Battle of the Burgers: In-N-Out v. Five Guys

Marlon Castillo/New University

By Bernard M. Wong

In-N-Out or Five Guys – a familiar dilemma. Much like Yankees or Red Sox, PC or Mac, or “Spy vs. Spy,” both burger chains can create a division between even the closest of friends.

Originally located in Southern California, In-N-Out has expanded to Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and, most recently, Texas. But given its exclusivity, it has almost become a Mecca for non-Californians. This designation comes with merit as its fan base and history speaks for itself. Culinary superstars such as Thomas Keller and Julia Child, who purportedly kept a directory of In-N-Out locations in her purse, have been champions of the burger chain – even actor John Goodman has done radio commercials for them in the ’90s. Founded in 1948, its menu and commitment to freshness has remained unchanged to this day – an impressive feat. Legend has it that founder Harry Snyder used to stand over the shoulder of his local butcher to ensure he had received quality cuts.

Similarly, Five Guys has stuck to the concept of keeping a simple, albeit more diverse menu that focuses on its ingredients. In fact, founder Jerry Murrell claims that all their potatoes are grown north of the 42nd parallel – citing colder and slower growth periods as factors in yielding higher starch content and, thus, a crispier fry – which is evident given their decision to place large potato sacks in the dining area.

So, what’s the difference? Both companies avoid the use of freezers. They both have their own food processing centers. They both go for a ’50s diner feel.

For one, In-N-Out serves shakes – something Five Guys considered but ultimately rejected. Also, there’s a larger variety of items at Five Guys, such as a series of hot dogs and vegetarian sandwiches. Another would be In-N-Out’s two-ounce ground chuck and Five Guys’ 3.3-ounce mixture of chuck and sirloin. But perhaps the most glaring difference would be the price: My typical order at In-N-Out of $5.35 plus tax (cheeseburger – grilled onions, medium rare; fries – well done with black pepper; Neapolitan shake) would not even cover the price of Guys’ basic hamburger.

Ignoring the disparity, I felt adventurous.

“Bacon cheeseburger all the way. No pickles. Regular fries. Could you do the burger medium rare?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t do that.”

So, Five Guys doesn’t allow personalizing menu items. That’s perfectly reasonable since very few places have that policy. I grab a few peanuts from the oversized communal bin as I sit down.

When my order comes, I ignored my oversized burger and focused on a medium-sized cup overflowing with fries. My dining partner – also a first timer – had the misfortune of ordering a large.Keeping an open mind, I start to eat my morbidly obese burger. As I munch through its soft bun, its layers of meat and vegetables, I can’t but help notice its greasiness. To be fair, I did order a big burger done “all the way” – an unfortunate phrase that draws up memories of late-night meth-fuelled debauchery and, ultimately, regret. Don’t get me wrong. The burger was actually pretty good and better than most – in fact its patty is significantly thicker than In-N-Out’s.

Probably the highlight of the meal was the fries. Described as being tossed only fifteen times – no more, no less – it was noticeably crispier than In-N-Out’s. But like its counterpart, both are fried from fresh potatoes. Making each order a la minute fails to capitalize on the fries’ potential since a good French fry needs to be fried twice. Given the sheer amount, my friend and I labored through both cups of fries. By halfway, the fries were already limp, but it didn’t matter because it had already become a chore well before that.

The biggest disappointment, however, was the absence of milkshakes – especially after consuming such a heavy meal.

Whereas, at In-N-Out, despite its deceptively limited menu, allows customizations and provides milkshakes – fulfilling its 1950s Southern California image. Compared to Five Guys, the only downsides are its smaller portions and my inability to add bacon or mushrooms on my burger, but the bacon at Five Guys wasn’t amazing either so it isn’t too crucial. Let’s not forget In-N-Out’s trademark “animal-style” and special sauce – a truly unique complement to both burgers and fries. For those more religious than others, a little Bible verse appears on burger wrappers, cups and French fry trays, but that’s completely harmless.

There is no denying that both places produce fresh, quality food. All things considered, In-N-Out wins based solely on price. In other words, if you feel the desire for something bigger with a good amount of options, then Five Guys would be a better choice – and given its location, dessert can be easily obtained at another establishment. However, for those seeking something cheaper, yet still uphold a standard of quality, In-N-Out would be much more appropriate.