The New Golden Age of the Fast-Food Burger

 Ricky Cariot i/ The Washington Post / Getty Images

If you pay any attention to the food service industry — and why wouldn't you? What other sector of the economy has so direct a relationship to your quality of life? — you're probably aware of the meteoric rise of the "fast-casual sector." Fast-casual is essentially a bet that fast-food customers will spend a bit more and wait a bit longer for higher quality food. The bet seems to be paying off: fast-cazh (that's how you spell the first syllable in casual) grew almost twice as fast as regular fast food last year.

Leading the category is Cali-style-burrito purveyor Chipotle, whose explosive growth has spawned dozens of imitators vying to be "the Chipotle of [pizza/sushi/Chinese food]." But the big prize, this being America, is the burger market, where a bevy of rivals led by Virginia's venerable Five Guys and Denver's ambitious Smashburger are competing to bring a better Big Mac to every retail strip.

These up-starts have forced McDonald's to fight on their turf: this month the chain introduced a $5 "Sirloin Third Pound" burger. But quality burger initiatives at the Golden Arches have a history of failure, from the Arch Deluxe debacle of the mid-'90s to the Angus Third Pounder, which met its demise just two years ago. It's hard to improve the quality of food at 15,000 restaurants, and even harder to overcome the most powerful brand associations in the world.

So who will be the victor in the coming burger wars? We set out to find out. 

Shake Shack: The beef in Shake Shack's Shackburger is a custom blend from Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, who also make much more expensive patties for New York City's Minetta Tavern and the Spotted Pig. It's pungent, even musky, with a distinctive gummy chew. (My guess is a higher brisket-to-chuck ratio in the meat, although the exact mix is a trade secret.) The bun is a butter-toasted Martin's potato roll, with a mild sweetness that might seem familiar if you had a happy childhood. Meat and bun dominate the experience; the cheese and vegetables and light glaze of Thousand Island dressing (sorry, "Shack Sauce") are just accents. It feels like you're eating a fancy restaurant’s version of a fast-food burger, which is pretty impressive since they’re turning them out in 63 locations from Vegas to Kuwait.

In-N-Out Burger: Whereas a Double-Double from western stalwart In-N-Out Burger feels like an ordinary fast-food burger that has somehow ascended to greatness — as though you're eating the burger depicted in a Carl's Jr. or McDonald's commercial rather than the burger you're actually served at one of those places. Compared to Shake Shack, In-N-Out's burger is less about a delicious piece of perfectly cooked beef and more about the sandwich's gestalt. The fresh, crisp toppings and flavorful cheese play a substantial role in the overall taste profile. The meat isn't gristly the way it sometimes is at Burger King, but it's dry and a bit greasy. Ask for it "animal style" and it comes cooked in mustard (which helps), with chopped onions and extra Thousand Island dressing (sorry, "spread"). 

Smashburger: Smashburger is named for the cooking technique used to make the burgers: the cooks smush them down on the griddle to get a toasty crust on one side. The meat itself is just good ground chuck, but the smashing gives it a uniquely dense, complex flavor. It feels like a high-quality homemade burger, especially if you get the half-pound Big Smash instead of the regular third-pounder, but there's something satisfying about that. Also, I’ve eaten dozens of burgers at three different Smashburger locations, and they all arrived piping hot, which never happens anywhere else. There are lots of choices by way of bun and topping, most of them foolish — stick with a Classic Smash, which comes on an egg bun with Thousand Island dressing (sorry, "Smash Sauce") and the usual suspects. 

Five Guys: When Five Guys began to expand from its suburban-Virginia origins in the early days of the century, its only real competitors were the ubiquitous national chains. (The venerable In-N-Out had been open for 40 years at the time, but it was a continent away.) You can see how people who are used to Wendy's might be impressed by a burger that’s been cooked to order, with a nice variety of toppings. But we have higher standards now, and with Shake Shack and Smashburger aggressively expanding, it's hard to see a place for Five Guys's stringy, underseasoned patties, thin buns, and unreliable preparation. They don't even have Thousand Island dressing.