Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Five Guys - TMI

Five Guys opened recently in Temecula. It's a new-to-the-area burger joint, much celebrated nationally for it's excellent hamburgers and fries.  My nephew in St. George Utah, talks up the place and I've been reading about the chain's rapid growth in food trade journals. 

Five Guys has won many awards for "best" in a whole gamut of award categories. Some of the awards don't seem worthy of bragging about such as "Voted Favorite Place to Buy a Burger". What? They take the money so quickly? Would you call this "faint praise"?

In this market they're taking on In and Out but Five Guys is more expensive.  A small cheeseburger at with a regular order of french fries and a regular drink set me back over $9.00 and contributed 1500 calories to my daily intake (oh the joys of having disclosure on the menu).

The hamburger was in a word, splendid. Far superior to In and Out. Hand shaped, the burger is flavorful, juicy and crumbly, with the juiciness contained in the burger - no messy stuff running down your arms. The bun is extremely fresh and delicious. While yielding to the bite, like a fresh hamburger bun should, it stood up to the task of holding the sandwich together.

Condimenting is free. You can choose all, some or none: mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, relish, onions, jalapeno peppers, green peppers, A-1 sauce, Bar-B-Q sauce, hot sauce.  Making it "my way", I chose pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, mustard and grilled onions and the combo was excellent.

The heavily hyped fries were a disappointment. Made fresh every day on the premises, the potato variety and source is posted on a chalk board. Obviously they're trying to make this information significant in some way to the consumer. Fortunes have been made on subtle differences between french fries. If they can translate this info into increased rings on the cash register,  more power to them.

In my opinion,  the fries were over-cooked; too crisp, dry, stiff and too brown. At the level of cook (time and temperature)  applied, any subtle differences in potato flavor, due to origin on east or west slope are lost - at least on me.  I don't think the potatoes absorbed enough frying oil to create the optimum texture. I like my french fries a little bendable, a little greasy - but this is entirely a personal matter.  It's a good thing they offer malt vinegar (we Canadians love vinegar on our ff's) and you can pour a small cup and dip to your heart's content. Vinegar, such an inexpensive, ubiquitous flavor enhancer, can mask a lot of flavor deficiencies. Asians, wisely put vinegar on every table along with other worthy condiments. We undervalue the stuff in the western flavor world relegating too  much of it for cleaning our windows and other lowly and unmentionable duties.

The sound in Five Guys is ghastly - loud and screeching. For my hypersensitive/deafness combo, it was a killer. I had to wait inside for my order to come up and the sound made me unsteady - my gyroscope went into full panic mode.  With order in hand, I bolted out the door.  On the patio, the sound blaring from the tinny Radio Shack quality speakers was reduced yet at the table next to me, I could see people leaning into each other,  half screaming to be heard. "Energy!", shout the ambiance/acoustics experts when questioned about this level of sound; "Insanity!", say I when even the youngsters are screaming for mercy and business is bolting out the door. With my head swimming from the noise, I ate the hamburger quickly and after a couple of fries, tossed them out. No lingering.

If you try the place, plan to take the delicious burger out and find a nearby park where you can eat in peace*. Or eat in the car (ugh). Otherwise, take ear plugs and don't expect to talk to anyone.

* Eating in peace made me think about The Bucket, a tiny place in Eagle Rock we would brave for lunch when I worked at Lawry's California Center. Julio, at his range, and 9 stools. He acted like a nut case - I was never really bought his act. Most of his customers were bright kids from Occidental College eager for something different and he delivered it. You went in, stood up waiting for a stool to open up and then hoped he'd notice you and take your order.

Julio might give you a quick assessment and move you to the front of his order line or you could wait and wait. I never figured out a formula for getting to the front, but it was clear that wearing a suit was the kiss of death.  Customer service? If you dropped dead on his restaurant floor he'd scream at your corpse for being in his way. The nicest thing he ever said to me was "Close the f______ door, you're letting the flies in". Nice to see you again too Julio!! Real anger or feigned for show, the insults he'd throw around were mind boggling - yet the whole dining experience had a kind of sick allure. At the time,  I was eating/tasting all day; lunch was a sensory time-out for me - I didn't need the fuel. The Bucket experience was welcome break from my everyday reality.

As for the food, I remember The Bucket french fries as the best I've ever eaten. Julio never disclosed his potato source. He cooked them in an old beat up black pot over a gas flame on the back of his range, one order at a time. They were perfect, served smothered with his special outrageously over-done garlic sauce. Perfect -  even for a jaded and over-worked palate.

As I haven't thought of The Bucket for years, I googled it and found the following review on Chowhound circa 2007. Things have changed but it still sounds unique. The reviewer reports the fries as "underwhelming". The gauntlet's dropped; I'm making a Bucket run up to Eagle Rock to check it out.

The Bucket on Eagle Rock is still open and as great as ever, but the ambiance is far different now that founder Julio is gone.
The place used to seat only 9 and if you acted up, you got whacked with a whiffle ball bat. As a novice, I once asked for a knife to cut my double and Julio pulled a Noriega by producing a machete and proceeded to bang away on the counter like a maniac. Those were great days. If he was in a good mood you were treated to "seafood" - that meant lump crabmeat stuffed inside butterflied jumbo shrimp assembled in a baseball sized orb that was battered, fried and doused with his famous garlic sauce. If he was in a really good mood, you got chocolate cake and a nip of sherry (on the house) for dessert and he would break out his old WWII pics of he and his late wife. What an awesome guy.
You can still get all the favorites as Julio sold the recipes with the joint, and the new owners have built a patio that seats about 30 or so now. You can sit and enjoy football on the weekends and take a couple hours to work through appetizers a double or a couple singles and a pitcher or two. One of the best, right up there with Port-of-Call in New Orleans.
PS - Stay away from the underwhelming fries and save your appetite for the real stuff.


    1. Thanks for the 5 guys tip. Will check it out. My favorite local burger is Chili Coast in Vista. In high school I would hitchhike to Santa Barbara for a burger and fries from Hamburger Habit. Now it's the Habit and they stopped cooking the fries in peanut oil. Still good but not the same. I fail to see anything redeeming about in and out.

    2. Hi! From your post I've learned so much about eating habits there!
      Btw: here in Italy we use high quality wine balsamic vinegar (together with olive oil, salt and pepper powder) to dress salad, and low quality wine vinegar for cleaning windows as well! :D

    3. Robert: Chili Coast is my next stop. I've enjoyed your various mentions of the place and the items you've described. I'm anxious now to try the Habit too. What an endorsement - that you'd hitchhike there! You have me wondering how far I'd go and what I might trade to repeat a meal/food/eating experience I loved. Many of my favorites are oddball combinations of time and place that couldn't be repeated. For instance, I've never eaten a peach better than a thin slice handed to me on a knife by an amazingly charismatic Chinese friend who would vibrate like a tuning fork with sensory responses to food. It crackled around her like lightning.

    4. Dona: You Italians really know how to use vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is such a wonderful ingredient in so many things. I love the simple salad dressings so often served in Italy...I shouldn't say simple because
      the most satisfying, provocative and sophisticated flavoring is often achieved by combining ordinary ingredients in an artful way.

    5. Thank you! I've never been to U.S. or Canada (though I want to), as I can only say that here in Italy we mostly like fresh and simple food, and we're not used to cover its taste with sauces. I think it's all down to personal taste...

    6. The Habit is not what it once was, but still pretty good. And I only hitchhiked from Oxnard, a mere 80 mile round trip. When you go to Chili Coast, you have to do the char broiled chili - messy, but will give you the full experience. Speaking of Chili, if you want to try a great old dive, Champions in Escondido at Grand and Broadway has a great chili size, once had two in a row, it was so darn good...

    7. Leslie and I visited Five Guys today. Good burger but the calorie count was scary. Fries were a tad over spiced for my taste. Peanuts were great, deep roasted flavor. All of the ingredients like the pickles were very fresh. My only complaint was the extra squishy bun.