THE WORD ON THE STREET IS "DAAAANG!"

Burger Wars: 4 Regional Favorites Duke it out in E.V.

By: Jess Harter; East Valley Tribune

In-N-Out devotees swear by their Double-Doubles. Legions of Culver’s fans gotta have their ButterBurgers. On the East Coast, hungry diners stand in line for Five Guys burgers; in the Rocky Mountain West, it’s Smashburgers.

Across the country, so-called “fast-casual” burger concepts — which typically don’t offer the table service of a traditional restaurant but use higher-quality ingredients (never-frozen beef, fresh-cut fries, etc.) than fast-food — are sizzling.

California’s In-N-Out was the first major regional favorite to arrive in Arizona earlier this decade, but the other three chains recently have joined the fray in the East Valley. I visited all four in the past week to see how they compare.

FIVE GUYS BURGERS AND FRIES
The background:
This Arlington, Va., chain, named for the owners’ five sons, was founded in 1986 and has more than 450 locations in 30 states. It made its Arizona debut last week at Mesa’s Dana Park; another one is opening soon in downtown Tempe.

The food: A streamlined menu offers just four huge burgers — a hamburger ($4.99), cheeseburger ($5.59), bacon burger ($5.60) and bacon cheeseburger ($6.29) — all with two patties. (Single-patty options are available on the “children’s” menu.) You can add as many as 15 free toppings, ranging from mushrooms to jalapenos to hot sauce. There also are kosher-style hot dogs ($3.29-$4.59) and two kinds of cut-on-site fries — regular and Cajun (both $2.59). Fountain sodas and water are the only drink choices.

The service: Order at register; pick up food in paper bag at counter.

The décor: A no-frills, storeroom-meets-restroom vibe with red and white tile. A wall built with sacks of potatoes separates the food line from the dining area. The shells of free peanuts are scattered on floor.

The verdict: I give my greasy, messy bacon cheeseburger an A-minus but be warned: I didn’t want to eat for 24 hours afterward. If I ever go back to Five Guys, I may have to bring a defibrillator. One order of fries is easily enough for two hungry people; go with the Cajun.

The info: 1902 S. Val Vista Drive, Mesa. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. No drive-through. (480) 539-2773 or fiveguys.com.

SMASHBURGER
The background:
This fast-growing Denver chain was launched in 2007 and plans to have 40 locations open nationwide by end of this year and 100 by end of 2010. It unveiled its first Arizona restaurant last month next to Arizona State University.

The food: The menu features five Smashburgers — which get their name because the beef is “smashed” on the grill and quickly seared — in third-pound ($4.99-$5.99) or half-pound sizes ($5.99-$6.99). Smashburger is the only one of the four chains to offer a special Arizona version of its burger topped with habanero cheese, guacamole, onions, jalapenos and chipotle mayo on a chipotle bun. There also are Smashchicken sandwiches ($5.99), Smashdogs ($3.49-$3.99), Smashfries ($1.79-$2.79) and Smashsalads ($6.99).

The service: Order at register; food brought to table in wire basket.

The décor: Retro-hip with modern industrial touches. Relatively small red-and-silver dining area offers surprising variety of comfortable seating. Nice sidewalk patio.

The verdict: My Arizona Smashburger, not so much spicy as intensely flavorful, gets a solid A. And its manageable third-pound size doesn’t leave me feeling bloated all day. The Smashfries, seasoned with rosemary, garlic and olive oil, also are delicious. I’ll be back.

The info: 777 S. College Ave., Tempe. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. No drive-through. Parking available in garage behind restaurant. (480) 829-3750 or smashburger.com.

CULVER’S
The background:
Headquartered in tiny Prairie du Sac, Wis. (pop: 3,100), Culver’s has grown from one restaurant in 1984 to more than 400 today. It opened its first two Arizona locations in Mesa and north Phoenix in April 2008.

The food: Culver’s expansive sandwich menu runs the gamut from pork tenderloin to beef pot roast to tuna melts, but it’s the signature ButterBurgers (butter is applied to the buns, which are then toasted) for which the chain is famous. All are available with one ($1.99-$2.89), two ($3.19-$4.19) or three patties ($3.99-$4.99). Side options include crinkle-cut fries ($1.59-$1.89) and deep-fried cheese curds ($3.29), and an array of desserts are made with Culver’s own fresh frozen custard.

The service: Order at register; food brought to table on plastic tray.

The décor: Blue-and-white dining room exudes Midwest hospitality with spacious booths and sturdy tables. Carpeted floors also set Culver’s apart from most fast-casual restaurants.

The verdict: I’ve always been a big fan of Culver’s — you probably can attribute it to my Midwest upbringing — but I must admit my most recent ButterBurger, not as plump and juicy as usual, earns just a B-plus. I still love the crinkle-cut fries, though.

The info: 1909 S. Country Club Drive, Mesa. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Drive-through available. (480) 733-5330 or culvers.com.

IN-N-OUT BURGER
The background:
Iconic California chain was started in 1948 and now boasts nearly 250 locations, none more than a day’s drive from its Baldwin Park headquarters. It expanded into Arizona in 2000 and now has 24 restaurants in the state.

The food: What seems like the most abridged of menus — a hamburger ($1.69), cheeseburger ($1.99), “Double-Double” ($2.99) and fries ($1.29) — is actually much bigger than it appears, thanks to In-N-Out’s not-so-“secret menu.” These additional items, available at all locations, include triple and quadruple burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, veggie burgers and the chain’s now-trademarked “Animal-style” burgers (with mustard fried into meat and extra sauce) and fries (with cheese, onions and sauce).

The service: Order at register; pick up food on plastic tray at counter.

The décor: Red-and-white dining area features fast-food standards like hard plastic booths and tables with attached swivel chairs, making it serviceable but not exactly comfortable.

The verdict: I’ve been enjoying the occasional Double-Double since my first trip to California in the mid-1980s, and my most recent one still earns an A-minus. But I fail to understand why some people rave about the fries, which I’ve always found somewhat tasteless.

The info: Multiple East Valley locations. Open 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily (1:30 a.m. weekends). Drive-through available. in-n-out.com.