Greetings from Toronto, home of the gourmet hamburger wars. I came here seeking the latest culinary trends and found, to my surprise, a pitched battle being waged for Hogtown's best burger.
In every corner of the city, there are small greasy spoons jostling for supremacy by one-upping each other with organic bison meat patties, grain-fed Ontario beef that's been aged for at least 30 days, Italian truffle toppings and house-made peach sauce.
Through a Vancouver lens, this burger ubiquity may seem a bit passé. Haven't we already moved on to haute hot dogs and mashed-potato-stuffed croissants? But honestly, the burger craze never took off in Vancouver the way it has here.
Interestingly, the one beef burger you won't find in Toronto, which Vancouver does have, is the so-called Barack Burger from Five Guys Burgers and Fries. And it just so happens that I visited the North Shore outlet of the U.S. fast-food chain restaurant a few days before I left.
Five Guys gained popular notoriety last year, after President Barack Obama made an impromptu lunch run to a Five Guys outlet near the White House while being filmed for a day-in-the-life special by NBC television. (Cheese, lettuce, tomato, jalapeno and mustard were the President's condiments of choice.)
The publicity stunt appears to have boosted the Springfield, Va.-based burger chain's fortunes. In a new Consumer Reports survey released earlier this month, Five Guys jumped to the top of patty pile, tying with California's In-N-Out, as the tastiest fast-food hamburger in the U.S. of A. McDonald's, by the way, ranked last in the poll, which asked 28,000 people to rate the deliciousness of 18 fast-food restaurant burgers on a scale of 1 to 10
West Vancouver wasn't the first Canadian city to welcome a Five Guys franchise; that somewhat dubious claim to fame belongs to Medicine Hat, Alta., where the inaugural outpost opened last January. But as the chain rapidly expands across the country - Brandon, Man., Kingston, Ont. and Montreal - British Columbia already has two Five Guys (there's another in Surrey), with a third on the way (in Coquitlam).
While I'd much rather frequent a mom-and-pop burger shop over a chain, it would be remiss to ignore this greasy, up-and-coming, potato-headed behemoth.
Located in Park Royal mall, Five Guys has a pleasantly refreshing no-frills austerity. The décor is plain red plastic and white-laminate tile. You'll find no comfy armchairs or dim-lit, faux-home Starbucks styling here.
The menu sticks to the bare basics: hamburgers, fries, water and soft drinks. There are no salads or wraps or low-fat yogurts, which always seem silly in a burger joint anyway. Vegetarians can order grilled cheese ($3.99) and veggie sandwiches ($3.79).
The franchise owners haven't yet caved to the local peanut fascists. You can fill up on the free roasted peanuts, which are served in help-yourself cardboard boxes scattered around the dining area. Canadians, being Canadians, haven't caught on to the slovenly American habit of tossing the shells all over the floor.
If you want to super-size your fries, the disarmingly honest counter clerk may try to dissuade you. "Our order of small fries could feed a whole family of four," she informed, exaggerating only slightly.
The fries are chipped from U.S. russet potatoes that are stacked in bags by the entranceway. They come in two sizes: regular ($3.49) and large ($4.89), served in cups that famously overflow into paper bags. They come shaken with Cajun spices, if you like. And are cooked in trans-fat-free peanut oil to a slightly imperfect, yet nevertheless satisfying, golden-, black- and pale-tipped finish.
The meat is the calling card in the Five Guys double-patty burgers ($6.99), which also come in a "little" (single-patty) size for $4.99. The beef is fresh ground, never frozen, and locally sourced. For Vancouver, the beef comes from Alberta.
The young burger flippers seem inordinately proud of their meat. They will happily roll open the refrigerated trays under the open-kitchen grill to show off their bright pink, loosely packed, hand-formed patties and pull a few out for closer inspection. Although it's probably conscientiously affected and painstakingly detailed in a corporate patty-making manual, the raw burger's homespun rough edges are kind of cute.
It tastes like a home-style burger too - moist and crumbly and full of greasy flavour, thanks to a flattop grill, which traps the fat, instead of letting it be licked up by flames, as happens to char-grilled burgers. Even though the meat is ground in-house, the burgers are all cooked medium-well.
I wasn't crazy about the alder-smoked bacon, which lacked salt. As the young burger flipper explained, customers either love it or hate it. I had no such quibbles with the cheese, which looks like processed cheese, but is actually aged cheddar and melts quite quickly into a pale, orange goo.
Bacon and cheese toppings cost $1 each, but the rest, which includes fried onions and grilled mushrooms, are free. It's a better deal than you'll find at most gourmet burger shacks.
Unless you're very hungry, I suggest you avoid "the works". The double-patty bacon-cheeseburger (920 calories, 30 grams of saturated fats) with everything oozing out of the squishy white, sesame-seed bun needs more than two hands to eat.
The little Barack cheeseburger, which isn't advertised, makes a perfect-sized meal for anyone who doesn't want to have to take a nap after lunch. And the jalapenos add a nice spicy counterpoint to the richness of the cheese.
Five Guys doesn't hold a candle to the gourmet burgers in either Vancouver or Toronto. (At home, my favourites are the medium-rare, ground-sirloin burgers at dbBistro, Hamilton Street Grill and Glowbal Grill). But it's not a bad option if you're looking for something fast. And it's a heck of a lot tastier than McDonald's.