Burger Shootout #2: (Boutique?) Fast Food Burgers

>> Sunday, August 28, 2011

When I previously revealed that I would be doing a series of burger shootouts, I was touched by all the responses of friends and fellow bloggers that expressed concern over my health. In that vein, I enlisted a bunch of my friends to go out and eat fast food burgers with me for the second part of the ongoing series.
I was initially concerned when I outlined my idea of fast food burgers because I didn't really feel like eating food from McDonalds, Jack in the Box, etc, so I limited the selection of fast food restaurants to be more "boutique" fast food. What this basically means is that while I'm still covering fast food, I filtered out the places that I thought would have 0 shot of winning.
Finally, prior to setting off on this journey, I was reassured by a professional:
"An entire day eating bad burgers is still a REALLY good day." - Gavin Schmidt
Scoring Criteria:
In the previous shootout, I feel that my scoring system was partially flawed. There was slightly too much emphasis placed on the other categories and not enough places on taste alone. I've decided to try and revise the overall scoring mechanism by first normalizing scores within each category and then weighing the categories.
The three categories I've settled on are taste, value, and miscellaneous (within restaurant burgers there will also be a category for creativity). Within each fast food burger shootout, the category weights will shift based on the category where the burger lies. The taste category covers aspects concerning taste including overall taste, taste of each individual component, and cooking temperature. The value category is simply the amount of food received for the money (including sides). Finally, the miscellaneous category covers the items that are inherent to the category of the challenge.

Taste: Worth 50% of the overall score
  • Overall Taste - worth half of the taste category
  • Patty
  • Bun
  • Other fillings
  • Cooking Temperature
Value: Worth 20% of the overall score
Miscellaneous: Worth 30% of the overall score
  • Ease of consumption
  • Sides
  • Ticket Time
Finally, I decided that for the fast food restaurants, I would order the equivalent of a double cheeseburger from each restaurant along with the craziest fry that is sold at each place.

The Contenders:
Five Guys Burgers: website
Five Guys Burgers is originally an East Coast burger chain that first opened in Arlington, VA in 1986. The chain received the name because the founder and wife had 4 sons at the time of opening, who became the "five guys" involved with the burger store. Their standard menu contains a large list of items that can be added to the burger in order to customize the burger the way you want it. They also offer a complimentary side of peanuts located in boxes around the restaurant, which can be enjoyed with the burger. For their meat, the restaurant claims that the meat is never frozen, which should theoretically enhance the flavor. They use only peanut oil to fry the french fries.

Hodad's: website
Hodad's is a classic San Diego restaurant opened originally in 1969.The beat of the restaurant is mostly catered towards the regular beach crowd since the Ocean Beach pier is about a block away. Hodad's has won many awards such as being named the best Fast Food Burger by San Diego Magazine and named one of the nation's five best burger joints by CNN. It was also featured by Guy Fieri on Food Network's Diners Drive Ins and Dives. Hodad's receives its name from the word Hodad's, which (defined on the menu) means "a non-surfer who spends time at beaches masquerading as a surfer - see poser"

In-N-Out Burger: website
In-N-Out was founded in Baldwin Park (Los Angeles) in 1948. The chain's focus is "give customers the freshest highest quality food you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment." Unlike most fast food restaurants, In-N-Out remains privately owned by the original founding family and is only slowly expand eastwards (most recently in Texas). While In-N-Out isn't as critically acclaimed as the other two restaurants, it seems to have won many customer satisfaction surveys such as Zagat. Additionally, it has received praise from many chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain, and Mario Batali.

Elevation Burger: website
Elevation Burger was founded in 2002 with a focus on making a truly great burger with fresh and sustainable products. The franchise was first started in Arlington, Virginia by a Californian ex-pat. The Carlsbad location of Elevation Burger is the chain's first foray into Southern California and the first of about twenty planned restaurants. The beef in the burgers is from grass-fed beef, ground on premises, and the fries are fried in olive oil. The cattle is raised secretly but a cooperative group of thirty families in a secret location.

The Shootout:
Five Guys:
My first impression of the five guys meal is that it's really more about the fries since the order of fries dwarfs the burger.
The burger I ordered from Five Guys contained lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, and grilled mushrooms. I found that the condiments were slightly lacking for all the fanfare surrounding them. When I bit into the burger, I felt that the burger lacked flavor; it was almost as if I was biting into a previously frozen patty (despite the claim of never frozen beef). Now I'm not claiming that the patty was frozen, just that it lacked flavor and displayed characteristics similar to previously frozen patties.
I felt that for the size of the double burger, the bun was a little thin. Once the oil from the grilled onions and grilled mushrooms seeped in, the bun felt paper thin. Surprisingly, when I tasted the meat alone, it was seasoned rather well. While there were some grilled onions and mushrooms, the quantity of them within the burger was minor. The ratio of the tomato to lettuce was also off as bites resulted in much larger tomato flavor than probably should have been.
On the doneness scale, the meat was cooked very well done. This definitely killed some of the flavor that should have been in the burger.
The fries from Five Guys were the "Cajun Spiced" fries as I did not see any other special fries on the menu. The cajun spices were way too strong on the fries, and the fries tasted "raw" in the sense that they weren't fried twice and they weren't very crispy. Even my friends that had a regular order of "well done" fries had what I would consider "raw" fries.
Additionally, Five Guys offers complimentary peanuts. The peanuts were roasted well with an abundance of flavor, but there was simply too much salt in them. After consuming 5 peanuts, I felt that they were too salty to continue eating.
The total for fries and a burger at Five Guys came out to around $9.50, which is on the expensive side for fast food. Furthermore, we waited about 10 minutes for the food to be prepared, which also seemed a bit slow.

Taste: 26.25
  • Overall: 25
  • Patty: 75
  • Bun: 25
  • Other: 10
  • Temperature: 0
Value: 10
At $9.50, this was really expensive. They did give free peanuts and a lot of fries though
Miscellaneous: 26
  • Ease: 25 - the burger is wrapped in double aluminum foil which would be hard to unwrap in a car. The fries were all over the place and the peanuts couldn't be eaten in a car for sure
  • Sides: 20 - The fries were horrible but the salty yet tasty peanuts give some points here
  • Ticket Time : 33 - At 10 minutes the ticket time is pretty long for a fast food place
Overall Score: 22.385

Hodad's
It may not be obvious from the photo, but my first impression of the Hodad's burger was "Damn that's big." 
While the Hodad's burger was physically large, it lacked largely in flavor. The beef from Hodad's was definitely frozen and it lost the nice flavor of the beef somewhere in the process. Furthermore, the Hodad's burger lacked seasoning; a dash of salt prior to cooking the patty would have done wonders in taste. The grilled onions, while present, lacked flavor as they were probably yellow onions originally.
While the Hodad's bun looks nice in the photo, it was actually even thinner than the Five Guys bun. This was a shock to me since Hodads is known for really packing the ingredients into the burger (so a thicker bun should be only natural). As stated before, the patty alone was flavorless as it lacked salt and seemed to be previously frozen. The extras were piled on   generously and were pretty good (although the grilled onions did lack some punch).
Like Five Guys, the beef was completely cooked through (You can also see how thin the bun was here).
The fries from Hodad's were the potato wedges that came with the combo (as again they lacked a crazy fry option). Although many of us were not normally fans of wedge type fries, we found these fries to be crispy and seasoned well. There was some speculation that the oil in their deep fat fryer needed to be changed as we also ordered some onion rings that had that undercurrent of bad oil flavor to them.
For the order of the burger and fries in a combo, the total was about $10.50 - again way too expensive for fast food. Additionally, there was a ridiculous line for the restaurant. It probably would have taken over 1 hour to sit down in the restaurant so we ordered to go, which took another 20 minutes for the food to be cooked.

Taste: 21.875
  • Overall: 20
  • Patty: 10
  • Bun: 10
  • Other: 75
  • Temperature: 0
Value: 20 - While this was the most expensive burger of this shootout, it was a very large burger so the quantity makes up a little for the price
Miscellaneous: 30
  • Ease: 65 - The burger was nicely wrapped and ready to eat. It was however huge so it was hard to manage.
  • Sides: 25 - The wedge cut fries were surprisingly good, but there was an undercurrent of spoiled frying oil in the flavor that ruined it.
  • Ticket Time: 0
Overall Score: 23.4375
Note: It did come to my attention that Hodad's won the awards for their bacon cheeseburger as the bacon is practically formed into a bacon patty itself. This could warrant some further investigation (but it went against trying to order the same item from east place)
In-N-Out:
At In-N-Out the order was for the double-double with grilled onions and a well-done animal style fry (technically the fry wasn't on the menu but since I knew about it I knew to order it).
The In-N-Out burger was very flavorful overall, although the flavor was not necessarily from the patty itself. What enhanced In-N-Out to some degree over the other restaurants was simply that they toasted the bun so it was both warm and had a nice crunch.
When I tasted the patty of the In-N-Out alone it was bland, but it did have a small bit of beef flavor to it. The patty did not seem to have ever been frozen and it was well seasoned. This surprised me since the overall taste of the burger was very enjoyable. However, the other elements seemed to add a lot of flavor. As previously mentioned, the toasted bun was a nice touch, and the grilled onions lettuce and tomato all added nice contrasting notes. The burger was well-seasoned, but not overly salty.
Unfortunately, In-N-Out also destroyed the meat in cooking it too long.
As a side the animal style fries come with melted cheese, grilled onions, and spread (thousand island+pickle). I ordered these well done because these extra elements make the fries soggy when not ordering well-done. I've often joked that all french fries have an X-minute rule where X is the number of minutes you have to consume the fry before it tastes horrible. Unfortunately, regular In-N-Out fries place at about 5 minutes on my scale, so not getting animal style fries means that I pretty much don't eat any fries (The well done animal style makes it about 15 minutes (which is roughly standard)).
The combo of the double double and well-done animal style fries came out to about $6.75 (the fries actually cost more than the burger). We waited a shade over 5 minutes for the food to be cooked.

Taste: 61.25
  • Overall: 75
  • Patty: 50
  • Bun: 50
  • Other: 90
  • Temperature: 0
Value: 75 - While you do receive less food at In-N-Out the base price of the burger is very cheap. You can also add additional patties up to 4x4, which would still be cheaper than the other places.
Miscellaneous: 66.67
  • Ease: 75 - The burger was wrapped up nicely and ready to eat
  • Sides: 50 - I don't really like the fries alone that much and having to pay more to get animal style is a downer
  • Ticket Time: 75 - The food was cooked fast, but the animal style fries definitely slowed down the order
Overall: 66.0425


Elevation Burger
I ordered the Elevation Burger (which is a double cheeseburger) with grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, and elevation sauce. There were additional toppings like at Five Guys, but I chose to try and keep a consistent burger to the other burgers.
 The elevation burger extremely flavorful. The basis of the flavor was the grass-fed patty which was actually contained a lot of flavor in and of itself.
The cheddar cheese used was extremely oily however, so the entire burger did taste a bit oily. As a tradeoff, the cheddar was extremely flavorful. The onions were nicely caramelized and added a noticeable and enjoyable element of flavor. The bun was lightly toasted, but I would have preferred it a bit more. What I did find a bit strange was that the bun had an added element of sweetness. It might be similar to a Hawaiian roll, but the sweetness didn't seem to go that far. I found the additional sugar from the bun a bit distracting as that is so atypical of a burger.
While it was expected, the meat was cooked through completely in the patty.
The fries at Elevation Burger are fried in olive oil. This actually made the fries very crispy on the outside and enjoyable. They were also relatively light on the oil compared to other restaurants as a result. The order of fries was extremely large; two people sharing the fries still barely made a dent in the entire order.
The burger cost $5.99 on the burger and an additional $2.99 for the fries.

Taste - 68.75

  • Overall: 85
  • Patty: 80
  • Bun: 40
  • Other: 90
  • Temperature: 0
Value: 80 - While the fries were really expensive, I thought $5.99 for a double patty of grass fed beef was an extremely good deal, especially for the taste.
Miscellaneous: 76.67
  • Ease: 75 - Burger was wrapped much the same as In-N-Out and completely ready to eat
  • Sides: 85 - I found the fries at Elevation Burger extremely enjoyable
  • Ticket Time: 70 - Our food was prepared in about 5 minutes
Overall: 73.54



Conclusion:
For me, In-N-Out won this competition running away. There was more flavor in the In-N-Out burger, and it even scored higher in the value category as well.
For me, two of the fast food restaurants created enjoyable burgers. In-N-Out burger really gets the flavor out of all its burgers and has several stores that make it easily accessible. However, Elevation Burger seemed to follow on In-N-Out's example and apply even higher quality ingredients such as grass fed beef to get an even greater taste. Elevation Burger truly does have a burger that is Elevated over the rest of the competition.
Hodad's came in a distance second place and was in a tough race with Five Guys. These two places were somewhat strange to me in the way they competed against each other. Hodad's gives you that big American Dream burger and has a great location near the beach, which definitely attracts people. It also serves beer, so it is more like what I would categorize as "casual dining," but I ultimately placed it in the Fast Food category because they don't cook the temperature of the meat to order (it would also be embarrassing when comparing them to the other casual dining places). Five Guys has a pretty tasty burger and a nice option to get peanuts, but I don't think I would ever order their fries again. In the X minute rule I think I'd give their fries 0 since they don't ever seem to be good at any point of the process.
While I was disappointed with some of the burgers, I definitely agree with the assessment that an entire day eating bad burgers is still a really good day.
Next Time, I will cover the casual dining burgers (Burger Lounge, Smashburger, and The Counter).

3 comments:

Bobby @ Gourmands Review August 29, 2011 at 3:30 PM  

great write up James. In n Out definitely blows the competition away. Five guy is just awful and the fries are an embarrassment!

Rodzilla September 3, 2011 at 11:56 AM  

Agreed, In-N-Out is hard to beat. That said, I wasn't impressed by their well done fries. I actually believe McDs has some of the best fries around.

Paul T Tran March 29, 2012 at 10:09 AM  

What a great post! My name is Paul, and I manage franchise growth for Elevation Burger; so proud of our franchisee out in Carlsbad - Ron's running a great operation, and I'm glad you're pleased with the experience!

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gastro bits is a blog that juxtaposes the geeky with the foodie; it is an attempt to be educational about food, yet entertaining at the same time.
None of the reviews are meant to dissuade you from trying anything by yourself, but simply to provide information for you to make a more informed choice.
If any special treatment is provided to the blogger, full disclosure is presented at the beginning of the post.

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