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Monday, April 20, 2020

The Burger Master

From the Food Vault Dept.: Look, I’m as socially responsible as the next fellow. Trouble is, the next fellow isn’t typically very socially responsible. So while I’m spending a lot more time at home, eating, I like to think, in a socially responsible manner, there come errands. Yesterday, my daughter and I went shopping – or, rather, she went shopping as I waited in the car, the better to limit my risk of contracting infection to passage from a loved one. Near the supermarket is a Five Guys outlet. I installed the phone app and placed an order to us. We enjoyed a guilty pleasure, and I was reminded of a visit that I documented a decade ago.


A WIDELY HELD BELIEF maintains that confessing your sins is the first step on the road to forgiveness. I’m not sure that it even counts as a venial offense, but here goes: I enjoy dining at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Here’s something even more surprising: so does my wife, Susan. She professes to despise all things fast-food related, and claims she’d rather starve than ingest fodder from McDonald’s, but she’s astonishingly eager to lap up a Five Guys meal.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I’m also violating a self-imposed interdiction against writing about chain restaurants, but justify it by suggesting that there are things to be learned from such places, a topic I’ll return to. This is also inspired by the fact that Five Guys topped the recent Readers’ Picks poll, thankfully nosing out the overhyped, overpriced Red Robin. So I’m guessing you’d like a closer look at this place.

Once you start confessing things, subsequent revelations come more easily. Here’s my next one: I don’t think the Five Guys burgers are all they’re cracked up to be, and for one reason only: they insist on cooking the things to well-doneness. I know the argument, and I can’t fault them for it. Thanks to an insufficiently regulated meatpacking industry, ground beef may contain pathogens that lurk in the rare parts, so this cook-the-red-away policy has become ever more common in the chain-restaurant world.

Five Guys makes no apology about this, and cleverly compensates by building its basic burger with two patties, with cheese ($5.39) or without ($4.79) or, and why not, with bacon ($5.39) or with bacon and cheese ($6). A smaller, one-patty burger also is available in similar configurations ($3.39-$4.59).

The only meat-based alternative is a hot dog, with those same bacon and cheese options ($3.19-$4.39). A grilled cheese sandwich or veggie sandwich will run you $2.49.

A long list of free flavor enhancers gives you artistic control over your palate. The dressings include ketchup, mayo, mustard, A1, barbecue and hot sauce; chewable choices are lettuce, tomato, onions (raw or grilled, and they’re excellent grilled), pickles, relish, grilled mushrooms, green peppers and jalapenos.

Being a large, selfconscious omnivore, I reckon my toppings long before I get into line so I won’t be that fat guy in front of you who can’t make up his mind. But only the burger part is complicated. What’s easy is ordering the fries.

Five Guys makes a public virtue of the fact that they cut the fries every morning by stacking bags of whole potatoes at one end of the restaurant. Manager Bob Brown took me into the kitchen, where I was astonished to see that all of those fries are sent, potato by potato, through a single, table-mounted hand cutter.

“And look here,” he said, swinging open the door of the walk-in box. One shelf was stacked with transparent plastic bins of burger patties, also made daily in the store. Across the aisle were similar bins of newly sliced tomatoes, slices of cheese and the many other vegetables that need preparation.

“You can see how busy we are right now,” he said, “and look at the kitchen.” It was spotless. “I’ve worked in other high-volume places,” he added, “and I can assure you their kitchens didn’t look like this.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
A similar cleanliness characterizes the cooking line, which is in full view at one end of the place. That’s where burgers are grilled and assembled, and where the daily cornucopia of fries are fried (in peanut oil). Two sizes are available ($2.49 & $4), and I can assure you that the large is generous enough for two, especially considering that the cup in which they’re served is so overfilled that a thick layer of more fries lines the bottom of your bag.

Like the old Arthur Treacher’s chain, Five Guys has malt vinegar available, but you’ll no doubt default to the Heinz ketchup – best of the commercial brands. But try the fries first in their virgin state. They’re cooked to a pleasantly brown doneness, with none of the processing and flavor enhancers that the big burger chains sneak in there. I can laud them as among the best.

Soda also is sold in two sizes, but the free-refills policy suggests that the smaller one is more economical. Kudos to the place also for offering caffeine-free diet cola, my health-destroying beverage of choice.

You’re given soda cups and a pickup number, but you won’t starve while waiting. Five Guys offers peanuts, roasted in the shells, with which you can happily occupy yourself.

So that’s it: A pile of peanuts. A big, well-dressed burger. An overflowing cup of fries. This is what burger joints were supposed to be about once upon a time. And this is what we can learn from the Five Guys formula. It’s so simple that it’s easy to execute, relying (as should always be the case) on fresh ingredients for its success. It’s a formula that has worked well enough to give rise to well over 400 units around the country since its 1986 debut in Arlington, VA.

When the Niskayuna branch opened in 2005, it was the 51st location. Now there are Five Guys units in Rensselaer, Glenmont, Clifton Park and Saratoga Springs. When the Queensbury store opens later this year, it will be the 415th. Red meat took another hit in recent news stories, but you and I have been around long enough to have seen that subject go back and forth a dozen times.

Besides, none of the studies zeroes in on what we all intuit to be true: any possible ill effects of red meat are offset by a good side order of fries.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries, 418 Balltown Rd. (Mohawk Commons), Niskayuna, 346-5728, Burgers – in a vast array of configurations – and some of the area’s best fries. And peanuts. And that’s it. And that’s all you need. Serving daily 11-10. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 2 April 2009

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