Thursday, February 05, 2009

Ultimate Burger Smackdown: Extreme Makeover Idol Apprentice Edition

I've never met a Californian -- nay, even a casual Cali. passerthrough -- who would dispute the superiority of In-N-Out's burgers or the overal specialness of the In-N-Out dining experience. The burgers are unique in their construction and ingredients. The fries are fresh and free from fast food flavor crusties. The menu is boldly short and simple, but the super secret rumor-only menu variations give it an insider brotherhood cool factor.

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 . . .

 

 

5 Comments:

Blogger The Queen said...

Even though I love you, I have to respectfully disagree. Five guys ROCKS and ROLLS!!! In and out is cold, man. No, like literally. Not hot. I just can't get past that.

(Chris reading over shoulder: "You mean the fries or the burger?")

Me: Yes. The fries and the burger. The fries are like heat-sucking cold, but the burger is not that hot either.

Maybe I'm just an East-Coast girl lovin' on the East-Coast round and greasy burger, but I have to cast my vote for 5 guys.

10:38 PM  
Blogger SethD said...

I'm with the 131st smokin' hot guy on the planet on this one--In 'N Out is still the gold standard. That's no knock on Five Guys, but the nostalgia factor pushes I/O through the roof. People don't wax poetic about 5Gs when they are away from it, and find a love of the food a bonding characteristic when meeting someone from the same place as you.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I've never had either but it makes me crave a burger. but that will happen in my condition.

8:00 AM  
Blogger MJ said...

It’s Freakin’ Green Elf Shorts Caption Competition time again!

Head over to Denmark to visit CyberPete.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Dy said...

Hey - we have a 5G here! James and I went shopping for shoes (b/c the shoeless hillbilly thing is really mostly a joke... but it was nearing the point that it wasn't funny, anymore - HOW do they grow so much!?!?) ANYway, we passed that place, and he said, "Man, now that place looks like a great spot to grab a burger." I looked over to see the Five Guys Burger and Fries joint, and I nodded. Yes, indeed. It does.

The force is strong in that one.

11:21 AM  

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Pupp Daddy Dog spends his days working as an entrepeneur and as a Dad. He is passionately in love with/obsessively neurotic about his family. Imagine Kicking Bird mixed with Albert Brooks. Oh, and throw in some Notorious B.I.G.

 

Alaska is the frustrated but caring cat at the center of our canine universe. All of us alternately worship, rely on and ceaselessly whine to her. Her need to control everything is confounded by the fact that she really pretty much does control everything, so in her few free moments, she knits and searches desperately for things to fuss about.

 

 

Max is smart and handsome, with a big heart. He is not only growing like a weed, but he has the attention span and concentration abilities of a weed. Despite my best efforts, AK keeps feeding him and he keeps growing. Our plan is to keep him so busy with school, sports & the arts that he won't notice he's a teenager and is supposed to hate us. T minus 2.5 years to teen launch, so far so good.

 

 

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