Friday, July 2, 2010

A chain burger I can get into

Posted By on Fri, Jul 2, 2010 at 4:15 PM

WRAPPED FOR YOUR PROTECTION:  Five Guys expanding burger & fries
  • WRAPPED FOR YOUR PROTECTION: Five Guys expanding burger & fries
I tend to avoid chain restaurants where I can, partly because of the nature of my job but also because I like the adventure in finding something new. Wendy’s, Quizno’s, Domino’s — they have nothing for me and I nothing for them. Even when really hungry I just keep on driving. * So on the surface another burger chain doesn’t seem like the sort of place you’d find me.

But Five Guys isn’t just another burger place. It’s a chain, yes, but it’s a chain that’s got its product down to a science. And it’s willing to throw people at the project to make it work.

Been meaning for a while to drop into the location in North Little Rock, but I always found some other place that tugged more at my curiosity. As if my subconscious were tapped, a Five Guys gets built over in my neck of the woods. And by some strange alignment of the planets, I had free time and a couple of bucks in my pocket the other day. I literally drove by on a spur of the moment.

It was almost as if someone were expecting me.

MORE THAN FIVE ON THE LINE:  I counted eight behind the counter
  • MORE THAN FIVE ON THE LINE: I counted eight behind the counter
Entering the door, I got a crowd’s-worth of cheery “hello!” from the back. I maneuvered my way past the boxes of peanuts and bags of potatoes and stood behind the others waiting to order. They were fortunate — this was one of those rare days where I just looked up at the menu posted overhead and my selection just looked back at me. I didn’t have any trouble or delay in placing my order when I got to the counter.

“What’ll you have?” the cheery woman said behind the counter.

“Cheeseburger, all the way, no mustard,” I replied.

“Mustard comes on it…”

“No mustard, please.”

“Oh, I thought you were asking for only mustard. No problem, no mustard all the way. Fries?”

“Regular.”

“Drink?”

“I’m not seeing iced tea, just cokes.”

“We have iced tea.”

“That’s awesome. Yes.”

“Regular or large?”

“Regular’s fine.”

“Okay then. TWO PATTIES!” she yelled back to the seven-person assembly line behind her. She quickly rang me up and took my money, giving me a receipt with a big number on it for when my order was called, left me with a smile and a cup to go claim my tea.

I found a table, dropped off my bag and receipt and went and fetched my tea — not from a big tall chrome dispenser but from one of those instantly-made Gold Peak tea machines. I actually like those. The tea doesn’t taste strange like when it comes through a fountain Coke machine. It’s passable. And I can get it without lemon or sugar that way. But I digress.

Five Guys has no problem spreading the word about itself. All over the restaurant are clips from magazines and newspapers claiming its superiority. “Best burger to be had for $5!” announced one. There are ZAGAT remarks and quotes from Boston Globe and GQ Magazine. Lots of lauding for the chain, that’s for sure.

INTO THE BAG:  An explosion of fries
  • INTO THE BAG: An explosion of fries
I went back up and watched the assembly line that was going on — bun prep, veggie work, two guys on the griddle, two on the fry station, a guy working the wraps (wrapping sandwiches). It was a machine with a few bumps, but not bad ones. Didn’t take very long for my number to be called, and I went and retrieved my bag of goodness.

I noticed right off that the fries were everywhere. I’m not sure what the suggested amount of fries is supposed to be for a regular sized order (all the menu says is “cooked in pure, no cholesterol tasty peanut oil!” but they filled the cup they were supposed to come in and came halfway up the bag as well. I had to excavate my burger, which just meant I had to dig it out from there. Yes, fries were consumed in the extracation. They were good fries, a little soft but that lovely brown color good fresh fries tend to turn. The light and salty seasoning was not overpowering, and they held their own.

SILVER BOMB:  A wrapped Five Guys burger
  • SILVER BOMB: A wrapped Five Guys burger
The burger was wrapped in a sheet of aluminum foil, not a paper-lined foil wrapper like a lot of other burger places. It looked like a little silver bomb waiting to go off. I carefully unwrapped it. The moment the pressure was released the lettuce sprung bag, and the burger seemed to grow before my eyes. It’s not a wide burger, but it is a tall one, toasted sesame seeded top bun wiped with mayonnaise, crunchy hunk of iceberg lettuce, thick sliced dill pickles (I thought they were bread and butters before I bit into one), substantial hunk of tomato. One patty, apparently griddle-smashed. Couple of slices of American cheese. Another griddle-smashed patty. Grilled onions and mushrooms and then a bottom bun. This one’s a two-hander, not because of the overall size but because being that tall you need both hands to smoosh it enough to straddle with your mouth.

THIS IS THE NORMAL SIZE:  Tall, not wide Five Guys burger
  • THIS IS THE NORMAL SIZE: Tall, not wide Five Guys burger
One bite… well, it’s very hard to take one bite out of a Five Guys burger, because of its dimensions. Pieces of grilled onion want to follow that bite out. The tomato’s slick. The moment you get through the crunch of the lettuce your jaws snap through the softer ingredients and you’re either left with a mouthful or you’ve slid mostly off the burger and have to go at it again. It takes a couple of bites to get to the point where you can put it down again to take a few notes. And what notes did I take? “Good, seasoned burger if a bit flat. Cheesy-glue American keeps the meat together, but the veggies are on their own. But if you manage to get a whole bite of everything at once, it’s a good combination.”

Yes, it is a grand combination. The guys behind Five Guys did their homework, which is probably why Serious Eats readers put them on top in its “Chain Burger Tournament” between the chains a few months ago.

Gotta face it — they have a good product, they’re not that expensive and they have the power of a chain behind them. The only downside I could see is that they don’t have a drive-thru; otherwise I would cinch them to be a stick-around contender in this market for a while.

I noticed when I was looking at the menu when I got home that they also offer “little” burgers, hot dogs and a couple of sandwiches (grilled cheese, veggie or cheese veggie)… I guess I wasn’t really paying attention in the store. There are no desserts, just peanuts available to whoever wants to scoop up some in a tray. I bet they’d look down on you if you dropped them on the floor, though.

The burger, by the way, was $5.29. Regular fries ran me $2.59 and a drink was $1.89 more.

If I were to compare them to anyone, it’d have to be CJ’s Butcher Boy Burgers in Russellville. Though the patties aren’t as large, the idea of a burger from 100% ball of beef to cooked patty is the same idea, the menu is very similar and the fries bear a resemblance to each other. But CJ’s has great shakes, too.

You can find the new Five Guys on Chenal west of Markham, just past the strip that has that Cold Stone Creamery in it (there’s your dessert, buster). There’s also one in North Little Rock in the Lakewood Village Shopping Center near Georgia’s Gyros. Give it a shot. The WLR number is (501) 225-1100, NLR is (501) 246-4595.

*Disclosure: Yes, I often frequent Sonic for their beverage specials between two and four in the afternoon, especially when I am on the road. Iced tea is what it is, and I know I can get a honkin’ big cupful for not a lot at those times.

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