Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Manhattan Burger Battle

Friends, I have to tell you: I am a little disturbed. Here's why:

My wife had business to attend to in NYC, and I went along, planning my own business - Burger Business. I wanted to try Shake Shack, which I have heard so much about on the Burger Blogs Circuit, and then follow it up with a NYC Five Guys, as a taste test.

I wanted it to be a clear victory for the Guys. I wanted affirmation of my faith. I wanted to not like Shake Shake too much.

These things did not happen.

If you know about Shake Shack, I don't need to tell you. If you don't, see here, here, and here. And go there.

Here is my official Shake Shack review:

Holy Crap, that's a tasty burger!

It was love at first bite. Wonderful flavor, great crust, lovely bun, great toppings. (They fit, for instance. Nicely sized.) The store was clean, the line that I have heard so much about was fast, and I got in and out in under 15 minutes or so. I ate on a bench outside the American Museum of Natural History, and it was a transcendent burger experience.

I killed some time looking at dinosaur bones, then went to Five Guys, on West 55th Street. I knew that this was going to be tough for the Guys, but I had hopes, and faith. 5G is a magnificent burger, and while it may not blow Shake Shack away as easily as others, certainly it could hold its own, right?


This would be, of course, the first time I've ever had problems with a Five Guys. This location was worse than any other I have visited. Maybe it is NYC, but having just had proof of how nice a place could be, I can't give it a pass for that. The line was shorter but took longer to move through. The store was dirty and cramped. The burger was its normal 5 Guys good, but I couldn't help but notice that the toppings were oversized - the lettuce and tomato just didn't fit right. Also, the burger cost $2.50 more. This extra pays for bacon, though, and I do like bacon.

So. Shake Shack is really really good. I add my voice to the chorus there. Also, at least one 5G in NYC needs a little work. I'm certainly not off the 5G bandwagon, and not just because there are no Shack Shacks anywhere near me yet (apparently they are planning 20 up and down the East Coast in the next 5 years).

NYC Face Off!!!

I'm in Manhattan for the day, for Serious Burger Business. I'm going to try a Shake Shack and a local 5 Guys back to back. And declare a winner.

I'm at the Columbus Ave Shack, waiting for my double Shack Burger. The line to order was only about 4 min. Its crowded but moving fast. Very nice staff. Almost bought The Baby a onesie.

After this, I am heading over to the 55th St 5G. I'll post the photos and report tonight.

I can tell you now I start biased for 5G, but I'll keep an open mind.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A little Five Guys History - the Original Five Guys location

I will always regret never visiting the original Five Guys location. I moved to Arlington, Virginia in 1997, and had a couple years in which I possibly could have done so, but I had never heard of the place (it was pre-blog times, and nobody could have shared with me Important Burger News electronically, like they can and do now) and now the location is closed and gone, part of burger legend.

The first Five Guys opened in 1986, in the Westmark strip mall (3235 Columbia Pike, Arlington, Va) at Columbia Pike and Glebe Road in Arlington, Va. Over the next 13 years, 4 more locations opened. In 1998, the original location closed. In 2002, Five Guys started franchising, and now there are over 500 stores - but no mothership, no high temple, no ground zero for 5G fans. (I guess the second store, at 4626 King Street, Alexandria, VA, should assume that role now.)

I went by the original location last week, just to see what I could see. It is now home to a "Dave's Seafood & Subs" The owner said he had assumed the location from his cousin, who ran a store there for just a few months in 1998 after the 5G closed. His place has been open 11 years - almost as long as the original 5G, so good for him. (I don't think he will be franchising, however. But try the sweet tea.) I asked if anything in his store was left over from 5G, or if he had any interesting information about assuming the same space first used by a national chain, but he had nothing to share. Bummer.

Some photos of the location as it is now-

I can not find any pictures to link to of the place as it was. If you know of any, please share.

What is now a car parts store next door used to be an H&R Block, and before that it was a Brenner's Bakery. That bakery used to provided ALL the buns for 5G. The Arlington Brenner's closed on December 31st, 2001. It was owned by family members of the other Northern Virginia Brenner's Bakery, which is in Alexandria. Although the Alexandria store is no longer owned by the Brenner family, and no longer provides all the buns, the person I spoke with there said they do provide for some of the local locations, and also sell the buns in the store. So I am going to go get some of those for home use. (Post to follow, of course)

Since I am forever denied talking about what it was like to go to the first 5G, I solicited reminiscences from a friend, who lived down the street from it and did go. Here is his account:

"I moved to Washington in May of ’97 and lived in an apartment on Columbia Pike right off of 395. As a restaurant junkie I would go around and try to find restaurants I might like. I wasn’t aware of what 5 Guys was or hadn’t gotten to the word of mouth moment. The original was located off of Glebe Road and Columbia Pike tucked out of sight on the Columbia Pike side in a not very nice strip mall. There was a mattress store, a video store a little hole in the wall restaurant named Mom’s that is still there and the bakery next door.

The inside was fine, but felt like a short order place. They had the peanuts and the white and red paint scheme. I want to say they also had the peg board with index cards. It had the smell of peanut oil and grease. There were no places to sit and it was pretty confined, but there was always a line. However, with the peanuts, it just felt like waiting was part of the experience.

Like ninety-something percent of their customers, it took one bite and I was hooked.

A friend of mine who also had moved out here was trying to get into Officer Candidate School and needed letters of recommendation from military officials. My friend was in Durango, Colorado talking to a retired General and told him about living on Columbia Pike. The General told him a story about the best hamburgers he had ever had off of Columbia Pike. My friend was accepted and at the point I knew this place had a real following. If only I had thought enough to try and get in on a franchise early." (Thanks, Jon.)

So, a little trip down Memory Lane, sadly reflecting on what I missed.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Taking the Burger War to In-N-Out

I don't consider In-N-Out to be the second best burger chain in the US (that would be Steak 'n Shake. INO is 3rd. Five Guys is, of course, #1.), but they are the winner in their region. And they have a very loyal and fanatical following. So I eagerly anticipate the Burger Wars that will begin with the large-scale movement of 5G into California.

There are currently just three 5Gs in California. This article in the OC Register mentions they are planning a further 300 locations in the Golden State, and the many of them will start appearing next year. INO only has 232 locations in 4 states, so 300 5G in just California is going to be intense. I've had both burgers, in the same weekend, and I have no doubt the winner will be wrapped in foil and served in a greasy brown bag.