Deciding the Great Burger Battle

Growing up in the Midwest, I’ve remained at a distance from most of the important East Coast-West Coast battles -- Biggie vs. Tupac, Lakers vs. Celtics, etc (although, through four years of living in San Diego during the height of the Showtime era as a kid, I grew up following Magic Johnson and became a big Lakers fan. I don’t care what Bill Simmons says -- that’s a perfectly good reason to root for the Lakers).

But there is one coastal confrontation I cannot, and will not, remain silent on anymore.

I’m talking, of course, about the epic fast-food burger battle between In ‘n’ Out and Five Guys.

I’ve sampled both places many times, always believing the difference between the two was a matter of preference, so close it’s almost imperceptible. In the past, I’ve given In ‘n’ Out a slight edge over Five Guys, but never thought about it critically until today.

Realizing you, dear burger-eating public, demands better, I’ve prepared this little tale of the tape to settle the standoff between the gastrointestinal giants, once and for all.

I hopped a trolley for San Diego’s Old Town and paid a visit to In ‘n’ Out - got a Double Double, animal-style, with fries and a Coke. So without further ado, here’s the matchup between the two chains, decided once and for all.

The basics
I’ve always been a fan of Five Guys’ beef, but I think In ‘n’ Out’s is a little fresher and a little more flavorful. And the animal-style burger, where the beef is cooked with mustard, was an excellent touch. I’m giving a slight edge to In ‘n’ Out here.

The fries
This is the biggest blowout we’re going to find here. In ‘n’ Out’s fries are OK - kind of a shoestring potato-type thing - but they can’t compete with Five Guys, where the potatoes are cut thick and, if you choose, flavored with Cajun seasoning (I usually opt for the Cajun style). Five Guys wins this in a romp.

The frills
On one hand, Five Guys has an impressive list of toppings, most of them at no charge. And they’ve got peanuts you can grab by the handful while waiting for your food. On the other, I’m a big fan of In ‘n’ Out’s secret menu, where you can get the burgers as big as you want them (angioplasty not included) and add the animal-style option. The secret menu has the feel of West Coast cool - like a secret club the tourists don’t know about, except for the fact it’s published on the company’s website. And they’ve also got very good shakes at In ‘n’ Out. But you can get things like jalapenos, mushrooms and barbecue sauce at Five Guys. We’re going to call this a push.

The service
Both are good; I’ve never had my order botched at either place. That’s really impressive, considering how customizable both places are. And it’s probably a big reason why both have been so successful. In ‘n’ Out loses a few points here because it’s only available on the West Coast (and even there, seemingly in far too few locations), where Five Guys is expanding throughout the country. But the workers are so friendly at In ‘n’ Out, you can’t dock them here. Any company that can get thousands of teenagers to be that helpful is OK in my book. Another push here

The price
This is a big one, and it’s where Five Guys ultimately loses. I paid under $6.25 for my meal - double cheeseburger, fries and Coke - at In ‘n’ Out, and that’s with California’s sinister 8.75 percent sales tax. At Five Guys, the same meal runs you close to 10 bucks. You get enough fries to have leftovers for a day there, but is that really worth the difference in price? Advantage In ‘n’ Out (yeah, that was an intentional tennis pun).

The final verdict
My latest visit confirms my initial hypothesis - that In ‘n’ Out wins by a nose. It gets the edge on basic burger taste, loses big on the fries, competes nobly on service and extra amenities and scores the knockout blow with price. Crank up “California Love” and order a 3x3 for the victors.

I’d love some other thoughts on this, though. Differences of opinion? Other experiences at both places? Let me know in the comments. The fate of the burger-eating public depends on it.