Friday evening I cooked steak. That should have sated my carnivorous desires for at least 24 hours, but I woke Saturday morning craving a burger. Not just any burger, either. I needed a bacon cheeseburger with raw jalapeño slices and grilled onions from Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
My love for this particular burger began a few years ago at Big V's Burger Joint, a walkup burger joint inside the Market in the Loop building in the Delmar Loop. There, owner Vito Racanelli — the brother of Racanelli's New York Pizzeria founder John Racanelli — served a burger dubbed, simply, "The Animal": three beef patties, cheese, bacon, grilled onions, roasted jalapeños and barbecue sauce.
It was a messy, greasy, spicy calorie bomb that no human being in his right mind would have ordered more than once in his life. In other words, it was glorious.
Big V's closed just before Thanksgiving 2007. Vito Racanelli now owns Onesto, a sit-down Italian restaurant in the Princeton Heights neighborhood. The Market in the Loop has been gutted and reopened as Racanelli's Cucina, another sit-down Italian restaurant. "The Animal" lives on only in the memories and hearts of its many fans.
Especially the hearts.
I wasn't thinking of "The Animal" when I first visited Five Guys back in January. Not consciously, at least. Honestly, I was too overwhelmed by the restaurant's energy to be thinking of anything at all.
Five Guys was founded in Arlington, Virginia, in 1986. The chain grew slowly at first. By 2002, there were only Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. locations. Then it exploded: There are now more than 300 Five Guys locations spread across 25 states.
The first area location opened late last year at Town & Country Crossing, the shiny new retail center at the border between Town & Country and Chesterfield. There is a second location at Clarkson and Clayton roads in Ellisville, and two more are planned for Des Peres and Brentwood.
If you don't know much about Five Guys, the décor will give you a crash course. The walls are plastered with enlarged magazine covers, newspaper articles and Zagat guide entries praising the restaurant's burgers and fries. The display might seem boastful, but Five Guys has the goods to back up its self-regard.
The menu is blissfully simple: burgers, hot dogs and fries. The regular burger has two thin patties, the "little" burger one. You can order your burger plain, with cheese, with bacon, or with cheese and bacon. All of the other toppings are free. The list is standard, with raw jalapeño slices being the most exotic.
The Five Guys operation is efficient. The L-shaped dining room faces an open kitchen. You order at the counter, which is directly in front of the flattop grill and prep tables. As you do so, the cashier calls back to a cook how many patties are needed: "Two patties!" when I dined there alone, "Four patties!" when I took my wife there. The cook throws freshly made (and, Five Guys claims, never frozen) patties on the grill. Another worker prepares your toppings so that, as soon as the patties are done, they can be thrown on the bun, wrapped in foil and served.
There is only one drawback to the process: Every burger is served well done. This isn't so surprising, because Five Guys is a fast-food joint, but those who are, as I am, generally biased against well-done burgers should know that it doesn't matter. These burgers are very good — not only not dry, but juicy without being disgustingly greasy, the flaw of most fast-food burgers.
As I said, without intending to do so, I ordered my first Five Guys burger as a tribute to Big V's: a bacon cheeseburger with jalapeños and grilled onions. My memories of "The Animal" must have grown hazy: I omitted the barbecue sauce. Still, I ended up with one damn fine burger. The bacon was crisp, the onions strong and a tad sweet, the unseeded jalapeños packing quite a punch.
And the fries! Five Guys serves French fries exactly as they should be, with the ideal balance between a crisp, brown exterior and a hot, fluffy interior. I couldn't observe the entire process, but they seemed to have been prepared in the proper manner: freshly cut, soaked in water, fried once and then fried again at service. You can order them with the house "Cajun" spices, but I recommend the regular variety.
A nice touch: A dry-erase board near the service counter tells you the origin of "Today's Potatoes." On that first visit, they came from Sugar City, Idaho.
When I finally returned to Five Guys a couple of weeks ago, my craving demanded a repeat of the bacon cheeseburger with jalapeños and grilled onions. On a later visit, I opted for more straightforward toppings: lettuce and tomato. Here, Five Guys set itself above other fast-food joints. The lettuce was crisp, and the tomato was actually red.
Don't want a burger? Then, why are you at Five Guys again? If you must, there are 100 percent kosher hot dogs. Like the burgers, you can get these with cheese and/or bacon. These are fine frankfurters, plump and juicy, but they don't compare to the burgers.
Don't want meat? Then, why are you at Five Guys again? The menu does include a veggie and a grilled-cheese sandwich. I sampled the grilled cheese. This was a single slice of American cheese between inverted halves of a hamburger bun.
(Those with peanut allergies should take special care at Five Guys. The fries are cooked in peanut oil, and the restaurant sets out big bins of roasted peanuts for diners to snack on while they wait for their meals.)
I suppose you could object to Five Guys on principle: It's a national chain of fast-food restaurants in today's local-food, carbon-footprint world. I brought up similar concerns in last week's review of a vastly different national chain, McCormick & Schmick's ("Sole Proprietors," June 4, 2009). If you would rather support local businesses, consider Five Guys a challenge: It serves well-made, family-friendly fast food — a niche that few, if any, local restaurants fill. And I can think of more than a few local restaurants on every level that could learn from its efficient, friendly service.
Don't believe me? Here's a second opinion. Turns out the reason I woke up after a steak dinner craving Five Guys is because my brain was processing the news that President Obama had visited a D.C.-area Five Guys the day before. Five Guys, St. Louis' own Pi, an organic vegetable garden at the White House: Say what you will about the President's politics, but the man knows his food.
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