By John Carruthers and Ken Haynes
We set out with a sacred duty – to find the best Kinda Fancy Chain Burger (and fries) in our great city.
Here are the only rules:
- We order a place’s signature (or standard, if that’s the only option) cheeseburger and fries.
- We eat whatever else we want because Freedom.
So who is the Burger Champion? Will the title be split five ways? Let’s go ahead and figure that out.
Level 7: Five Guys Burgers and Fries
22 S. Clinton Street
Motto: Handcrafted burgers & fries since 1986.
Remember like 8-10 years ago when everyone was all “UGH ENOUGH WITH THE FANCY EXPENSIVE BURGERS ALREADY”? This was when Five Guys really took off. And while your Smashburgers (we planned a visit, but ALAS) and your M Burgerses have shifted to more-or-less neutral, Five Guys is still hot on the trail of stuffing burgers into burger-holes worldwide. And every location shares that same potato/peanut sack maze entry, white tile walls, and cheap-shit campaign sign blurbs tacked up everywhere.
We didn’t know the Post critic was a lizard wearing human skin. He seemed to like the burger, though.
You can get almost whatever the hell you want on a Five Guys burger, and they absolutely do not freeze the meat. Both of these things are unquestionably good. As veteran lard-scouts, we’re here to tell you that you can absolutely positively tell the difference between fresh and frozen beef. And honestly, anyone can. It’s a big differentiator when a place goes through the logistical nightmare that is sourcing, distributing, and cooking fresh beef without the crutch of a freezer. So respect to all five Guys, because that’s no small thing over 1,400 stores.
That said, holy shit they don’t SALT the thing. And that’s not just us dissecting parts of our burgers like a couple of goobers and taking meat-only bites. (We did that, though). Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats (John writes for them sometimes!) confirmed it via a Twitter back-and-forth. Official policy: no salt, for consistency’s sake. The beef is flavorful enough to … ignore all basic principles of culinary science? Which is Olive Garden unsalted pasta water levels of wrong. The combination of fresh beef and no salt is something akin to driving your lovingly-restored 68 Mustang on tires inflated to 12 PSI.
John opted for a double cheeseburger topped All The Way, which is mayo, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, and mushrooms. Some of his notes:
- Never sleep on ketchupstardonaise. Be as highbrow as you want, that combination is fucking great. Go to Puerto Rico sometime – it’s the national dipping sauce.
- Grilled onions, another great choice.
- Tomatoes might have been less sad in a non-winter setting. Unfortunately, we’re in full Winter Fuck-You Tomatoes season, and the tomatoes acted as such.
- Grilled onions are always the correct onions,
- Mushrooms are a bold inclusion, and would be even better with (wait for it) salt.
Toppings are cool and good. Problem being, even on a baseline standard order, this happens when you eat it:
Pictured: Burger-like food pile.
John promises that he wasn’t trying to eat that like a jerk. That there is the result of trying his damndest to eat his very favorite lunch item. Also, it’s an adorable Irish sweater that we think looks really cozy and sharp. Anyway, the point is that teenage dreams of movie stardom have fallen apart with less rapidity than this burger.
Ken passed on the mayo but did add some delightful jalapenos to his burger for a little heat. He enjoyed their freshly sliced peppers, an accoutrement a lot of places don’t offer. Fighting the will of both his father and agreed-upon social norms, he long ago chose to follow a lifestyle hallmarked by a crisp and deeply spiritual commitment to raw onions. They remind you with every bite that you and everyone you hold dear are alive and forever reaching for the sun, not juggling a shameful, sweaty pile of greasy shoelaces with the sweatered arms of an Irishman [editor’s note: HEY!]. Everything else was fine but know that their bun was never meant to support this many toppings, post-first bite.
The lack of salt is fascinating. Their claim that their meat is of such quality that it doesn’t need seasoning is absurd and, while the toppings were ample and flavorful, we left wishing we could taste some burger on our burgers. Instead, the meat functioned as more of a topping delivery vehicle and, ironically, left us feeling pretty salty about the whole experience. Hey. O.
Five Guys devotees who laugh at craft beer and farm-sourced meat don’t seem to notice that Five Guys treats potatoes like they’re today’s lobster catch. Chalkboards feature the farm and producer, and they make sure you know that they’re hand cut in house. You get a ton of them even in a smaller order. In fact, you’ll often see the fry champion taking a few thoughtful moments to pause, scoop up a monkey fist of extra fries, and dump them into your bag with the sullen, provoking motion of an addict pouring out the last Mickey’s grenade of his life. Also, you can have them regular or Cajun.
“One cupful of fries, Potatoman.”
As we diverged on the fries some, we decided to offer individual takes. BEHOLD:
John: Honestly, their fries having such a devoted following is probably the reason the otherwise delicious bar near your house has such limp, oily fries. At some point, people decided that hand-cut fries were A Step Above, ignoring years of delicious french fry science. They’re generously seasoned right out of the fryer and taste of delicious potato, but they’re not crispy. And it boggles the mind why “not crispy” isn’t a deal killer for more people.
I’m giving these points for being in the top 10 percent of hand-cut fries. But deducting points for launching one thousand restaurants with bad expensive fries.
Ken: I (clap) LIKE (clap) THE (clap) FRIES! That is not to say these are the best fries in town but I will take a handful of these over whatever Parmesan/sea salt/rosemary/bullshit dredge sitting atop your fries that was sold to you as a brutal and unforgiving flavor attack on your senses. However, it’s very important that you eat them with great haste so as to avoid the fries steaming into a single damp starchy mass inside their paper cocoon as you race home in your beige Volvo. Your questioning if it’s safe to eat fries this hot should be so deafeningly loud inside your head that it drowns out any table conversation that may be going on. But let’s not kid ourselves to death, there’s no one watching you absolutely destroy your mouth before your 1 o’clock call. You’re all alone. Welcome to Flavortown.
John: This was all very new and exciting in 2008. And that’s not shitty detached irony – I was literally very excited to visit them in Nashville in their early days and even more excited when they opened their first Chicago location. I finished my last semester of graduate school gorging their burgers on research nights, and dragged my classmates there. But in the clear light of a burger-saturated world, I can’t ignore things that should be so much better. I mean, SALT, for fuck’s sake. Not cool, the five of youze.
Ken: I agree with a lot of what John has already put down. There was a time when learning that a Five Guys was opening up near you was news. Perhaps they should realize that papering their stores with the same quotable clippings from the Anytown, USA Gazette in 2008 should be regarded as a sign of the times. Also, c’mon with the salt.
Final Rating: 2.81/5
So Five Guys gives itself a decent puncher’s chance, but doesn’t quite crack the top tier. At the same time, we’d choose it over Good Stuff any day of the week. We don’t imagine they’ll take this blurb to Kinko’s and slap it up on the wall.
Okay, the Golden State one is pretty amazing.
See all these heart-warming postcards, same as at your local branch? Check the tiny kid-written addresses on these things. They clearly ship these from a central repository. Hell, in our sodium-deprived mania, we began to fever dream a sweatshop of harried children cranking these out to keep up with ravenous new-location demand.
“MORE CARDS. MORE LOVING. ADORE YOUR BURGER OVERLORDS. YOU CALL THAT A PICTURE OF A HIPPO?!?”
Want to see the rest of our burger adventures?