Comments & Curiosities: Burger warfare

This is war. It won't be pretty, but it will be tasty, especially for carnivores.

There are things in life that lead to strong feelings, arguments and hurtful words that should never be said — things like religion, politics, and burgers.

Just months after the launch of the super-sized In-N-Out at Harbor and Gisler in Costa Mesa, there's a new burger in town — Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The Virginia-based company, which has more than 700 stores in the U.S. and Canada and 27 in California, was founded in 1986 by five brothers, which is a lot of brothers but also explains the name.

Five Guys will replace the newly vanished Baja Fresh in the Target center at Harbor Boulevard and Baker Street, which means that, ironically, and perhaps quite deliberately, the new patty pushers will be setting up shop just a few hundred yards from In-N-Out.

According to industry experts, Five Guys and In-N-Out are comparable and highly competitive. Five Guys is a little pricier, but both chains are built on simple but top-tier burgers that are exceedingly chubby, decadent and delectable. The two patty palaces look the same, all white and red and beige wood, and while the menus may not be twins, they are cousins.

At In-N-Out, it's hamburger, cheeseburger, Double-Double, fries. At Five Guys, it's hamburger, cheeseburger, bacon burger, bacon cheeseburger, fries.

Do you see a theme emerging here? I'm thinking burgers and fries. Five Guys is a little more expansive, with hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, and the most mystifying choice on the menu — a veggie sandwich.

I'm not sure why someone who leans toward veggie sandwiches is in Five Guys to begin with, but that is not for me to say. Maybe they snuck in to use the restroom then decided they were a little hungry. In both places, the presentation is simple — they present you the burgers, you present them the cash.

In other words, whether you're in Five Guys or In-N-Out, if you're looking for a Kobe burger topped with melted gruyere, arugula and portobello mushrooms, you need to leave. This is America, people, not La Jolla.

But anytime the topic is hamburgers, two things come to mind — who invented them, and what makes a great burger truly great?

Part one of that essay question is easy. People have been grinding up meat and grilling it as long as there have been people, meat and fire. If you want to say that it was a Neanderthal or a Cro-Magnon who came up with the first burger, have at it. No one can prove otherwise.

But certified burgerologists will tell you that it really began with the Hamburg steak, which came from the German city of ... anyone? Frankfurt, exactly. Just kidding. Hamburg, of course.

Sidewalk stands first popped up in New York City, mostly in neighborhoods with boatloads of German immigrants. They handed you your Hamburg steak on a slab of bread so you could down it and get back to whatever it was you were doing before the stomach growling started.

OK, fine. So what makes a great burger great?

People love to argue about that ad infinitum, which means a lot, but I think it is a big, fat waste of time. There are endless lists of the "Best Burgers" or the "Best Burger Joints," but it's strictly a matter of personal preference, I think.

Quick — what is the best piece of music ever written? See? It's a meaningless question.

Case in point: I know very well what constitutes a top-quality, perfectly made hamburger when I see one, but because I grew up with White Castle burgers, I still have an affinity for the little cardio nightmares — micro-patty, soggy bun, wet onions and all. What kind of meat do they use? I cannot tell you how much better off you are not asking that question.

But personal preference or not, meaningless information is what we are here for, so here are the hot spots where burger lovers can go to find the "Best Burgers" in America, at least according to the website americasbest.net.

You could try the Shooting Star Saloon in Huntsville, Utah, which is very proud of their Shooting Star Burger, which apparently includes an entire bratwurst. Yikes. Looking for an antidote for a veggie sandwich? You found it.

I don't know if their burgers are really great, but the best name for a burger joint in the cosmos is the Murder Burger Drive-In in Davis, Calif. The house specialty is, correct, their Murder Burger, and their slogan is "So Good, To Die For."

But wait, don't say "call 911" yet. If you head to Crabill's in Urbana, Ohio, their specialty isn't giant burgers — it's tiny burgers. Urbana-ites can't get enough of the little 50-cent micro-burgers, which are deep-fried to create a crunchy exterior. Now that's what I've been looking for — tiny, deep fried burgers. Mmmm ... who's hungry?

So there you have it. Five Guys Burgers and Fries and In-N-Out ... toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose, bun-to-bun, we should probably stop there. Where will it end? Will one hamburger handler come out on top? Will they cancel each other out in a spasm of severe, community-wide burger saturation? As always, I have no idea. Only time, and cholesterol, will tell. Gentlemen, start your burgers. I gotta go.

PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at ptrb4@aol.com.

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