REVIEW: Five guys, two dishes, one hell of a burger


993 Fir Street, Strathcona County, AB

780. 416.7710

Many years ago, a hamburger was different than today.

Today, no matter where you go, you get something else that is supposed to be “special.” You get chopped sirloin, or you get  “grade a beef” but the patty is prefrozen; or you get some chunky pseudo-meat labelled “Angus.” Or you get something spiced to the point that it’s vaguely gamey and, you suspect, actually deer meat. Or you get chopped kobe beef that tastes suspiciously like the frozen patties you can buy at Superstore.

Whatever happened to the hamburger?

Back in the good old days, when you went to a greasy spoon – a corner restaurant, independently owned, with a lunch counter, replaced by fast-food chains – you got a sold quarter-inch thick ground beef patty, made with ground beef so fresh that you just know the short-order cook rolled into a little red ball then squished it into a patty not 15 minutes earlier.

The bun was always lightly toasted and buttered, and the burger rarely came with anything on it except maybe cheese, ketchup, lettuce, mustard or relish. Many a canucklehead greasy spoon was apt to add mayonnaise as well, which I’m never going to figure out.

The one major variation – keeping in mind that the 80s were mostly a pre-bacon burger era – was the western: a cheeseburger and fries, covered in Bolognese sauce.

All of this was best washed down with a malted or a milkshake.

Occasionally, I’ll stumble across a place that still serves a real burger; on the highway between Austin, Texas, and Shreveport, Louisiana there’s  a roadside shack with a dirt floor, where the only people ever present are five local seniors playing pinochle. They cut tiny pieces of onion up and mix it in with the ground, along with black pepper, then cook it on an old flat-top iron range. I had three. I think I could have eaten three more. And at Swede Charlie’s Pub in International Falls, Minnesota, they had a burger topped with chilli and cheese that I recall being a fine effort, particularly with a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon.

But it’s that hard to find a place that does a burger really well.  Though I appreciate the gourmet stylings at Deluxe Burger Bar, for example, as being tasty, it’s just not the same as an old-fashioned diner burger.

And then came Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

Already a hit in cities across the U.S., Five Guys has grown to more than 2,000 locations – including five here in Alberta  – for the simple reason that they do only two things. Hamburgers and fries. Oh sure, you get just about anything on said hamburger or fries, but that’s it.

And oh, what a burger! Two roughly hewn patties of finely chopped ground beef, the classic processed American cheese and the toppings of your choice. It’s cooked absolutely perfectly – well done, but without a hint of dryness, and no risk of excess grease soaking the bun. My buddy had a enough vegetables on his to feed a vegan colony supper. They stack everything to whatever volume you desire, and his was slightly shorter than a condo development.

Aside from the burgers, the fries are fresh cut and really taste it, with just a hint of skin left on the outside.

There is no hint of pretension to the place, with plain décor – red-and-white checks, a walk-up counter and a bunch of fast and attentive staff.  And the drinks come with refills.

One of surprisingly pleasant things about Five Guys is that they’ve expanded so quickly yet kept up quality by keeping to one core product.  The difficulty in finding a good burger these days largely lies in prep: most Edmontonians would probably be horrified to find out how many of their favourite restaurants’ hamburger patties are pre-frozen, from cheap cuts or stuffed with filler.

If you’d like a clear indication of how many, however, here’s an easy test: head over to Five Guys and have one burger. Then go back to your regular burger haunt. Ignorance may be bliss, but having fresh ground cooked properly again is like eating from the tree of fast-food knowledge – toasted bun and all.

Oh, and after your meal, they have free peanuts to shuck.

Go figure.