September 26, 2015

The Great Burger Battle: Five Guys vs. Shake Shack vs. McDonald's

A carnivore's dream: Five Guys, Shake Shack and McDonald's, all on one plate.
We live in a golden age of hamburgers.

From the plethora of fast food options to the growing sub genre of "fast casual" joints to the fancier fare at non-chain restaurants, people are doing things with ground beef patties that have seldom been done in American history. Find a burger joint in just about any town these days and chances are you can top with something glamorous like a fried egg, avocado or candied bacon. And that's to say nothing of the higher-quality meats, buns and cheeses hitting the bun in recent years.

Some friends recently came up with the idea to do a burger taste-off, and your favorite food critic just couldn't resist joining. All told there were six of us sitting around the table yours truly and Deb, the official wife of Rick's Food Critique, were joined by two other couples who play weekly trivia with us, Andrea and Jay, and Jon and Robin.

We grabbed takeout from three different restaurants readily available at the Inner Harbor in our home of Baltimore: Mainstay Five Guys was a clear choice to square off against a newly opened Shake Shack, and we decided to throw in McDonald's for comparison's sake. Options available in other parts of the city like Smashburger weren't considered for this particular competition, nor were non-chain restaurants. They'll have to wait for a future test.

Each couple decided what to order from each restaurant, so specific burger types and toppings varied. We won't list them all here, but you can safely assume just about everyone had a burger near their ideal from each restaurant, along with fries. The luckiest of us also had shakes from Shake Shack.

So who won? As you'd expect, that depends who you ask. But it was clear that McDonald's came in a distant third. We went with the classic Quarter Pounder with Cheese, and the cheese consistently scored poorly. The burger's bun also took a beating, becoming the point of comparison when someone wanted to insult one of the other place's bread.

As for the fries, long a point of pride for McDonald's, things only got worse. I personally felt they were drowning in salt, and they quickly turned limp and soggy. But their appearance next to Five Guys' and Shake Shack's fries was most disturbing. Jay put it best, saying, "They're so much paler than the others."

It was a much closer race between the other two burger joints. Shake Shack got some first-place votes, but it's my firm belief the burger deserves to be in the runner-up slot. It has a bunch of great qualities, like delicious Shack Sauce, flavorful meat and a buttery bun. It also scored highly for being the only burger without weak iceberg lettuce on top, opting for heartier greens. But the ratio between bun and meat was all off, with too much bread and too little burger. Some also felt the buttery bun went a stop too far, leaving it drowning in too much lard.

Shake Shack does deserve kudos for crinkly fries that keep their crispness all evening. And those shakes are truly worth the obscene prices the restaurant charges. They're thick, flavorful and hard to put down. If you're not pairing fries and a shake with your burger, you're doing Shake Shack wrong. It's almost like they knew what they were talking about when they named the place.

Finally, my winner was Five Guys. In short, its burger showcases the meat and tastes freshest to me. A few attacked the bun for not holding up to the grease and toppings, but I personally like the fact that it's there solely to provide a handle while you taste the good stuff in between. And I can't help but give bonus points for the sheer variety of toppings you choose from the menu.

Five Guys fries are an interesting study. They're virtually always soggy, but they're not repulsive the way McDonald's fries turn when they start to droop. Maybe it's the fresh potatoes, or maybe it's just a better oil. Either way, they're just as good as Shake Shack's, but for different reasons.

Not all of my co-judges agree with my rankings, but frankly this isn't their blog. I've avoided targeting any opinions with which I disagree — which you could also call wrong opinions and hopefully we won't be ending any friendships over this. At the end of the day, I'm giving the spork of recommendation to Five Guys' burgers and Shake Shack's shakes.

All you really need to know is that you should skip the Mickey D's, though. The other two options will leave you much happier.