Ultimate Burger Smackdown: Extreme Makeover Idol Apprentice Edition
Lately though I've learned from friends of a burger joint here in State College that compares (no one has claimed superiority, merely comparability) to In-N-Out.
Which, no matter how you broil it, is really saying something. This I did not take lightly, the possibility that burgers even a fraction as phenomeal as In-N-Out's were being consumed only miles -- not states -- away from Pine Grove Mills and it's very finest RC car painter's taste buds. No, I took very seriously my duty to investigate and report for the benefit of worldly, discerning burger afficionados everywhere. And for you, both of you, reading the Barking Blog.
So Max and I went out for that rarest of lunches, the Lux Graphics-Sponsored Dude Lunch. We were foiled in our mission by a kitchen fire that had temporarily rendered the Five Guys restaurant unsanitary and unsafe according to our friendly local health inspector. As my son would say, epic fail. This was followed by my complete failure to remember anything about the important mission I've described. For weeks. Maybe more than a month.
On a recent road trip with some fellow ex-pat west-siders, we were lamenting PA's lack of both good Mexican food and of course In-N-Outs. This reminded me of the guys . . . all five of them. The name of the challenging burger pit is Five Guys. Five Guys Burgers & Fries. That is where my mother took me for lunch today, and that is where we were given this . . .
After thoroughly empirical investigation, all solely and sincerely in the name of science and sensory aesthetics, I can testify that the following is true . . .
History, Ambience and Coolness: DRAW. Both establishments have colorful local histories, simple short menus, and youthful cool quirkiness to spare. While I/O has free bumper stickers teens can cut up to say "In-N-Out Urge", 5G has free peanuts to munch while waiting in line. 5G has more room inside and a tad less sterile atmosphere, but I/O has locations up the wazoo so there is often an I/O conveniently on-the-way to wherever you're going.
Presentation: In-N-Out. There is really no contest on this one. Many restaurants fail to present their meals in such a tidy and calculated way as In-N-Out. The burgers all appear to be neatly tucked into beds of hospital white. Whatever combination of burgers and fries you get, it always fits perfectly into their little brown box. No, I don't always eat it in the car. But I say I will, just because I like to see the burgers presented so professionally. 5G's presentation is Wendy's Sloppy-Chic taken to the ludicrous extreme . . .
The tinfoil is enough to offend, almost, until you taste the burger and see how it fits with the whole 5G package.
Fries: Five Guys. Now just put those glocks and nines away for a moment, my LBC crip-walking, regulating Gs and sho'ties. Even you, the most avid and enthusiastic In-N-Out'ers, must admit that I/O fries are a love-hate, hotly contested topic. Even among the devoted. No one on the planet makes fries as fresh and potato'ey and, well, as LEGIT as In-N-Out. Heck they julienne the spuds right there where you can see them from the drive-thru! And you must admit -- it's something to do with a lack of special "coating" or something -- they don't stay warm but a few minutes. And all that freshness, potatotude and legitimacy are just soggy and gross once they are cold. Which is often just a few stoplights away from where they were so attractively presented to you.. Ew.
Even those who LIKE the I/O fries -- hot or tepid -- would have to admit 5G has got it goin' on in the fry department. That grease you see soaking through the bag? That's because they fill your cup of choice with fries, then shower another scoop or two over the full cup, the burgers, and anything else in your bag. Love 'em or hate 'em, there are lots of 'em. They are not as fresh as I/O's, but the skins are still on 'em, they are thicker, and they do have that seasoning-free potato'ey taste. They are a little greasyer, but I swear that helps them to actually stay warm for the duration of your meal.
Burger: In-N-Out. This one is tricky. The 5G burger is definitely special, and for many of the same reasons I/O's are. Both have real, fresh ingredients. The lettuce is green and the tomatoes are red and flavorful (no minor miracle in PA in February). The burgers are fried, but hand-formed and with some broiler-like crunch to them. But overall they have a different character. 5G's burger reminds me of what Eddie Murphy called a "Houseburger". It's the very best houseburger, better than what you're likely to toss together on your own Weber, but the doughy sesame bun and roundness of the patties (another plus, 5G's "regular" has 2 patties) restrain the burger from achieving greatness.
In-N-Out does things to their burgers that are either too labor intensive or just plain innovative for us to do at our own backyard BBQ. This elevates the I/O Double-Double to mythic status. Each thing is seemingly small, but put them together and they do a Gilbert & Sullivan Broadway ensemble dance number on your tongue that will have you singing their jingle all the way to the OTHER In-N-Out that's on your way to wherever you're going. WHAT exactly to they do?
-Buns are made of light foamy dough, then grilled in butter for a slight toasty crunch.
-Non-burger ingredients are placed UNDER the burger. This is a classic deli strategy, and a very effective one. It means you TASTE the ingredients when you bite in. It is not very photogenic however, this is no doubt one of the reasons they wrap all but the first bite of your burger.
-Special sauce. It may be thousand island dressing. It may be ketchup mixed with mayonnaise. But it's more than I'm willing to brew for my own burger, and aside from the Big Mac no one has made it really work for them. I'll eat a Lunchables just for the packet of herb sauce. I'll eat a plate of fish-sticks just for the tartar sauce. And I'll take the long way home if it means a Double-Double's special sauce is "on the way".
Overall: In-N-Out. These are my theories as to what elevates the In-N-Out burger to another plane of burger quality than any other. I'm surely missing some things, and both of you I hope will remind me of them. I WILL be back to 5 Guys as soon as it's affordable, and I will enjoy the burger almost as much as the fries. Their prices are higher than I/O but there is a proportional increase in the serving size so the value is equal and as such higher than most lunch places. I'm pleased to report, however, that In-N-Out is still king of the hill.
Stay tuned for Mythbusters: Extreme 1st Grader Reindeer-cicle Science Edition . . .