We put In-N-Out and Five Guys to the test in a battle of the burger chains — and the winner surprised us
In a battle of the burgers, Five Guys is winning. The East Coast burger sensation claimed the top spot in a 2017 brand report from Harris Poll, based on input from over 100,000 consumers.
In-N-Out, a cult favourite on the West Coast, held the title for the previous two years and has long been considered Five Guys’ top rival. The burger chain recently announced it’s opening a distribution center in Colorado, which could allow it to expand further east. All stores must be located close to these hubs because of the company’s strict policy of serving its food fresh.
Five Guys has grown its footprint along with its fandom. It has over 1,500 locations worldwide, while In-N-Out has about 300 stores across soon-to-be seven states.
With the rivalry heating up between these East Coast and West Coast chains, my colleague Rob Price and I decided to give them both a try in a back-to-back taste-test. Here’s what we thought.
The San Francisco Bay Area is a burger-lover’s paradise, in part because it’s home to Five Guys and In-N-Out locations. We tried the home team, In-N-Out, first.
When we arrived, nearly every table had been claimed.
The West Coast burger chain has a noticeably slimmer menu than fast-food giants like McDonald’s and Burger King, with few options beyond burgers, fries, and shakes.
There are no freezers or microwaves in In-N-Out restaurants because the company has a strict policy of serving its food fresh. Burgers are made to order, one at a time.
Our food took about 10 minutes to arrive, but it looked worth the wait. Right away I was impressed by the fully melted cheese that ran over the sides of the patties.
The Double Double burger offers crisp lettuce, tomato, and onion, two patties, two slices of cheese, and a scoop of “special sauce” sandwiched between a sponge-dough bun.
And I wolfed it down. The ingredients were fresh and flavorful. It didn’t drip grease like some fast-food burgers. Plus the burger held its shape thanks to an ingenious paper pouch.
The “Animal Style” fries were another story. Thin scraps of potato, fried in sunflower oil, were covered with a glistening heap of melted cheese, grilled onions, and special sauce.
But the toppings congealed faster than I could eat them, and the fries broke off in chunks under the weight of hardened cheese. Most of our fries ended up in the trash.
We departed In-N-Out feeling mixed — and still hungry for a taste of Five Guys.
Upon arrival at Five Guys, I felt like I had crossed some space-time continuum that led me back to In-N-Out. The stores had the same red-and-white tiles and 1950s diner vibe.
But Five Guys seemed sad. The tables were mostly empty. Awards and signs featuring rave reviews from magazines covered the walls.
The menu takes a “more is more” approach. It has burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, fries, and milkshakes. Items can be customised with lots of toppings — no secret menu required.
Seriously, there are a lot of toppings and they have no additional cost.
Customers can also dig into a giant bin of peanuts.
Five Guys, which started out as a modest burger shack in a Virginia strip mall, shares In-N-Out’s commitment to fresh food. There are no freezers here, either.
Our food arrived in a paper bag dappled with grease. It took less time than In-N-Out.
My expectations sank at first sight. The cheese was unmelted, and the lettuce was wilted. And last I checked, the cheese goes on top of the patty.
People are furiously debating the correct placement of cheese in the burger emoji »
But a hefty patty with perfectly charred edges looked redeeming. At first bite, my spirits lifted. The meat was juicy, tender, and flavorful.
The bun sponged up the run-off juices and condiments, creating a dilapidated mess.
Five Guys uses potatoes grown in Idaho that are cut by hand, blanched in hot water, oven-cooked, and fried in peanut oil. The result, I learned, is the best fries I’ve ever had.
The fries were crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside, like they had been injected with mashed potatoes. I ate one salty stick after the next and licked my fingers clean.
Choosing a favourite was a difficult, because I saw room for improvement in each brand. In-N-Out toppled Five Guys in the burger category, but its fries were dismal in comparison.
When I got home, I sprawled out on the couch (in slight agony) and thought longingly of that Double Double smothered in melted cheese and special sauce. In-N-Out won my heart.