There is a debate raging (well, perhaps not raging) in America. Who makes the better burger: Five Guys or In-N-Out? Many people in California swear by In-N-Out, and their reputation spans from one end of the country to the other, even if their franchising doesn’t. Five Guys sprang up from the other side of the country and has spread since, earning positive reviews all along the way. In the world of fast food, whose burger is better?
I didn’t grow up with In-N-Out, but I have certainly been impressed with the quality of their fare and their operation. However, there’s no In-N-Out within 1,000 miles, but there are a few Five Guys. It had to happen eventually, so we gave it a try.
My first impression as we walked in the door was that they were doing a wonderful job copying In-N-Out’s style. Now, I could be wrong here, as it may simply be a matter of keeping it stylistically true to a particular era, but the red and white as opposed to red and white with yellow striping seemed suspicious. My wife also commented on the fact that the numerous posters on the walls were all quoting the various positive reviews they’ve received from around the country, which seemed a bit self-congratulatory and somehow insecure. She also noted that none of those positive reviews came from places where In-N-Out had franchises. These observations probably belie a possibility that the battle, in our minds, was already won before we ever took a bite, but we tried to have an open mind.
Five Guys’ menu is decidedly more complicated than their counterpart’s, which could be a plus or minus depending on your perspective. Five Guys gives you your choice of multitudinous toppings and a few different sizes of things. I went with a Little Cheeseburger “All the Way” (mayo, relish, onions, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, and mustard) whereas my wife chose the same with a few select toppings. We split a regular fry between us, figuring that we didn’t need to expand our waistlines too far. We were especially happy with the choice when we later discovered that they always throw some extra fries in the bag, and the large fries has one of the highest caloric totals in the business. And really, one regular was more than plenty for the both of us, as were the deceptively named “little” burgers.
My takeaway from the meal was that Five Guys has successfully managed to create a hamburger in a fast food environment that tastes like it’s from a small outdoor grill at a picnic. It has a more homemade flavor than a mass produced one, which is rather impressive and a nice touch.
On the other hand, their presentation leaves quite a lot to be desired. While you shouldn’t expect things to appear beautiful when you’re in a fast food joint, the fact that the buns are wrinkled and mashed and the toppings are oozing out haphazardly doesn’t prepare me to appreciate what I am about to receive. In receiving, I was also rather disappointed with the buns as they were fairly doughy. The fries were pretty greasy, to the point where the extras thrown into the bag did not merely leave spots of oil, but permeated throughout so that the bag appeared to be nearly two-toned. The taste was pretty good, but they didn’t seem to hold up to the quality that I’d hoped to get from all that I’d heard.
I’m griping a lot here, at least compared to the praise, and that may be unfair. As burgers go, Five Guys beats out most other chains out there, but I’m not sure they live up to the hype. If the question is whether Five Guys or In-N-Out makes has the better fare, it’s not like comparing apples to oranges, but rather comparing Braeburns to McIntoshes. They both have their good qualities and bad. Five Guys is superior in escaping the fast food taste, but sometimes the fast food taste, when done as well as In-N-Out does it, is actually pretty good. In-N-Out feels like its ingredients are fresher and higher quality, but it does lack some variety and Five Guys’ choices, though this, again, is a matter of preference. In-N-Out’s prices are lower, and their burgers are also healthier (except for salt content). In terms of service (and perhaps treatment of employees, from what I’ve seen and surmised), Five Guys doesn’t live up to what In-N-Out can produce in competent, cheerful, helpful, and efficient people.
Overall, I think the Braeburn wins the battle for me. By which I mean In-N-Out. As much as Five Guys wants to duplicate what they’ve done, they’ve fallen short, but that isn’t to say they haven’t created something with a different twist that’s got its good points.
For my final thought, however, who are the five guys anyway? Admittedly, I haven’t done a great deal of research on this, but their web site doesn’t seem to say anything.