We’ve got a problem.
See, for our readers from away, Portland has this whole “Buy Local” ethic. This means, in a nutshell, that as a city, we support local businesses, and make an effort to keep chains out of the Old Port, off of Commercial Street, and away from our major tourist centers. In general, it’s a cause we support; not only does it reward entrepreneurship and keep money in the community, but perhaps most importantly, it keeps Portland distinct and different from, say, Atlanta, or West Springfield, or North Haven, or Hartford, or any other cookie-cutter city that has become an endless, streaky blur of Target>Best Buy>Starbucks>Best Buy>Target. Portland, as a community, seems to support the basic idea that small business is good, and big-box chain stores and restaurants are bad.
Exceeeeeeeeeept…not all the time. Occasionally, a new business will get approved that flies squarely in the face of this “Buy Local” ethic. Every now and again, a chain will creep in, particularly if it’s one that appeals to the city’s mostly liberal-leaning, Earth-friendly, slightly-crunchy self-image. As much as we want to shop exclusively at the weekly farmer’s market, when a Trader Joe’s comes to town, all hell breaks loose, and the store is mobbed for months. “Buy Local,” it seems, can sometimes be modified to read, “Buy Local, Most of the Time, Unless We Really, Really Like Your Two-Dollar Wine.”
This is the space in which the recent opening of the Arlington, Virginia-based “Five Guys Burgers and Fries” hamburger chain falls, and where we have a bit of a problem: First, that this company’s newest installation in the Old Port is part of a national chain, and second, that it happens to serve absolutely mouthwateringly delicious fast food-style cheeseburgers.
We’re entirely new to the Five Guys brand, having never actually eaten at any of their locations. Their reputation, however, is known nationwide; these are high-end “fast casual” burgers, in the style of the West Coast’s “In ‘n’ Out” small chain, and their fans are almost as rabid. In fact, within days of the opening of the new outpost on Fore Street, we were receiving emails from friends and family about it. Five Guys never freezes any of their ingredients, and cooks all hamburgers and hand-cut fries to order, while you wait. The result is a delightfully fresh-tasting version of the fast food staples you are used to, using real ingredients.
The Five Guys approach is catching on: One of the first things you notice when you enter the stainless steel, red-and-white tiled room are the framed pages of critical acclaim and awards that the restaurant has received from the likes of Zagat and several Washington, D.C.-based magazines. There is a veritable army of red shirt-clad workers waiting behind the assembly line, shouting out coded orders to each other whenever a customer walks in the door, or an order is placed. The approach seems a little overly-intense when there are only a handful of customers in the restaurant, though I can see that it is probably very efficient during the lunch rush, with 100 people waiting for cheeseburgers.
The menu is simple: You can have a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a hot dog, or a grilled cheese, and your choice of regular or “Cajun” french fries, both fried in 100% peanut oil. I ordered a “Bacon Cheeseburger” prepared “All the Way,” which the menu explains is topped with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, and grilled mushrooms. Normally, that’s a little much for me, in terms of burger toppings, but I also tend to take a decidedly “When in Rome” approach to ordering a place’s burgers for the first time. If a restaurant has a technique they like to use or a preferred set of toppings, I take it.
It’s not a decision I regret even a little bit. After a ten minute wait, since everything is cooked-to-order, (with complementary peanuts to nibble while you wait, a thematic detail I admit to not really understanding) I was presented with a brown paper bag with my foil-wrapped bacon cheeseburger ($6.39), and my “regular” order of Cajun fries ($2.69). I tend to not care much about the french fries from most places, so when I see a special treatment, like “Curly” or “Seasoned,” I tend to choose those. In this case, a “regular” order of fries is plenty to serve at least two or three people. The paper cup they are served in is filled, and then what seems like a second cupful is dumped into the bag on top of everything else. The fries were fine: clearly hand-cut, with bits of potato skin here and there, with a crisp outside and a warm, fluffy inside. The “Cajun” spice didn’t add much; mostly, the synthetic-tasting garlic and cayenne pepper seasoning served only to make the fries taste kind of chemically.
The cheeseburger, however, was a different story: It was piping hot, with two 1/4 pound beef patties, cooked to well-done, and each topped with a thick slice of melted American cheese that melts and oozes evenly in between and over the sides of the two patties. Though there were tons of other toppings, each tasted distinct, and each added to the overall flavor of the burger. The shredded lettuce and tomato were standard-issue fast food fare. The pickles were wavy-cut and thick, and provided a nice acidic hit, in the midst of all the beefy-cheesiness happening elsewhere. The thick-cut bacon stayed crunchy and salty. The grilled onions were a welcome addition, though the sauteed mushrooms (something I never order on a cheeseburger) were, disappointingly, of the canned variety, but this is less of an issue on an otherwise delicious cheeseburger than it is on, say, a pizza. Overall, I enjoyed the textural element that they added to my burger, an additional soft, Earthy meltiness that complemented the other flavors wonderfully. I can’t think of one of the toppings that I would omit; everything worked in concert to create what has become, for me, my new favorite fast-food hamburger.
While mid-range chain restaurants try to convince you that you should spend the same $8 bucks in one of their kitsch-and-flair-filled warehouses, eating lifeless, uninspired, dried-out copies of pub-style burgers, Five Guys takes a decidedly different approach. Rather than try to innovate on an established model, Five Guys instead adopts the classic fast-food cheeseburger as its own, improving on every single element along the way. Where typical fast food restaurants are happy to sling pre-cooked, flash-frozen combination of beef, bun, and cheese at you through a tiny window, Five Guys invites you to sit down, have a few peanuts, and wait, while they combine the same combination of flavors, using strictly fresh ingredients, into a new whole that is much more satisfying than both their traditional fast food counterparts, as well as their chain restaurant big brothers.
It’s a welcome addition to Portland’s burger scene, though it’s up to you to decide where Five Guys fits in with our city’s “Buy Local” ethic. While you get it figured out, I am going to be inhaling another bacon cheeseburger.