1100 Jefferson Rd., Rochester, NY 14623
Web: Five Guys Burgers and Fries
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"One of us is already planning the next pilgrimage to Five Guys, and hoping for a new location in this Buffalo; the other is plenty happy with current options."
We don't disagree on much, but we stand on separate sides of the burger divide: he only wants them flame-grilled, she prefers but doesn't require them to be fried. So bear that in mind before reading our split opinion of Five Guys Burgers & Fries, a Virginia-based chain that has established itself as In-N-Out for the rest of us, similarly focusing on a menu that's almost as short as its name: it is, as its reputation suggests, as close in concept to the legendary Californian chain as any Western New York burger joint comes, hooking fans with never-frozen ground beef and freshly sliced french fries cooked in peanut oil. One of us has declared Five Guys a great substitute for In-N-Out, and the other has shrugged it off, with a simple summary: if you're a fan of fried burgers, you'll want to know about this place, and probably be a little disappointed to learn that its closest locations are in Rochester, an hour's road trip away. Closer to home, the second part of this review briefly discusses The Original SoupMan, a semi-famous New York City soup and salad chain with a location in Williamsville.
Five Guys: Surprisingly Spartan. From its web site to its storefront, Five Guys seems to delight in its utterly plain decor: the walls are white and bare except for national magazine clippings and awards that literally run from the front of the restaurant to the bathrooms. It's a clear effort to convince you that the place has greater importance than its trappings might otherwise merit: thanks to a lower table density than one might expect given the floor space, there's plenty of room in the place, and it's surprisingly clean given that boxes of shelled peanuts sit with self-serve paper dishes above the trash cans. They're free so you can snack while you wait - one of several differences from In-N-Out, which prides itself on keeping people hungry in drive-through lines for 15 minutes or more.
Simplicity, Defined. Eating in? Taking out? It doesn't matter: you're walking away from the counter with a visibly greasy paper bag full of food. Burgers are individually wrapped and actually numbered to coincide with a similarly oily paper receipt, while french fries overflow from plain styrofoam cups into the bottom of the bag. Other than soft drinks - no milk shakes - kosher hot dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches, there's not much else to order besides burgers and fries.
More Than A Little Customization, At A Price. Five Guys' standard $4.39 burgers include twin patties on two sweet sesame rolls with your choice of "free" ingredients; "little" versions are slightly less expensive at $3.29, and include only single patties - not a lot of meat - while bacon ($0.70) or cheese ($0.60) are offered separately at small premiums. The prices are high enough for these burgers that McDonald's or Burger King would laugh Five Guys out the door - you can get big Angus patties at both places for less - but the ingredients here taste fresher: not quite at In-N-Out's or a great local restaurant's level, but close. Fries come in regular or "Cajun" versions at the same $2.59 price; a large size is $4.19.
But How's The Food? Our fried burger fan was wowed by the size and weight of the double-patty burgers relative to In-N-Outs, the freshness of the meat, and the nice toppings - grilled or fresh onions are offered, as are mushrooms, steak sauce, hot sauce, and barbecue sauce, plus standards such as ketchup, mustard, pickles, lettuce, and tomatoes. She praised the overall flavor, the cheese, and everything save the lack of In-N-Out style secret menu items; at one point, she felt she preferred Five Guys' burger to In-N-Out's, but later said that both had their advantages - a tie. Though we agreed that the burgers were nicely juicy despite their well-done exteriors, the flame-grilled burger fan found the grease a distraction to fully enjoying the meat on both of his burgers - moreso than at In-N-Out - while the onions were too chopped, and the barbecue sauce was sweet but otherwise lifeless: neither version compared on size or taste with what similar dollars would buy at, say, Rock Bottom, Vizzi's, or even Burger King. We both agreed that the fries weren't great: served skin-on, they're fresh but soggy, and the Cajuns are merely tossed in seasoned salt. As the splotches on the paper bag suggested, peanut oil was inescapable during the meal, and we felt it all day afterwards in our pores.
In summary, Five Guys is - like many burger joints - going to excite some people more than others: by chain standards, it has clearly achieved a great deal of national expansion and success during years that In-N-Out has all but squandered by remaining regional, and thus your chances of actually finding a Five Guys nearby will likely remain considerably higher. But should you bother? Some people won't understand what's worthy here of an hour's drive from Buffalo, but fans of fried burgers may enjoy making the trek to sample the phenomenon for themselves; the chain recently received multiple First Family endorsements on top of its numerous prior accolades, for whatever that's worth to you. One of us is already planning the next pilgrimage, and hoping for a new location in this Buffalo; the other is plenty happy with current options. Our overall rating of 3 stars is a compromise; we'll be interested to know where you stand if you've had a chance to sample it.
The Original SoupMan. The name might not be as catchy as "The Original Soup Nazi," but it'll have to do. Al Yeganeh's soup shop and testy demeanor was immortalized on Seinfeld, leading to national franchising of an unlikely business: pre-made soup that could be shipped to branded restaurants and sold for premiums. At the small location in Williamsville (5225 Sheridan Drive, 14221, 716.204.5881), Yeganeh's stern face appears on standees at the door and counter, but the staff is thankfully friendly and attentive: you place your order from a list of fewer than 10 soups, several salads, wraps, or paninis, then sit at a table awaiting delivery of cups, bowls, and dishes. Meals include a mini-loaf of fresh bread, an apple, and a bite-sized Hershey's chocolate bar; drinks such as lemonade, iced tea, and soda are sold separately.
Yes, The Soup's Good, But Lord, It's Expensive. We made our way through bowls of Lobster Bisque, Jambalaya, and Mulligatawny soup, each a fine example of its genre: the bisque wasn't the best we've had in Western New York (think Eckl's, perhaps), but it did have a fair-ish share of big lobster pieces inside - for $11 a bowl (!) - while the mildly spicy Jambalaya ($9) included nice chunks of sausage and shrimp, and the curry-like Mulligatawny ($8) was loaded with almonds, chunks of ginger, and vegetables. Were we impressed? Not for the prices, especially by reference with nearby competitor SoupHerb Gourmet, but apart from the modestly glazed over bisque broth, the soups were satisfying: no one would turn a bowl of this stuff away. Al's Favorite Large Salad and an Asian + Chicken Salad were a little more reasonably priced at $6 to $7.45, loaded with fresh ingredients, and customized with cups of dressing served from a counterside fridge. Table service aside, SoupMan has a bit of a "do it yourself" appearance, and the chintzy little candy bars seem add to the impression that these franchises are assembled on the cheap.
Lemonade As A Low Point. Rarely do we take the time to call out a drink as atrocious, but the "Large Lemonade" ($1.50) we drank at The Original Soupman was like something out of a science experiment - served from the same DIY fridge as the salad dressing, it was so watery and stale that we wondered if it had been pre-fabbed and shipped on the trucks with the soup: kids couldn't get away with selling a drink this bad at sidewalk stands. A ring of sugar at the bottom of the cup, between a lemon slice and the straw, was its only trace of pleasant flavor. It was far beneath the standards of the soups.
So is The Original SoupMan worth visiting? Two of our three-person group said yes on the basis of the flavors, while the third was on the fence due mostly to the pricing. As The SoupHerb Gourmet demonstrates, it's possible to get a great bowl of soup, a salad, or a wrap without breaking the bank in the same neighborhood, and SoupMan's offerings seem to have been marked up due to licensing and/or transportation costs - a lot of extra work and expense for dishes that can be and are made from scratch with equivalent or better results. Since SoupMan's web site doesn't list the day's soup options, give the place a call to check your options before you stop in. If something sounds especially interesting, drop by: we'd expect that you'll be pleased, if not charmed enough to pay the premium on a subsequent visit. The Original SoupMan merits a 2.5-star rating.