So here’s a weird phenomenon that seems unexpected for capitalism. A US burger joint opens a branch in London. This is, presumably, not a big deal.
“A shake down in which many cows are set to lose their lives”
Firstly – there’s loads of great burgers in London. This is a statement that might not have been true a few years ago. Another friend (and sometime Chowdown Showdown co-conspirator) – James – and I used to have something of a food challenge of our own, back then. We were trying to find the best burger in London. In those days it might have been possible to eat all the top burgers. There were some posh burgers (a trend that started in earnest with Gourmet Burger Kitchen – this was a time when there were still only about eight outlets, rather than one on every high street), but few enough that it was possible to aim for them all. Nowadays there’s not just one Byron, but a whole budget-night full of them. There’s Haché and Meat Liquor, Boulud and Honest, Dirty and Burger & Lobster and Patty & Bun and you get the idea. Not so easy to try them all (though others, admirably, are having a go).
Secondly – so what? We’ve got US fast food, so what’s the big deal with more of it. They’re all just doing the same thing, right? (Right, wrong? Well let’s see!)
But here’s the fun bit (and the conundrum for capitalism) – the US burger joint opens a branch in London at exactly the time that… another US burger joint opens a branch in London! Suddenly, it’s a story. For the media it’s Five Guys vs Shake Shack. Battle Of The Burgers! A shake down in which many cows are set to lose their lives. Suddenly, just by opening competing restaurants at once, they’re a big deal, and get a massive publicity push. It’s almost as if they’ve coordinated.
Did I mention they’ve both set up in tourist-central Covent Garden, barely seven minutes walk apart?
The two places have very different philosophies. Shake Shack is (cheap) gourmet, with fancy(-named) toppings and flavours tailored to the location.So you’ll find Cumbrian sausages and a ‘Union Shack’ ice cream mix. There’s burgers and shakes and frozen custard (yes, that’s just ice cream) and concretes (that’s just ice cream with things mixed in, but harder than a McFlurry).
“There’s Haché and Meat Liquor, Boulud and Honest, Dirty and Burger & Lobster and Patty & Bun and you get the idea”
Five Guys, on the other hand, offers just burgers (with cheese, bacon, or neither), hot dogs (though not yet in their UK branch), fries, and 125 (count ’em) flavours of fizzy pop (I think they call it ‘soda’ over the pond) from a ‘Coca Cola Freestyle’ machine – apparently the first in Britain. Tailoring to your taste is their thang, and you can have any or all of 15 toppings added to your burger for nothing.
….oh, and they refuse to have freezers on site – so it’s all about fresh meat, and potatoes, cut into chips without every becoming sub-zero. I guess this also explains the lack of ice cream and shakes!
…oh, and they’ve continued their US tradition of having free sacks of monkey nuts to crack open (obviously the most fun part), and munch on while you queue.
I have no option but to go for the bacon cheeseburger ‘all-the-way’. The ‘all-the-way’ bit means that it has all of their most popular / standard toppings slapped on – lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, pickles, grilled mushrooms, mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. Really – I have no option: Tom got their ahead of me and jumped straight into the fifteen minute queue, and by the time I’d got there he’d ordered for me. But he was right – this is what I’d have gone for anyway. Luckily, I get there while he’s still waiting for our meal to be cooked and bagged – the burgers are cooked to order (you trying have all 748,272,943,723,780 combinations, or whatever implausible number a mathematician would tell you there can be, ready to eat) – so I’ve time to grab some monkey nuts.
The burger comes wrapped in foil in a paper bag, with a cup of medium-cut fries overflowing and chucked into the bag with another handful chucked in for good measure. As you can see from the picture above, the burger is literally stuffed to the point of overflowing, and this one requires braving it with a firm grip and diving in with a wide-open mouth. The ‘normal’ burgers are actually double-patties – you have to opt for the ‘little burger’ to get a standard human-sized version. The chips, too, are generous, and this is the small portion. It’s a foolhardy man who goes for the medium or even the large.
To be frank, you don’t taste the individual flavours of each of the toppings. And if you were a purist foodie, this would spell trouble. “It’s all about the ingredients”, you’d cry. But the delight in this (and certainly the all-the-way option), is the mixture. The sheer indulgence of having an everything burger. It wouldn’t have altered things much if they’d blitzed the toppings together in the blenders that they don’t have on site before chucking it into the bun, except (to a small degree) from a mouthfeel perspective. But there’s hints of mushroom and onion and mayo and pickles in a way that is more burger-cocktail that celebration of locally-sourced produce (though the produce presumably is).
I do, somehow, manage to eat the lot without slopping it down my front, and it’s actually pleasantly filling rather than stomach achingly large. I made the mistake of checking out the nutritional information on their website, and discovered that a Bacon Cheeseburger All-The-Way goes down with a staggering 1,115 Calories. The ‘little’ fries come in at just 526 Calories.I’m glad I drank water! Okay, okay, so you don’t want to be hearing about how bad for you this stuff is (as if you didn’t know), but two things are clear: 1) it’s obvious why the food tastes so damn good (and so damn bad!) and 2) with those large fries I couldn’t even contemplate contemplating coming in at a measly 1,314 Calories (!) I’m beginning to understand the need for wider seats on planes!
This isn’t posh food, but it’s not McDonald’s either. It’s fresh and freshly cooked, and whilst it is no health food, it’s definitely tasty. The patty isn’t the perfect medium-rare celebration of top-notch beef that you can (thankfully, finally) find elsewhere in London, and the bun isn’t artisan sourdough or brioche, but this is a good, mid-range burger. That you’ll only want to eat for a treat.