A few months back I blogged the wonders of the Five Guys burger, declaring it the best burger on the planet. Food blogging can be more perilous than politics or just about anything else; people are passionate about their palates. So that post generated quite a bit of feedback and a little bit of hate mail. People wanted to know: how could I declare Five Guys the best, when I had never even had the pleasure of the In-N-Out burger?
That was a good question, but I didn’t have an answer. I could only shrug. I grew up on Whataburgers so I could authoritatively rule them great but Five Guys better. Ditto for Sonic, despite its unstoppable cherry limeade. We all have our local haunts that can’t be topped. Around Austin, that’s Mighty Fine. Up in Baltimore, Burger Bros. is amazing and I cannot recommend them highly enough. Every town has its own best burger. But among the big chains that inspire fanatic loyalty, which is the best?
Let’s throw another bit of fire in the fight: Five Guys is an east coast franchise spreading west, while In-N-Out is a west coast franchise spreading east. They’ll meet in the middle at some point. There will be burger blood. But I’m a man from the middle of the country, and am a fair judge of both coasts in that I largely condemn the culture and politics of both.
So anyway, while I’d been to the west coast several times, until last week I’d never eaten an In-N-Out burger. Something always got in the way. But at the end of a visit to PJM world headquarters in glamorous El Segundo, CA, on Friday, Daves Swindle and Steinberg and I hit the In-N-Out on Sepulveda on the way to LAX. So now I can weigh in.
When I assess competing burgers, I look at a few basic criteria: Presentation, Bread, Meat, Veggies, Fries, and Overall Taste. So let’s break it down.
Presentation. In-N-Out and Five Guys are similarly spartan establishments. Neither is posh, neither is bad. Both have a kind of lean 50s charm that works. The Five Guys burger comes to you wrapped in a foil paper wrapping, mostly to contain its heat and the juices and goo that come with it. In-N-Out comes smiling up at you from the bag, half wrapped in paper and insulated with a napkin to soak up the loose juice. It begs you to wolf it down. I have to give the edge on presentation to In-N-Out.
Bread. No burger can reach greatness unless its bread is worthy. Five Guys bread is functional but not memorable. They toast it on the grill but not to the point of any crispiness, and the juices do away with whatever crispiness might be achieved. In-N-Out, on the other hand, toasts its bread to a perfect interior crispiness on the edges that meet the meat and the veggies. The crispiness makes the In-N-Out feel like a homemade burger from your grandma’s griddle. The bread edge goes to In-N-Out.
Veggies. Both franchises use fresh veggies and offer a wide variety of extras. In-N-Out has its own code lingo; Five Guys offers BBQ sauce, jalapenos, etc. Both offer grilled onions. Neither side impressed me more than the other on the veggies — both are top notch. So on veggies, it’s a draw.
Fries. Five Guys treats its fries like some sort of rare earth mineral, announcing which state and farm today’s fries came from with genuine reverence. Five Guys cooks its fries in peanut oil, brags about that, and even offers boxes and boxes of free peanuts scattered around the restaurant to drive home the point. This is bad if you have a peanut allergy, but if you don’t, then Five Guys’ fries deliver a rare nutty/salty taste on top of the fresh potato goodness. In-N-Out’s fries didn’t have any special feature or taste. They were fresh and fine, but not anything to goose the senses. So the fries edge clearly goes to Five Guys.
Overall Taste. Let me note for the record that both In-N-Out and Five Guys offer exceptionally great burgers and both deserve their cult status. Having tasted both, I understand the fierce loyalty that both inspire. In-N-Out is a fine homestyle burger that can be augmented with sauces and veggies and stacked a zillion ways to make it your burger. Five Guys can bring the heat or whatever taste suits you. In-N-Out is the cleaner burger and its wrap makes it the obvious choice if you’re eating on the go. But Five Guys brings a burger that is juicy to the extreme, so much so that you need half a dozen napkins at hand just to keep yourself clean as you bite through it. I prefer the juicier approach, so for me, the east coast approach is the way to go and Five Guys wins on taste. Its burger is simply juicer and tastier than In-N-Out.
That’s two points for each, with a draw in the middle, right? Should that be a tie? Not so fast. Overall taste is the king, so let it be entered into the record that Five Guys still delivers the best burger on the planet.
See Bridget Johnson’s rebuttal here.
Updated: See David Swindle’s response here for Round 3 of Burger Battle
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