As mentioned before, I am a part-time burger aficionado and a full-time ranker-of-things (to coin a term). That’s why I like to pit “famous” burgers against each other in a Battle Royale (with Cheese). This time it’s the one-of-a-kind Burger Joint versus the 900-of-a-kind Five Guys.
If any one burger has the most reliable claim on the ‘best burger in New York’ title, it is the legendary Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien Hotel on 56th Street. Start a conversation with any local about where to get a great burger, and this place is sure to come up.
Part of the appeal of this place is the location: an unassuming corridor branching off the lobby of a luxury hotel, a curtain brushed aside, and suddenly you’re in a somewhat dingy (almost tacky) wood-panelled room, festooned with pen-scrawled graffiti and movie posters which don’t seem to follow any consistent theme.
Minimalism is on the menu too: only hamburgers and cheeseburgers are on offer, along with fries and a small selection of drinks. As the menu declares: “if you can’t see it, we don’t have it!”
Which gives you all the more time to focus on where, if anywhere, you’re going to be able to sit. Space is definitely at a premium, though fortunately a booth opened up for me and my eating companion when our food was ready.
The first positive is that you get to specify how you want your burger cooked (as in, well done, medium, rare etc.). I asked for medium rare and my order came up in about five minutes:
It’s one of those burgers that manages to be messy without being a collapsing nuisance. The flavours are strong and work well with a lunchtime beer (Sam Adams is on tap for a fiver). Also, you’re unlikely to need a top-up snack at 4pm.
The fries are forgettable and the ambience is a little too cool for school, but there’s no denying that this burger justifies the hype. You may have to line up outside the door if you visit during lunch hours, but this is a New York burger experience not to be missed.
Verdict: Go there.
Five Guys is your standard 21st century franchise phenomenon (see Chipotle and Pinkberry) that went from five restaurants in Virginia in 2001 to over 900 locations in 40 states by 2011.
A recent article in the LA Times described Five Guys as being part of a “growth of mid-level eateries that are more expensive than fast food but cheaper than fancy restaurants”. This image was no doubt aided by Zagat awarding the company “best fast food burger” in 2010.
Indeed, the President himself famously stopped by for a cheeseburger shortly after taking office.
The chain retains a ‘down-home’ feel, though, by offering free peanuts and stacking immense sacks of Idaho potatoes behind the counter, which according to a profile in BusinessWeek is “a holdover from early locations that didn’t have storage space in the kitchen”. The story also claimed the company shuns national advertising campaigns in favour of word-of-mouth publicity.
Despite the lack of advertising, one thing Five Guys is not is modest. The decor of their restaurants basically consists of posters mentioning all the awards their burgers have won:
Five Guys is a worthy opponent for Burger Joint, as the emphasis is on simplicity and customisation. Customers choose their base burger (either the two-patty ‘regular burger’ or single-patty ‘little burger’) and then are given an option of eleven free toppings: mayo, mustard, ketchup, relish, onion (grilled or raw), lettuce, pickle, tomato, green pepper, jalapeño, and grilled mushrooms. Bacon and cheese are available for an extra charge.
I opted for a very simple ‘little burger’, with only the traditional lettuce and tomato as accompaniment. I like to taste the beef.
And taste it I did. A Five Guys burger does what all burgers should: drip. My major issues with most burger chains is that their sandwiches can be comfortably held in one hand, with minimal spillage. It seems unnatural.
As the emphasis at Five Guys is on fresh ingredients, the company doesn’t freeze its beef, and you can tell. Even the ‘little burger’ yields that wonderfully metallic, almost acrid, bite on the pallet that good meat gives. The fries, too, are pretty good, having been hand-carved from those mighty Idaho potatoes sitting around the restaurant.
Next time I’ll be sure to branch out and try a few of those free condiments.
Verdict: Far superior to its fast food competitors, including Shake Shack.
And the winner is… Burger Joint. But Five Guys is definitely the pick of the chain restaurants.