Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Five Guys Phenomenon in Canada

Fast food didn't become what it has become overnight. Once upon a time there were ma and pa burger and fry joints dotting North America, where families made an honest living out of cheap eats for their community, and took pride in maintaining a certain level of quality.  Now we have centralized cooking facilities, heat lamps, cost optimization procedures, pink slime, and salads more unhealthy than double burgers.  The big boys swallowed ma and pa. Diners became cutesy themed restaurants or survivalist holes in the walls. In 1986, four brothers from the Metro DC area opened an old-fashioned burger and fry joint going completely against national business trends and immediately gained success. They incorporated and in 2003, began to franchise.

The Five Guys Burgers and Fries that exists now is big. Really big. They opened 200 locations in 2011 alone and are set to open the same in 2012, putting them at over 1,000 locations overall. They are the fast food phenomenon of today much like Subway was in the early 1990s, built on simplicity and a fierce dedication to saturated fat.

Since I started Mike Likes Burgers I have had countless requests for a Five Guys review, and quiet, aghast challenges to my legitimacy as a member of the burgerati when discovered that I haven't been there yet.

Immediately looks better than most fast food.
The only difference between Five Guys and their competitors is that they aren't selling you anything innovative; in fact, what they are doing is the opposite of innovation, because Five Guys is a hearkening back to fast food before it got creepy. There are no gimmick products, just a burger with bacon and/or cheese, hot dog, veggie sandwich or a grilled cheese. Toppings are to order from a good-sized list, Sides include french fries and... french fries. Decor includes bags of potatoes and jugs of peanut oil. It's a 21st century spin on a drive-up with a level of authenticity and joie de vivre that some of its older competitors such as A&W should have, but don't.

Ordering a regular burger means you'll get two patties while a "little" burger nets you one. Patties are fried in their own considerable fat in the exposed kitchen and it's implied that you should watch the show. The restaurant is unabashed about how tremendously unhealthy these burgers are and so be it.

I ordered a cheeseburger topped with grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, tomatoes and barbeque sauce. The location was on Greenbank north of Strandherd. So what did I think? Find out after the break.

The Burger

The patty is a 3oz all-beef patty ground finely. It's soft and juicy with little to no char, cooked on a flat surface in its own fat. It's greasy and meaty and tender, real diner chow bereft of that defrosted dryness common to fast food burgers. The burgers are cooked to order so there are no heat lamps sucking the love out of your meat. Seasoning is moderate and not overwhelming; there are certain no visible spice flecks on the meat. To be honest it tastes fundamentally unhealthy, like a washing machine of fat and salt, but there is something biochemically satisfying about that. A "regular" burger comes with two patties stacked on one another, making for a real mouthful.
Greasy beefy close-up.

The bun is above average fast food fare, with an egginess that's approaching challah and a light toast to it. The restaurant almost dares you to pack on the toppings, and the bun seems more than adequate for this challenge, firmly cupping the two-pattied burger and its accoutrements. A solid win for a fast food outlet.

What about toppings? You give your toppings at order. It's not exactly an adventurous list, with the standard condiments and standard garnishings. I found the grilled mushrooms and onions to be great options, definitely lifting this burger over much of the competition. The mushroom slices are large, tender and substantial, well cooked and tucked underneath the patty. The onions were grilled until sweet although not caramelized as there isn't time for that magic to happen. Barbeque sauce was bottled stuff that was fine for adding pungency but nothing spectacular. You can order your burger with A1 Sauce if you feel like pretending that it's the 1920s.

That's BBQ sauce, not toastification.
The regular burger was $7.50, which is reasonable for what you receive, but will eliminate that 1920's feeling no matter how much A1 you get. For Ottawans there is a problem however. The only Five Guys within the Greenbelt is at Train Yards; the other locations are spread throughout the suburbs. Living in Centretown, I can pay about that much and have a better, healthier, local burger at Hintonburger. Probably the top fast food burger choice for suburbanites however.

Overall, the burger was delicious, but it is fast food and I certainly can't recommend going very often. It certainly won't make you feel healthy and lively afterwards.If you are going to eat there, go soon. I am hopeful that a company on that significant a growth track can keep its quality assurance up to snuff before cost optimization procedures start to sneak in from corporate suits.

The sides

Oh the fries. I have spoken to numerous people about Five guys' fries and they certainly conjure strong opinions one way or another. They are very different than most fast food options; sport a thicker cut with skins on more reminiscent of a chip truck. Five Guys barely salts their fries so unless you salt yourself you might find them blander than others, but I found it a real treat to actually taste potato. They aren't particularly crispy; the primary texture is quite soft. You can order them "cajun-style" or regular. I opted for the former and it came well dusted in with a spice mix overwhelmed by chili powder but still relatively unsalted. Fry portions are enormous, and they cost extra.

Burger sunning itself next to fries.


A note on complexity: since you can request any number of combinations from them, I've given an average complexity. I suppose if you put everything on it you'd have a complexity of 3, but since there aren't any concept burgers I won't accept a 4.

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