Anyone who moves around in burgercentric circles knows of the battle that's been brewing for the last few years between the three major heavyweights of the high-quality fast-food burger* world. Of the three, In-N-Out Burger, founded in Baldwin Park, California, in 1948 has the longest history and certainly the most cult-like and devout following. On the other hand, Virginia's Five Guys—which has been around since 1986—has seen crazy expansion in the last few years, now boasting over 750 locations on both coast and a rabid following that is fast catching up on In-N-Out's heels. The underdog in the fight is New York's Shake Shack. Only seven years old, it's still a baby in the field, but if we're to believe the news, they're poised to expand, and in a big way (they just opened their latest location in Washington, D.C. yesterday).
But who really makes the best burger? It's a question that's debated far and wide on the internet and beyond, so we here at A Hamburger Today decided to take it upon ourselves to find the answer and declare an official King of the High Quality Fast Food Burger.
As of now, there is still no city in the world which has all three burger joints, making a side-by-side tasting impossible. Or is it? Our New York site editor Carey Jones happened to be in California last weekend, so we hatched a bold, cross-continental plan: why not just bring some In-N-Out burgers back on the plane with her so we could taste all three burgers side-by-side back here in New York?
That's exactly what we did. Of course, the details are a little more complicated, and we'll get into that, but before the comparison, let's take a quick look at the three contenders:
In Corner #1: In-n-Out
- Locations: 264, in California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas.
- The Meat: 2-ounce patties made from 100 percent beef chuck ground in their own grinding facilities, delivered fresh daily, never frozen.
- The Cheese: Thick sliced bright orange American.
- The Toppings: hand-leafed lettuce, sliced beefsteak tomato, thick sliced onion, pickles, grilled whole or chopped onions, pickled hot green chiles.
- The Sauces: Proprietary Thousand-Island style spread, mustard, or ketchup.
- The Bun: soft white bun, darkly toasted on the griddle.
- Fun Facts: Their secret menu has over two dozen unlisted menu items and combinations (check out our complete guide here). You'll find bible passages referenced on various pieces of their packaging. Ask for a hat, and you shall receive one. Little Larry Sellers lives in North Hollywood, near the In-N-Out on Camrose.
In Corner #2: Five Guys
- Locations: Over 750, in over 40 states and 4 Canadian provinces.
- The Meat: 3.3 ounce patties made from a proprietary blend including chuck and sirloin, ground and delivered by Burger Maker, pattied in-house.
- The Cheese: Mild light yellow American.
- The Toppings: Relish, raw onions, iceberg lettuce, pickles, sliced beefsteak tomatoes, grilled chopped onions, grilled sliced mushrooms, sliced jalapeño peppers, raw sliced green peppers.
- The Sauces: Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, A.1. Steak Sauce, bar-b-q sauce, hot sauce.
- The Bun: Seeded sesame bun, usually squished down in a foil package.
- Fun Facts: Free peanuts while you wait for your order. Free refills on drinks. It's got President Obama's stamp of approval. They always let you know where the potatoes for their cut-in-house fries come from. A standard burger comes with two patties.
In Corner #3: Shake Shack
- Locations: Currently nine, soon to be 14, in New York, D.C., Miami, Connecticut, and the Middle East.
- The Meat: 4-ounce patties made from a proprietary blend of sirloin, brisket, and short rib. New York locations use meat ground by Pat LaFrieda. All burgers delivered fresh daily, never frozen.
- The Cheese: Very melty and mild American.
- The Toppings: Green leaf lettuce, sliced Roma tomatoes, thin-sliced onions, pickles.
- The Sauces: Thousand Island-style Shack Sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise.
- The Bun: Martin's potato roll, toasted in butter.
- Fun Facts: Cooks use paint scrapers to get the burgers off the mira-clean griddles. Frozen custard and dog-treat snacks are available for your pooch. They have a few green initiatives: 100 percent of their energy use is offset with wind power credits, their oil is recycled into biofuel, and they compost in-house, amongst other energy-saving and recycling initiatives.
Clearly the In-N-Out burgers making their trans-continental trip by plane would be at a disadvantage to the made-fresh-in-the-same-city burgers from Five Guys and Shake Shack, so in order to compensate for this, we made the decision to handicap all three burgers by the same amount. After a careful synchronization of watches, burgers were ordered from their respective establishments at precisely 1 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time (that's 9 p.m. EST, 6 p.m. Pacific) and not tasted until the following morning.
Here's what was ordered. We tried to place the most typical order at each establishment, ordering a few extra in order to have enough for repeat tastings:
FULL DISCLOSURE: In the interest of full disclosure to the scientific community, changes in cabin pressure experienced by the In-N-Out burger during flight were not compensated for in the other two burgers. We are confident that this did not affect the results of the tasting.
Our carefully laid plans hit a snag when all of our packets of In-N-Out Spread were confiscated at airport security, despite Carey's offer to just empty the packets onto the hamburgers thereby circumventing the Transportation Security Administration's liquid container restrictions. Say all you want about the hassles of the TSA's Draconian security strategies, but I for one am glad to know that nobody on my flight will ever be able to hold me hostage with a packet of Thousand Island dressing by threatening to squirt it in my eye or perhaps by inappropriately dressing my turkey wrap.
Luckily, we've spent the time to develop a pretty great knockoff of the In-N-Out Spread, which we used in our tasting.
Each burger was tasted in two ways: First, the meat and cheese were tasted alone in order to assess the quality of the beef and afterwards each was tasted as a completed sandwich. When reassembling the sandwiches, bun and meat were reheated separately for best quality.
Right off the bat, there were a few problem, the main one being that no matter how carefully you store and reheat things, day old burgers simply do not taste good. None of these blew our minds. However, there were a few things that became clear as the tasting progressed. Let's break it down and rate it one element at a time.
In-N-Out uses soft plain white rolls that are toasted deep brown, which helps keep them from absorbing the copious grease and sauce that the burgers contain, and do an admirable job at that without getting in the way of the meat itself.
Five Guys, on the other hand, uses a toasted sesame seed bun. Because of their packaging technique—the burgers come wrapped in foil—the buns come squished down and steamed by default. Sometimes this is ok, most times the bun experiences some form of overload halfway through consumption. In this case, an overnight hold didn't help matter much either.
Shake Shack is the clear winner in the bun category. They use Martin's rolls, which happened to win our bun tasting earlier this year. The buns are hinged to keep everything neat and tidy and prevent burger backslide, they're toasted in butter, and they've got a soft texture and sweet flavor that cradles a burger perfectly.
Advantage: Shake Shack
Another clear victor here. While we didn't consider Shake Shack and Five Guys cheeses to be particularly bad, they simply did not have the tang or overwhelming goo factor of the In-N-Out Burger's massive Cheesesplosion. Just look at it run!
This was a much harder category to judge, and each sandwich had its advantages.
Five Guys takes it for sheer diversity. That said, the quality of the toppings was subpar. From past experience in New York and New Jersey locations I can tell you that their raw onions often taste old with an ultra-pungent breath-hanging quality. Their grilled onions and mushrooms show very minimal browning, and their lettuce and tomato is pretty much always wilted or squished by the time you get to them (more casualty of their squash-and-foil wrapping policy). Their pickles, however, are nice and snappy, and the bacon is crisp.
Shake Shack makes a strong showing with toppings, particularly their tomatoes, which are by far the most flavorful of the bunch. Danny Meyer, owner of the Shack is proud of his carefully sourced tasty-year-round tomatoes, and with good reason. Never mealy or watery, they taste how a tomato on a burger should taste. Green leaf lettuce is fine but doesn't offer the crunch of iceberg. Their sliced onions taste fresh without any overt pungency and a nice sweetness, and their pickles are some of my favorite.
In-N-Out is well known for the freshness of its toppings, and even a day later, it shows. The iceberg lettuce was crisp and brightly colored, the thick-cut onions tasted sweet and clean even after an overnight flight, the pickles are crisp and vinegary, and the tomatoes, while not as flavorful as the Shack's, were juicy and ripe. For their carefully hand-leafed iceberg alone, they deserve a great deal of credit, add into that the whole grilled onions or chopped caramelized onions (and we're talking really caramelized here, not the cursory coloring job the Five Guys onions get) and hot pickled chiles you can get off of their secret menu, and they're a toppings force to be reckoned with.
Advantage: Two way tie: Five Guys for variety, In-N-Out for overall quality. Honorable mention: Shake Shack for tomato and pickle quality.
In-N-Out and the Shake Shack both have a Thousand-Island type spread with a mayonnaise and ketchup base, but they are significantly different. Shake Shack's has a slight mustardy kick with relatively little sweetness. Rather than pickle relish, it's got pickles blended right into it until smooth, along with a few dry spices (paprika, garlic). In-N-Out's, on the other hand, is much sweeter, and has a distinct vinegariness. Overall, it's fresher and brighter, and most of us prefer the In-N-Out sauce to the Shack's (though several admitted that they often go commando at both restaurants). Five Guys offers no special sauce of their own.
Since all restaurants will give you as many toppings as you'd like, we'll go based on meat-per-dollar ratio. All prices are taken from New York and San Francisco locations.
In-N-Out: $3.05 for a Double Double with two 2-ounce patties. Price per ounce: $.76
Five Guys: $7.09 for a cheeseburger with two 3.3-ounce patties. Price per ounce: $1.07
Shake Shack: $4.75 for a 4-ounce Shackburger.
Price per ounce: $1.19
And now we come to perhaps the most important category of all: the flavor and quality of the meat. All three restaurants serve fresh-never-frozen beef, and all three cook their burgers to order, but here the similarities end.
In-N-Out uses pre-formed patties that are griddled on cast iron. The patties cook relatively quickly, but don't develop a super-deep sear. Tasters described them as having "that great grease-infused fast food taste," and the patties are indeed greasy, if not particularly thick and juicy (in a Double-Double, cheese, sauce, and crisp toppings seem to stand in for true juiciness). The meat is consistently well seasoned, if not overly beefy.
Five Guys uses ground chuck that they form into rough balls then smash into a griddle as they sizzle. The problem here is inconsistency. I've been to Five Guys locations that will carefully smash the patty once and leave it be (the right way to do it), and others where fidgety griddle cooks continue to smash patties into oblivion even as their fat is rendering out, resulting in tough, greasy patties. In our tasting, we found the burger meat to be gristlier than either of the other two, with a much less pronounced beefiness. They were also the only ones lacking in salt—a chronic problem in Five Guys' New York and New Jersey locations (though one editor goes on record as saying that this was never a problem in the Five Guys closer-to-home-base Virginia locations).
Shake Shack has the "beefiest" tasting beef of the three. Because of their super high-heat miraclean griddles and their unique smash-and-scrape technique (pucks of beef are pressed into the griddle once at the beginning, then the well-browned sheath gets scraped off with a paint scraper before flipping), they've also got the best browning to boot. 4-ounce patties are thick enough that they retain true juiciness in their center (not just greasiness), but not so big that they overwhelm. The patties are usually well-seasoned, though the non-Madison Square Park locations of the shack do have their off days with seasoning. Their's is the only burger that uses a custom-designed blend including brisket and short rib, and that care definitely shows.
Advantage: Shake Shack
The Hat Test
Our final test involved eating Five Guys and Shake Shack burgers while wearing an In-N-Out hat to see what psychological effects it had. We noticed no distinct flavor differences.
If you tally up the results of the individual components, In-N-Out takes it with three and a half victories against Shake Shack's two and Five Guys's half. That said, numbers aren't everything, and the Shack's dominance in the meat department should clearly be weighted more heavily than the other categories.
When it comes down to it, the three sandwiches are all great, and all completely different beasts. The In-N-Out burger is really more about the Total Burger Experience—the specific combination of ingredients, textures, atmosphere, and price. It's the interplay of crisp lettuce and onions, juicy tomatoes, gooey cheese, salty meat, and tangy sweet sauce and pickles. This burger, more than any of the others, becomes greater than a sum of its parts and would suffer if any one of them were out of place. Luckily, In-N-Out excels at consistency and customer care.
The Shackburger, on the other hand, is a marvel of beefy engineering. The flavor and texture of the beef patty is second to none, with an intense beefiness and cooking method designed to maximized browning, and thus our carnal pleasure. Yes, their toppings and bun are great, but at the Shack, it's all about the beef.
With Five Guys, nobody could say their beef is bad, but it simply doesn't stack up to the the Shack's—not by a long shot. On the other hand, there's something undeniably pleasurable about a giant, sloppy, in-your-face, topped-to-the-max burger, and that's what the Five Guys experience is all about.
All this being said, we do have to declare a winner, and I did it by silent popular vote (for the record, none of the tasters said that their preferences were changed after this side-by-side tasting).
The Winner: Shake Shack
The Shack took it by a pretty healthy margin (more than three times the votes of the other two), and before you get all "but you're all New Yorkers so of course you'll pick the Shake Shack," may I point first remind us of the old Calvin Trillin quote: "Anyone who doesn't think that their home town has the best hamburger place in the world is a sissy," and then point out that more than half of us here are born-and-raised West Coasters, which makes at least a few of us in the office sissies.
SE editor Erin Zimmer, a California native had this to say, and it pretty much sums up all of our we-love-Shake-Shack-but-In-N-Out-has-a-special-place-in-our-hearts feelings: "When I say Shake Shack, I can picture the state of California shaking its head at me. Shame. I feel it. But the truth is, I became a Shake Shack convert when I moved here, which is not to say that I don't still get an I-n-O cheeseburger with grilled onions on most visits home still."
As for Five Guys? Well, despite their legions of followers and rapid (perhaps too rapid?) expansion, we're mostly left just scratching our heads. It's not a bad burger per se, but the flavor of its beef is nowhere near in line with its proportions.
Shake Shack, may your miraclean griddles spread forth and populate this great nation of ours with beefiness.
And let the comment war commence.