16 August 2010

Five Guys, Chicago - Restaurant Review

Great food always needs a sense of location. Bouillabaisse in Marseille, sushi in Tokyo, and fish & chips by the sea in the UK always have that certain 'je ne sais quoi' that location provides, and they taste all the better for it. America is the birthplace and spiritual home of the burger as we know it today and it has given the world some amazing burger icons; from the burger munching Wimpy in Popeye, to the Big Kahuna burger of Pulp Fiction fame, and of course the ubiquitous golden arches.

Hubert Keller's book, 'Burger Bar', examines the burger's place in America, and in it Keller paints a wonderfully evocative image of the burger:

Built to satisfy large hungers - for juice-dripping-down-the-chin deliciousness, for the sound of fat sizzling and jumping as it hits hot coals, for Meat spelled with a capital M, for adventure embodied in glossy, grazing cattle guarded by rugged cowboys - burgers occupy a large, vital territory in American food consciousness. Quintessentially democratic, burgers belong to everyone. Biting into a thick, succulent burger, we all feel rich.

It's almost as though burgers are the very embodiment of the American spirit.

To satisfy my burger craving when I was in Chicago recently, I went to the local Five Guys restaurant near Lincoln Park. Five Guys Burgers and Fries, to give its full name, started out as a family business in 1986 in Arlington, just outside of Washington DC. For the next 15 years DC metro-area residents would be the only ones to experience a Five Guys burgers from one of the company's five restaurants. In 2002 Five Guys started to expand and as of writing there are now 625 Five Guys locations across North America.

Five Guys operates as a fast-food style restaurant, and diners queue up, place their order at the counter and then either eat their food inside or take it away with them. Here the similarities to other large fast food chains ends. Five Guys (and I should also include In-N-Out Burger) has quite simply redefined the concept of fast food. The menu consists of basically three items: burgers, fries and hot dogs.

Everything is fresh at Five Guys. In fact, amazingly, their restaurants boast no freezers whatsoever, and all food is cooked to order. Fries are made from fresh unpeeled potatoes and are cooked in peanut oil. As a little quirky trademark, Five Guys offers complimentary monkey nuts to munch on while waiting.

I opted for a cheeseburger with everything ('all the way' in Five Guys lingo) and fries, washed down with some cold cherry coke. What arrived was a plain brown paper bag containing a dense mass wrapped in unbranded foil accompanied by a paper cup of fries that could feed a family of four. Opening the foil revealed a fantastically decadent treat; two grilled burger patties snuggled in a soft warm sesame bun with slices of melting American cheese, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, mustard and mayo. I later learnt that one of these beauties packs a hefty 840 calories, with 60% of that coming from fat alone, so this is certainly (and literally) not for the weak-hearted. Five Guys also offers a, ahem, 'healthier' option called a 'little burger' which makes the sole concession of including just one burger patty instead of the normal two.

But I'm not here to count calories, I'm here instead to sample the finest cheeseburgers I have ever had. It was truly magnificent - the perfect amalgamation of grilled beef, fat and bread, lubricated by sauce and the freshest of vegetables. The fries were a real revelation too. Fresh from the fryer, hot and crispy, and liberally dosed with salt they were sensational and really tasted of real potatoes.
You can tell by the eccentric customer comments board that Five Guys has a loyal and fanatical following, and I can totally understand why. Five Guys showed me just how fast food should be: simple, fresh and delicious. I can't wait for my next cheeseburger 'all the way' accompanied by a little slice of Americana on the side.

Food:         8 / 10
Service:      7 / 10
Ambiance:  8 / 10
2368 N. Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60614
Tel: +1 773-883-8930

(20.Aug.10, PS - Five Guys has now been voted America's best burger in the 2010 Zagat Fast-Survey. This was based on the results of a poll of over 6,500 people. It has ignited quite a debate about the relative merits of Five Guys vs. In-N-Out, and inevitably it seems the East Coast-West Coast rivalry reigns supreme).

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