Simkin: Battle of the burgers

By Sarah Simkin

When you think West Coast versus East Coast, do you think rap feuds, sports grudges … or… When you think West Coast versus East Coast, do you think rap feuds, sports grudges … or burger-joint battles? If you’re familiar with the Five Guys Burgers and Fries versus In-N-Out Burger debate, your answer is most definitely the latter.

Boasting the same red and white motif — respectively in checkers and palm tree patterns — and the same fast food-centric offerings, one might initially hazard that the feud is grounded in geographical affinity, like Sheetz versus Wawa. But was your food columnist going to leave this myth unexplored when her spring break brought her to California? No, dear reader, she was not.

The Californians’ fries are cut before your very eyes — one employee peels the potatoes, then another shovels them into a contraption that instantly slivers them into shoestring fries. The result is a skinless, pale, lightly fried fry that’s nearly raw in the middle and very lightly salted.

Five Guys fries are larger — almost more akin to a potato wedge than a fry — and cooked with the peel intact, resulting in a meatier and crisper product. The employees also salt their fries liberally. A prominently displayed sign at every location always lets consumers know where today’s potatoes came from — although how that information is supposed to be useful I’m not sure.

It might not be for me to say which is better — the two virtually could not be at more opposite ends of the french fry spectrum, and thus cater to different tastes. But what of the meal’s centerpiece, the burgers themselves?

In perfect honesty, both are delicious. In-N-Out’s are very much on the thin side, however, encouraging the ordering of double or triple patties, which brings us to our next point of comparison: menu options.

In-N-Out boasts a much-vaunted “secret” menu of customization options not listed on the board and thus only available to those in the know. The most famous might be the Animal Style option, which includes Thousand Island spread, mustard grilled patties and extra pickles. The Animal Style fries are served with cheese, Thousand Island spread and grilled onions.

After that, the customizations veer into the insane: Order your burger cut in half, or on an un-toasted bun, or with chilies, or any permutation your heart desires of the beef patty-to-cheese-slice ratio — four by four being a favorite among those with unhingeable jaws.

Ironically, the only request, in my experience, that In-N-Out employees will absolutely not honor is Pittsburgh’s most famous sandwich option: putting fries inside a burger.

If Five Guys boasts any such secret menu, I am unaware of it. In any case, I am not going to suggest that you aggravate the fine employees of Pittsburgh sandwich shops with tricky nonmenu orders, and for heaven’s sake don’t bother them with anything outrageous during the lunch rush. At the same time, you never know what order options might be possible until you ask.

By definition, most burger joints have little to offer those of a vegetarian or vegan persuasion, but In-N-Out does have the Wish Burger — folk knowledge claims the name originates from “I wish there were meat in this burger” — which consists of hand-leafed lettuce, sliced tomatoes, onions, pickles and Thousand Island spread.

Five Guys does offer vegetarian options like grilled cheese, but there are no vegetarian burgers listed on its online menu.

The polar opposite of vegetarianism is In-N-Out’s Flying Dutchman — two slices of cheese melted between two burger patties. The restaurant’s “protein style” caters to another realm of dietary preferences: patties and fixings wrapped in lettuce.

The actual construction of an individual burger probably has much more to do with the employee on shift than with the franchise, but over the course of my field research it’s been my experience that In-N-Out burgers tend to be messier, possibly because they are cased in wax paper pouches rather than tinfoil.

Will we ever see In-N-Out Burgers in the ’Burgh? Not likely. In any case, the restaurant is a cultural phenomenon worth a try if you find yourself with the opportunity, but you aren’t missing much that you can’t find at Forbes Avenue and South Bouquet Street.

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