Those are the words that I repeated aloud to myself at least three times while barreling down Fore Street in my car this afternoon, in the pouring rain and against rush hour traffic.
My concern for my psychological well-being was rooted in the fact that ten minutes earlier, I was in my home office, answering a few client emails before a planned return to the spot on my couch where I have spent most of the last four days, stoned on painkillers. The couch time and the Vicodin are thanks to a weekend car accident. In terms of the damage to the car (I was not driving, just a passenger), it was really not much more than a glorified fender bender. But it still managed to leave me with a ridiculous amount of back and neck pain. In short, it is not a good time to be out and about, in the rain, no less.
So anyway, here I was—my back telling me that I had another five minutes of sitting up before I needed to return to the couch—when a text message from a friend popped up on my iPhone:
“OMG did u know 5guys is open now!!!”
(A quick note to my friend if she is reading this. Understanding that text messaging lends itself to a sort of digital shorthand, it is always “Five Guys” and never “5 Guys,” or in this case, “5guys.” Your use of the triple exclamation point in lieu of a single question mark is forgivable, but disrespecting the Five Guys name is not. You might as well be displaying the sole of your shoe in the Middle East, or referring to Doctor Who as “Dr. Who”… either of which can result in prison time in certain countries. Anyway, back to my tale…)
As I read the text message, all other thoughts, ideas and worries vanished. “The couch can wait,” I told myself. “And so can the lousy-looking SmartOnes microwave meal (aka “dinner”) that is sitting in the freezer.” A minute later, I had my shoes on and I was out the door, speeding off toward Fore Street in the rain (let me assure readers that it had been close to eight hours since my last painkiller). It wasn’t until I was turning on to Fore Street that it dawned on me that my reaction to Five Guys’ opening (they actually opened on Monday) was probably a little excessive.
Then again, this is what happens when you introduce a man to the glory that is Five Guys, and then deprive him of it.
My first exposure to Five Guys came a few years ago, when I was vacationing in the Outer Banks area of North Carolina. It was the end of a very long day which consisted mostly of beer, beach and golf. I was driving back to the house I was renting, trying to figure out what I might do for dinner. I wasn’t in the mood for sit-down dining, and didn’t have the energy to put a steak on the grill. I was resigned to, but dreading, a visit to the local McDonald’s and the nauseas, greasy aftermath that goes with it. That’s when I caught sight of a Five Guys restaurant.
At the time, Five Guys was not half as well-known as it is now, and I knew only that they served mostly burgers and that my friends in the D.C. area were loyal patrons. Even with this limited knowledge, it was already preferable to a BigMac and a side of revulsion. I pulled into the lot, parked my car and walked into the restaurant.
As it was a half hour before closing, the place was pretty quiet and the girl working the counter was happy to walk me through the ordering process. The menu is about as easy as it gets: burgers and fries. (You can also get a grilled cheese sandwich or a hot dog, but if you’re not seven years-old they might look at you a little funny.) When you order your burger, you have the option of hamburger, cheeseburger or bacon cheeseburger. All burgers are cooked well done.
Now here’s where things start to get interesting. What’s listed on the menu as a “hamburger” is actually a double hamburger. I don’t know if Five Guys has ever revealed how large their burger patties are, but I’d estimate them at around a quarter pound each, prior to cooking. If you are of the faint of heart, you’ll want to go with the “little” hamburger/cheeseburger/bacon cheeseburger, which involves just one patty.
After you’ve selected what type of burger you want, you need to order your toppings and condiments. Five Guys offers around sixteen different options, and you can add as many as you like, at no additional cost. A friendly note to first time customers: Rather than stand at the counter analyzing all of the toppings, it is considered good form to stand back and figure out what you’d like on your burger (the menu is plenty big to see from a distance) before you approach the cash registers. This way, you aren’t holding up other customers.
In the case of my inaugural visit to Five Guys, I was under the mistaken impression that the “little” burger was probably some junior sized burger reserved for the kiddie crowd. Having not eaten in almost ten hours (and, if memory serves, that meal was three beers and a bagel), I was pretty famished. So what did I do? I ordered not one, but two, bacon cheeseburgers and one large order of fries. The girl at the counter asked, “Are you sure? The burgers are pretty big.” I assured her that I could handle it, pointing to my ample stomach as evidence of my mastery of all things burger-related.
While waiting a few minutes for my order to be prepared (they use fresh ingredients and since your burger is made to order, you don’t have to worry that its been sitting under a heat lamp), I was invited to enjoy some complimentary peanuts. The peanuts are a Five Guys trademark, and they are served as sort of a tie-in to the peanut oil that Five Guys fries are cooked in. In the years since my first Five Guys visit, I’ve been told by a couple of store managers that the chain has come under some pressure to nix the peanuts, due to the sometimes extreme food allergies that people have. Thankfully, Five Guys—which regards the peanuts as a major part of its identity—has held its ground, though they do insist that you don’t take the peanuts outside of the store, lest you come into contact with someone who has a peanut allergy.
When my order was ready, I picked up the bag (I got it to go) and headed for my car. I remember being a bit stunned at how large and heavy the bag was and wondering if they’d made a mistake with my order. When I got back to the house, I saw why it was so huge. Not only did the bag contain two massive burgers, it was filled with enough french fries to feed at least five people. When you order fries from Five Guys, it seems customary for them to dispense them inside a huge cup… and then to dump just as many (if not more) fries directly into the large paper sack that your food comes in. It is delicious, resplendent overkill.
By the way, those fries are pretty damn good. Hand-cut, they are cooked in the aforementioned peanut oil which imparts a sort of crispy coating to the outside, while keeping the insides moist and hot. The right amount of salt (and honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had poorly salted fries from Five Guys) makes them the perfect companion to the juicy, cheesy, bacon’y burger.
I can’t honestly recall what I had on my burgers during that first visit to Five Guys, but I can tell you that I ate one burger and maybe a third of the fries before giving up. Had I eaten more, I think I would have burst. The burger that I did eat was delicious, and about as close to a perfect burger experience as I’ve ever had, at least from a casual fast food joint.
In the time since that initial visit, I try to visit Five Guys whenever I can. Not having a location in the State of Maine (until now) has made that difficult, but whether traveling for business or pleasure, I’d always be sure to hunt up a Five Guys if I was in NYC, Upstate NY or the D.C. area (the chain is based out of Arlington). Of course, now that we have a location here in Portland, that’s all changed. I suspect that Five Guys may become a slightly less special experience, since it is available to me anytime I want it (much in the way that Chipotle doesn’t seem nearly as appetizing as it once was, by virtue of its accessibility in South Portland since December), but it will still be my “go to” place for quickly made, well-prepared burgers.
Which brings me back to Fore Street, and today’s visit. My arrival at Five Guys and the discovery of a couple of open parking spots was reassuring. I parked my car and made my way to the front doors, grimacing with each step and still questioning my judgment. Dinner time was fast approaching, and so I anticipated a painfully long line. Fortunately, I arrived during a lull. The queue was composed only of four guys in their 20’s who were scanning the menu. They invited me to cut in front of them since they did not yet know what they wanted and it was clear that I was ready to order (good form, gentlemen). I made my way to the cashier and placed my order: two little bacon cheeseburgers (one with onion, barbecue sauce and pickles, the other with sauteed onions, sauteed mushrooms and mustard—there will be time for all of that lettuce and tomato nonsense later) and a regular order of fries. The girl working the cash register invited me to enjoy some free peanuts with a sense of formality that made me chuckle.
While waiting, I watched the workmanlike staff go about the process of cooking and building burgers. With the dozen or so workers attired in red caps and shirts, it looked a bit like a professional baseball team exploded inside the restaurant. The area was crowded, but the kitchen team members managed to stay out of one another’s way. A cashier called out the number of patties needed for each order as they came in so that the grill workers wouldn’t fall behind. I suspect that much of this activity is the result of opening week training, and it will probably die down as the employees get their bearings. But it is fun to watch nonetheless.
Just as my back was starting to remind me that it was really ready for some couch time, my order number was called. My giant bag of food in hand, I retreated to my car and drove home to enjoy my dinner.
So how was it? Though, once again, I could not finish my meal (and really, who needs that much food?), what I ate was delightful. The fries stayed warm in the car ride and while I had brought home both ketchup and vinegar in my carry-out bag, I found that I had little want for either. The burgers—wrapped in tin foil to keep them hot—were great as well. Though cooked well-done, they do manage to stay juicy. Five Guys does not engage in the “smash” technique popularized by Shake Shack, but the burgers still manage to develop a texturally-appealing crust. The addition of the melted cheese and thick, crispy bacon makes for a holy trinity of deliciousness, one that will cause you to never again consider ordering one of those third-rate, Wendy’s knock-off “baconator” things.
Toppings will never make or break a Five Guys burger for me. That said, you really can’t go wrong with the combination of raw onion, pickles and barbecue sauce. The tartness of the pickles jives with the meat and the barbecue sauce in a pleasant way that is difficult to articulate, other than to say that it is a grand slam. I did not enjoy the burger with the mustard and sauteed mushrooms and onions quite as much, but I certainly wouldn’t refuse it if it were served to me. The sesame seed buns will probably never win any prizes, but they are more than up to the task of supporting the burger and its toppings.
What I like most about Five Guys is that it is an opportunity to indulge in fast food every now and then, without the guilt and revulsion bestowed by other fast food chains. Don’t get me wrong. The food at Five Guys is not an any danger of being confused with health food. The calorie counts alone are staggering. But it is nice to be able to sit down for a burger and fries and not feel like you want to vomit ten minutes later. That’s not something I can say for most of the chains dotted along Forest Avenue and Saint John Street.
With quality ingredients and competent preparation of its menu offerings, Five Guys Burger and Fries is a welcome addition to the Portland culinary landscape. It will be interesting to see how its presence here affects the Portland burger scene, especially with another popular chain—Elevation Burger—rumored to be on its way to Maine sometime in the near future.
MY RATING: 5 MOONS (out of 5)