We compared McDonald's premium burgers with Shake Shack's and Five Guys' -- and the winner surprised us

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  • McDonald’sSignature Crafted line of burgers is the chain’s attempt at premium “better burgers.”
  • The premium lineup is helping McDonald’s sales numbers, executives said on an earnings call in April.
  • We compared the burgers with those at two other major “better burger” chains, Shake Shack and Five Guys, and found they held their own in terms of quality.

McDonald’s attempt to latch on to the “better burger” trend is yielding decent results.

In the company’s earnings call in April, McDonald’s CFO Kevin Ozan said sales were buoyed in part by the chain’s Signature Crafted line of premium burgers, which cost about $US1 to $US2 more than the rest of McDonald’s burger menu.

After an experiment with a customisable-burger program a few years ago proved unsuccessful, McDonald’s tweaked it and retained several premium options: a garlic white cheddar burger, a pico guacamole burger, and a sweet barbecue bacon burger.

These burgers also use fresh beef patties, a very recent change to McDonald’s long-standing and often maligned practice of using frozen patties.

That could reasonably put McDonald’s in the same league as other national chains offering fresh-grilled, premium, burgers – namely, Shake Shack and Five Guys.

So we decided to compare McDonald’s better-burger lineup with its competition to see whether it has staying power in the industry – and we were surprised by what we found.

McDonald’s fancy burgers come in fancy branded boxes to distinguish them from your <em>de rigueur</em> Quarter Pounders.

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First is the pico guacamole burger.

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It’s slathered with pico de gallo and guacamole, hence the name. The brioche bun is a regular on the premium lineup, and frankly, it is much better than the typical McDonald’s sesame bun.

The burger is decent. The veggie-heavy ingredients are surprisingly fresh and vibrant.

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The pico de gallo has firm, fleshy diced tomato and sharp onions, and the guacamole is better than you’d expect from McDonald’s.

This burger comes with a lime wedge in the box – it seems incongruous at first, but the acidic sharpness of the lime juice goes a long way to cut through the mellowness of this burger.

The garlic cheddar burger is very, very pungent — you can smell the garlic from miles away.

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It’s a rather strange experience to smell garlic in the restaurant, wafting up from a McDonald’s burger. It’s just not an ingredient you expect to encounter beneath the Golden Arches.

It makes for an extremely rich, savoury burger, as well as an extremely garlicky one. The aioli doesn’t do as much heavy lifting in the garlic department as the fried slices.

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I’m on the fence about the fresh beef; I can’t tell whether it’s any different. But the ingredients are still surprising with the level of quality. The tomato is vibrant, and the numerous fried-garlic chips are crispy. The white cheddar adds a nice sharpness to each bite.

Lastly in McDonald’s premium stable, we have the sweet barbecue bacon burger.

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Topped with bacon, barbecue sauce, fried onions, grilled onions, and white cheddar cheese, this burger sounds like a pretty hefty chew.

And it is a heavy meal. But it’s also the best of the McDonald’s bunch.

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The barbecue sauce is on the sweet side, which, in fairness, the burger’s name told us. But the sugar is cut by the savoury beef and onions, as well as the rich cheese. McDonald’s doesn’t skimp on toppings – there’s a good amount of bacon and onion. It’s shockingly good.

So how does Shake Shack compare? Let’s start with the classic ShackBurger.

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Shake Shack offers single patties or double burgers. We chose single for this comparison. The ShackBurger is the chain’s simple, classic, run-of-the-mill burger: just a patty, cheese, tomato, lettuce, and ShackSauce.

And — surprise — ┬áit’s delicious.

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Shake Shack is really good. But there’s one thing that may be worse than McDonald’s: Its burgers are heavy and greasy. While that’s part of its luscious charm, it simply must be said. The potato bun is delicious, but it can get lost and soggy.

Shake Shack’s SmokeShack burger has similar triumphs and issues.

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I’ll start with the same disclaimer: It’s delicious. Bacon, hot cherry peppers, cheese, and ShackSauce – but without lettuce and tomato, this burger becomes infinitely heavier. It will weigh you down, which is the cost of such a guilty pleasure.

So when contrasting Shake Shack’s burgers with McDonald’s, we have a conundrum.

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McDonald’s burgers are perhaps less approachable with their flavour combinations, like a vaguely southwestern burger or a garlic burger. But they are much lighter than Shake Shack’s and don’t weigh you down after eating.

It’s a tough choice between delicious grease or decent comfort.

Then there’s Five Guys.

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Five Guys is a tad tougher to compare, given that the chain’s burger model is one of customisation. You can choose a single or double burger with combinations of cheese, bacon, or neither, then add toppings ranging from pickles and onions to mustard and mayo.

That’s the beauty of Five Guys. The choice is limitless. You get the burger you want — nothing more, nothing less.

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But Five Guys’ ethos is different. The ingredients are good and responsibly sourced, but they’re not “premium.” The chain revels in its simplicity and no-fuss attitude, from the sans-frills dining area to the ho-hum iceberg lettuce. And the burgers are enormously greasy, with huge patties – if Shake Shack wears you down, don’t even think about Five Guys. So McDonald’s has the edge here, with fewer ingredients but higher quality.

Personal preference dictates which burger chain you may like best, and there are enough differences to let them all coexist relatively peacefully. But McDonald’s is the winner here because it beat any expectations we had of it.

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The premium burgers were better than anticipated. Shake Shack just had to be roughly adequate to stay in the competition. Five Guys, while hugely satisfying, lacks the premium glitz of the other two’s ingredients.

And the different price points factor into the equation. McDonald’s burgers are all about $US6, while Shake Shack’s range from $US6 to $US8, and Five Guys’ vary greatly.

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