This week in Dueling Dishes: Washington D.C.-based Five Guys Burgers and Fries versus the home team, In-N-Out. A Five Guys opened in Orange last week, the first of many more planned for OC.
If you've read about Five Guys anywhere, you won't go a few sentences without some mention of In-N-Out. This is especially true if they're within driving distance from each other.
The two burger joints seem to be inextricably linked, attracting comparisons like two sides of a magnet. And there are undeniable similarities. Both embrace a red and white motif for their store design. Both start their fries from raw potatoes cut in-store.
But more than anything, I noticed the glaring differences. After all, Star Wars and Star Trek are both set in space, but they have totally different M.O.'s. Here's a list:
- A burger at Five Guys is automatically a double patty. A single is called “Little”.
- Five Guys employs a sesame seed bun. In-N-Out uses plain.
- In-N-Out half-wraps their finished burgers with one side exposed so that it's smiling at you. Five Guys wraps their sandwiches completely inside foil.
- In-N-Out packages their meals in white bags when you take-out, an open-faced box if you're eating in the car, a plastic tray for when you decide to dine in. Five Guys hands everything to you in brown bags, which will soon enough be stained with grease-spots.
- Five Guys does hot dogs. In-N-Out does not.
- Peanuts are the de rigueur way to pass the time while waiting for your Five Guys order. At In-N-Out, you have your date.
- Prices are higher at Five Guys. A cheeseburger at In-N-Out: $2.05. A comparable Little Cheese Burger at Five Guys: $3.99.
- Five Guys offers more toppings than the In-N-Out standards of pickle, tomatoes, onion, grilled onions, lettuce, and cheese. Among them, bacon (at a nominal charge), hot sauce, and mushrooms.
- Five Guys puts on their cheese cold, after the patty is cooked and already on the bun. In-N-Out applies the cheese as the patty sizzles on the griddle so that it melts.
Most importantly, there are differences in the inherent qualities of burgers themselves. Quantitatively, I noticed that a Five Guys burger has more meat than a comparably-sized In-N-Out Double (as it should be, considering the higher cost). However, Five Guys' patties are underseasoned, if they're even seasoned at all. This is not to say that In-N-Out's patties are any better.
What makes an In-N-Out burger so enjoyable is in the way it snaps, at least for the first few tenuous minutes when the burger is freshly made. A lot of this is due to In-N-Out's griddle-toasted bun's crispiness and the crunch of its veggies. To me an In-N-Out burger is less about the patty and more about the contrasting interplay of textures between the meat, the veg, and the bread.
A Five Guys burger, at least the one that I had, seemed to lack that crucial detail. The bun was damp and compacted. The lettuce was limp. The whole thing seemed soggy, and dare I say steamed?
I have a theories to why this is (and again, these are just theories).
First theory: they've been open a week and are still adjusting.
Another theory: it's the way they wrap their sandwiches. Since it's almost hermetically sealed, the trapped-in moisture immediately starts working against the burger. Though I ate it in-store, unwrapping it barely seconds from when they packaged it, it was already at this state. I wonder how it would fare if I decided to take it home. The sogginess, by the way, is exarcebated if you are greedier on the free toppings. The mushrooms for instance, while a good choice, seems to hasten the dampness.
Now to the fries. Let's get it out of the way: I do not like In-N-Out fries as they are made. Ask for them well-done, now that's a different story. When a well-done order is executed by an experienced fry cook, it's unerringly crisp, all of its limpness cooked out. The perfect french fry.
I don't know whether Five Guys offers the option of doing their fries this way, but if they don't, I hope they consider it. They are cut thicker and brown darker than an In-N-Out fry. Thus they tend to get floppier faster. As is, I consider them good “fried potatoes”, but fry them a little longer, they could become the fries as they are meant to be.
A light dusting of cajun spices can be added to make them “cajun fries”, but I hardly detected much of a difference from the plain. They do, however, give you an excessive amount (which is not a bad thing for the $2.49 price they charge).
So the winner this week? In-N-Out. But I welcome Five Guys. As to which one is Star Wars and Star Trek, well that depends.
Five Guys Burgers & Fries, 1549 E. Katella Ave., Orange; (714) 532-5544; fiveguys.com.
In-N-Out, everywhere; www.in-n-out.com.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.