What Boston may lack in parking spots, it makes up for in burgers. They’re absolutely everywhere. They arrive on puffy kaisers at no-nonsense pubs, dabbed with truffle mayo at spiffy bars, or preciously presented in grass-fed wads at conscious counters. This must be a lousy place to live for someone who dislikes burgers. Suffice it to say, that person is not me.
As a beef-oriented fella on the go, I eat burgers all the time: coming home from the gym, before a long night out, for lunch, for dinner (a few times for breakfast). I like ’em cheap, expensive, grilled, griddled, ironic, ambivalent, and, in darker times, when a McDonald’s is my only option, platonic and artificial all at once.
Defining the best burger is bound to be a highly individualized pursuit, with lots of passion and little consensus. And with three promising new entries on the scene — the Danny-Meyer-helmed New York import Shake Shack at Chestnut Hill, the fast-spreading Washington, D.C.-based franchise Five Guys, and local burger-done-good (but never well done) Tasty Burger — the task only gets more diffcult.
In an attempt to find my own favorite burger in town — one that does its job and does it well — I’ve opted to hold this new crop to those most primary standards of the fast-food offerings they aspire to upgrade: speed, portability, portion, and general satisfaction.
Given the joints in question, this approach feels fair — as does the word “joint.” While Tasty Burger, Five Guys, and Shake Shack offer an ostensibly elevated burger experience (at a price point that might have prohibited Wimpy from falling so deeply into his cycle of freeloading), all three are attempting to stay true to both halves of the “fast food” distinction.
We rookies are still at a point where the line that snakes around the new Shake Shack in Chestnut Hill signals its newness. In New York, where the chain’s Madison Square Park mothership offers a webcam for customers to estimate their wait in advance, the ever-present queue is a sign of its alpha-burger status. Indeed, the Shack, an extension of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, has become, since its 2004 appearance, the stuff of legend, or at least some substantial burger buzz, with nearly 20 locations along the Eastern Seaboard, and international plans in London, Istanbul, and the Middle East.
And while we were excited to test it out, to be honest, after 30 minutes in line, we were prepared to eat our pager to make the next 20 minutes of our wait feel more engaged. With one of our criteria (speed) already out the window, we found ourselves in the vulnerable position of potentially being satisfied by anything.
And certainly the SmokeShack ($6.25, a hormone-and-antibiotic-free Angus cheeseburger with Niman Ranch bacon, chopped cherry peppers, and a lively ShackSauce) was a pleaser — if a little well-behaved. Served in a cute little baggie (points for portability) and paired with some crinkle-cut cheese fries (a cut I struggle with; great for cheese retention, but often too floppy under their own weight when served bare), Shake Shack’s burgers were well-prepared, flavorful, and a little too petite. I should have ordered my ShackBurger ($4.75, cheese, lettuce, tomato, ShackSauce) as a double ($7.30), as it felt just north of a slider.
As might have beeen gleaned from the name, much of what happens at Shake Shack in the burger department seems like a prelude to the Shack’s signature frozen custard options: the namesake shakes, cups, cones, and “concretes” (cough, Blizzard, cough). But while the peanut butter custard in a cup ($3.25) was sturdy, sweet, and enjoyable, and while my cohort settled on “mature” to describe his milkshake’s chocolate ($5), the texture and pull of the shake was weak. (I prefer a shake thick enough to force a little fish-face.)
In the heart of a city, in a beautiful park, as a way to upgrade my lunch hour to a double, the Shack’s demands and rewards make sense. As a destination burger, it’s a go; as a burger of convenience, it’s a no. 49 Boylston St., Chestnut Hill, 617-651-3406, www.shakeshack.com
FIVE GUYS BURGERS AND FRIES
Launched in 1986 out of Arlington, Va., Five Guys has fast amassed a devoted cult following, opening over 1,000 locations since 2002, with over two dozen franchises in Massachusetts alone. Frill-free, its walls tiled in white and red, adorned with news clippings from distant papers and cheap foam-core signage blasting its awesomeness, Five Guys hangs onto its surly family-biz charm while sneakily foregrounding some of its smarter, foodie-bait features. Its butch feng shui, for example, is largely created by stacked sacks of potatoes (cut on site for regular and Cajun fries that could stand a lot more spice) and vats of peanut oil. The message: no trans fats. They also forbid freezers.
On every visit to the usually bustling Summer Street location downtown (a Huntington Avenue shop just opened), orders for one, two, or three were fulfilled in a zippy 10 or so minutes. Each time, I went with a bacon-cheeseburger ordered “all the way” ($7.29) — that is, fully condimented: ketchup, mayo, mustard, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, and grilled mushrooms. Five Guys has 15 toppings, all free.
And while the cheese was of a gummy, not-from-nature’s-kitchen-yellow American sort, it sure did know how to melt. And while the burger’s contents dropped impressionistically all over the table as the burger was elevated (not the most portable of our contestants), the part that made it into my mouth was divine. A “little” order of fries ($2.29) overflowed a seemingly symbolic cup to occupy the lower third of a large paper bag — not a “little” problem for anybody present. What was a problem was the lack of milkshakes, not even nearly allayed by the presence of a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, which allows you to concoct your own blend of cloyingly flavored high-fructose corn syrups. Bloomberg would faint. Also: Raspberry Coke? So, so foul.
Part of the thrill of the Five Guys burger was its sheer amplitude, another part was its utter simplicity — but there was also an overwhelming nostalgic rush in the panoply of toppings. At some point in our lives, we have all Dagwooded together a burger very similar to this one (though perhaps with less chewy planks of bacon). It’s a direct hit to one’s burger memory center; psychologically speaking, most burger fans will be at Five Guys’ mercy. They will also need a bib. 263 Huntington Ave., Boston, 617-572-2074; 58 Summer St., Boston, 617-482-2244; 65 Station Landing, Medford, 781-874-1254; 37 Forbes Ave., Braintree, 781-848-4897; 170 Providence Highway, Dedham, 781-326-1158; or go to www.fiveguys.com
The most casual offering from the Franklin Group (which includes Franklin Cafe locations and Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar), the throwback-feeling Tasty Burger has sprouted in three locations: a long, lean former boathouse on L. Street in Southie, a former gas station in Fenway, and a former 7-Eleven in Harvard Square — where the last hot dog I had probably spent as much time on rollers as I spent as an undergrad.
Around 2 a.m. on a Saturday night recently, we beat the post-bar throngs to the takeout window at the Fenway location, and ordered up a Big Tasty ($4.95) and a Hubba Burger ($5.50). The former, a cheeseburger of grass-and-grain-fed beef with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions, plus “Tasty Sauce” (which is at least partially composed of mayo and pickles); the latter, slathered in chili and cheese sauce, with chopped onions.
Neatly done up in an innovative burger wrapper with a tear-away flap, Tasty Burgers are built for speed (about 7 minutes on each visit) as well as travel (a good thing, as the L Street location, currently sans patio permit, has nary a seat — so back in the car you go). And while neat, we never experienced any skimping on the good stuff; my Texan companion griped not about his tame Yankee chili, as the spicy jalapeno burger ($5.50) did more than enough to bring some heat.
The unique delight of Tasty’s onion rings (a sizable heap for $4) translated to an equal measure of disappointment when we learned they didn’t have them at L Street; but the Ore-Ida-esque realness of the perfectly crispy, perfectly cloudy shoestring fries ($3, $5 with toppings like cheese sauce or chili) was just as satisfying. And shake-wise, Tasty wins: perfectly sized, with straw-straining heft, and a deep, sweet chocolate flavor that gives a little wink of vanilla in the finish.
With strong scores across the board (and added points for making itself so available around town), Tasty Burger hit all the sweet spots: We were in and out (oh, In-N-Out . . . why won’t you come here?), and left full, happy, and unsullied by our meal.
So, for now, I take small comfort in having an official favorite go-to for my quick burger fixes; but as with its weather, Boston’s burger scene can flip at any moment. 40 JFK St., Harvard Square, Cambridge; 69 L St., South Boston; 1301 Boylston St., Fenway, Boston; 617-425-4444 for all locations or go to www.tastyburger.comMichael Andor Brodeur can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.