I’ll have to take another opportunity to eat there.



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