Like the West Coast's renowned In-N-Out Burger chain, the East Coast's Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries has distinctive retro Fifties décor. In fact the motif is so similar, down to the red-and-white-checked walls, that the California chain, family-owned since 1948, allegedly once considered a copycat suit against Five Guys (family-owned when its first six eateries opened in the D.C. area between 1986 and 2002).
A more crucial similarity between the two: Unlike the McWendy's of the world, neither stoops to salads with industrial packaged dressings, or makes hypocritical attempts to pass as bastions of health food. Both stick to the extremely specialized menus they've always served, centering on fresh — never frozen — hand-formed burgers, and fries hand-cut shortly before cooking (in 100 percent pure, cholesterol-free vegetable oil — or peanut at Five Guys).
Health food? Nah. But it's real food. And determining which chain does it best has engendered a roaring bicoastal debate.
Now franchised, Five Guys boasts more than 200 branches, among them a recently opened restaurant in the Shops at Midtown Miami, which enables locals to join the East/West war. There are differences, some good for our side, beginning with a small nicety: cartons of shell-on peanuts to eat while you wait. Orders come fast — five to seven minutes, on two visits — but only steam-tabled/heat-racked food comes instantly.
Beyond basic burgers, Five Guys has an applewood-smoked bacon cheeseburger. (I-N-O offers no bacon.) Burgers come in two sizes, regular double-patty or "little" single. Though all are cooked well-done, their ideal 80/20 meat-to-fat ratio and relatively gentle handling (meat is formed loosely, and pressed once only during cooking) produce a drippingly juicy patty that might well equal I-N-O's if Five Guys' burgermeisters properly salted it. They did not.
As for the Guys' award-winning (in other markets) fries — two kinds, normal and zesty Cajun, compared to the California chain's one — lack of salt was again problematic. Though admirable in theory, the sourced potatoes of the day (russets from Ririe, Idaho) were soggy, a symptom of underheated deep-frying oil — and possibly of the loosened quality control that often accompanies moves from private ownership to franchise. Anyway, seasoning and temperature are easy fixes.
In-N-Out doesn't offer hot dogs, unlike Five Guys' flavorful kosher specimens, even if the all-beef beauties lacked the natural casing to give them pop.
The most notable positive difference involves toppings. I-N-O deals in the staples: lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and a Thousand Island-style pink "spread." (Five Guys lacks a condiment resembling the pink stuff, a deal-breaker for some devotees. But that's a subjective call.) Also at the West Coast chain, pickles and grilled onions are available to diners who know to invoke the "secret menu." Five Guys offers seven condiments (ketchup, mustard, mayo, relish, A-1, zesty barbecue, and dynamite hot sauce) and eight veggie garnishes (all of I-N-O's choices plus jalapeños, green peppers, and grilled mushrooms). The supposedly grilled onions and mushrooms were actually griddled (the latter suspiciously rubbery, like canned 'shrooms), but the heap made even a 3.3-ounce single patty a tasty meal and a half.
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