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A Lunch Field Trip to In-N-Out and Five Guys

California is In-N-Out territory. Ask its residents what the Golden State’s signature food is and it is a guarantee that over 50% of the responses would be an In-N-Out Burger. How a hamburger or cheeseburger with a Thousand Island dressing inspired, mayonnaise and ketchup based sauce came to represent dining in the land of endless sunshine, mom and pop orchard grown fruits and organic nuts is a bit of a shock. Somehow, California is burger obsessed, even its far from the cattle growing Heartland and that endless sunshine leads Californians to all have the healthy, radiant looks of Brad Pitt and Uma Thurman.

In this burger obsessed state, there are of course many contenders for the best burger– at an above $10 price point for “haute” burgers or “fancy” burgers. Father’s Office, the famed gastropub in Santa Monica and Culver City isn’t exactly a white tablecloth supper club, yet still its burger is very much treated as if its lobster Thermidor by many burger critics.

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Under $10, there is In-N-Out and then there is the rest. Remember, Ray Kroc founded McDonald’s  in California. Californians just don’t talk with that sparkle in their narrative as they describing a life-changing Double-Double Animal Style.

In fact, when I lived in France and talk with foreign visitors here in the U.S. and I mention I’m from California, a common response is how much they love In-N-Out Burgers.

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Now, there’s a new guy, or five guys, in town here in the Wild West. The much younger, larger chain that prides itself on being a quality fast food chain, Five Guys, opened two years ago in California and now is starting to swing the state a bit away from In-N-Out. Having never been to a Five Guys and not re-visited an In-N-Out for years, it was time to hit the treadmill, then join my burger authority friend Zak Weiler for a lunch field trip to both.While Zak enjoys In-N-Out Burgers more than once a week like so many Californians, I had for some strange reason not been to one since returning from Europe nearly three years ago. Zak had also been to a Five Guys before, but was willing to evaluate each burger without any prior allegiance. Next week we’ll hear Zak’s opinion of the results.

Recently, I took Zak to San Francisco’s Park Tavern to sample the “Marlowe Burger,” Jennifer Puccio’s sterling lamb and beef patty with cheddar, bacon, and horseradish aioli that is considered the gold standard, higher end burger in these parts. To Zak, it was a good burger. Not great. Not big enough. Not In-N-Out.

With all due respect, it is a great burger. It is plenty big and if you’re lucky to grab a table at Marlowe or Park Tavern, you should be sampling much more than just the burger. And, well, In-N-Out isn’t competitive with the “Marlowe Burger.” In-N-Out is aspiring for a different caliber of burger that can still be magnificent, just in a different way.

Five Guys Bacon Cheeseburger

Five Guys Bacon Cheeseburger

Off we went, first to a Five Guys then a nearby In-N-Out. Five Guys started in 1986 in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C., founded by, yes, four and later five brothers in the Murrell family. Fast forward less than 20 years and Five Guys has over 1,000 locations across 47 states and six Canadian provinces. I must have been in the final 1% of Canada and the U.S. to not have eaten at a Five Guys. Even President Obama is a fan of Five Guys, though he’s advocate for Ray’s Hell Burgers as the best in Arlington.

Only Alaska, Hawaii, and (drum roll please) South Dakota are lacking a Five Guys.

Meanwhile, In-N-Out is strictly a West Coast enterprise, if you count Texas as the West Coast like Major League Baseball does. Texas, Arizona, Utah, California, and Nevada are home to the 281 In-N-Outs, with 212 of them in the Golden State. The original In-N-Out was founded in 1948 in Baldwin Park, California, about 25 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles, or two hours in the usual outbound traffic on the 10 Freeway. The original location is actually a burned down building on the north side of the freeway with the sign still somewhat intact. The flagship In-N-Out, Company Store and In-N-Out University (for quality control, grinding the beef, teaching employees…) are now across the freeway, mere steps away from the original. It’s the one landmark between Los Angeles and my alma mater, and each sluggish drive between the two I would consider stopping off for a burger. It’s safe to say the burgers and fries are pretty much equal there as other destinations. In-N-Out has stellar quality control.

Using the bacon cheeseburger at Five Guys for the grade, two 3 1/3 ounce patties weighing in at a whopping 920 calories, the meat itself is medium, almost medium well, with a very faint tinge of pink to the center. You know that these patties are not just hum drum beef. They have that soulful beef kick that higher caliber burgers possess. Many diners would be fine with the “little” versions of burgers, with just one patty.

Five Guys Intimate Close-Up

Five Guys Intimate Close-Up

The toasted sesame bun had slightly less char than desired, but held up well to the burger throughout eating, even with the bounty of toppings Five Guys allows. Mayonnaise, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, bacon, cheese, mustard, relish, raw onions, jalapenos, green peppers, A.1. Steak Sauce, BBQ sauce, and hot sauce are all available– one of the big differences with In-N-Out’s traditional cheese, sauce, lettuce, tomato, and raw or grilled onions offerings. The key toppings for Five Guys were the pickles excellent grilled mushrooms, adding superb earthy elements to the meat.

Strangely, I couldn’t find many of the toppings in the store and they didn’t provide them when I asked for everything at the counter originally. It may be a rumor that you can get jalapenos here.

A Very Enthusiastic Five Guys Employee and a Very Big Trev's Bistro Fan

A Very Enthusiastic Five Guys Employee and a Very Big Trev’s Bistro Fan

The cheddar cheese was lightly melted, lending pleasant notes to the burger, while the ketchup and mustard gave an unsophisticated, traditional edge. Five Guys seems hesitant with heat in toasting its bun and melting the cheese. One faux pas is the fact that burgers arrive in foil, making the toasted bun somewhat moist, an entirely unpleasant sensation that sings of airplane food. The bacon also absorbs some of that moisture, lacking much crisp or intensely salty-pork flavor, seeming like additional fat.

A few other factors– burgers here are nearly double the price of In-N-Out, the fries are a more traditional thick potato variety that also get soggy like the burger’s bun very quickly, and who doesn’t love the complimentary peanuts in each store? The setting is  Midwest Americana by way of a food court, with potato sacks sharing the space with classic fast food cheap tables and chairs attached to them. Plaques with praise by the media serves as the wall decor. Yes, the University Daily Kansan voted Five Guys the best burger in 2008.

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Five Guys takes great pride in its very average fries, telling you the farm each day’s potatoes arrived from, usually from Idaho not surprisingly. Unlike at In-N-Out, you can also get a hot dog here or have your fries Cajun style.

In-N-Out’s patties are two ounces only, so the standard order is a Double Double with two patties, two slices of American cheese, the Thousand Island-like sauce, lettuce, tomato, and if you desire, diced or grilled onions. The bun is very toasted compared to Five Guys, more a squishy Hawaiian roll than the fluffy sesame covered Wonder Bread meets cheap brioche of Five Guys’ bun.

The patties at In-N-Out are so thin you can’t say they are anything other than medium. The consistency almost seems a bit crumbly, then pieced together, and lacks the thorough beef flavor that Five Guys has. The cheese also doesn’t shine through here like at the rival.

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That’s because the In-N-Out burger is really a vehicle for the just the right side of not too sweet sauce, the crisp wedge of Iceberg lettuce that could be served at Chez Panisse, and the equally robust tomato slice. Yeah, it’s not butter lettuce or heirloom tomatoes, but these burgers get some impressive produce accoutrements.

If you get just a single hamburger or cheeseburger, the meat gets lost amidst the flora and fauna or lettuce, tomato, and sauce. The burger seems almost vegetarian. With the quality of those ingredients, that’s not a bad thing necessarily.

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Fries often are too thin and limp for my taste at In-N-Out, of the skinny, short, crisp variety, that don’t boast much of a potato flavor, and aren’t crisp enough to disguise that. While Five Guys has no shakes on the menu, In-N-Out offers good to great versions of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla, with the best being a “Neopolitan” with all three combined. In-N-Out’s locations win by a mile atmosphere-wise, channeling a Beach Boys-1950’s California surfer dude motif that makes this fast food outlet actually pleasant to sit in. My favorite location would be in Upland, California. It’s vintage California, with no indoor seating and no shortage of palm trees.

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In the end, my vote goes to In-N-Out when factoring the caliber of the ingredients, the price, and the whole package of the meat, sauce, cheese, and bun. What an In-N-Out burger really is, is a terrific sandwich where the meat is only a small part of the whole equation. A Five Guys burger is an enjoyable burger, one step above a usual fast food burger with the alluring beef flavor of the patty.

The Winner

The Winner

Frankly, in a perfect world, I’d have an In-N-Out preparation of a Five Guys beef patty, with lots of the pickles and mushrooms from Five Guys added on. Both of these provide California with enjoyable fast food burger options. Five Guys is quickly growing in the land of In-N-Out. However, this is still the state of In-N-Out because of their superb sauce, lettuce, and tomato leading the way for a terrific burger sandwich.

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