Here we have a true set of opposites—the sloppily satisfying casual dining of Five Guys (Burgers and Fries) and the noveau-hip “serious” patty craft of Thunder Burger (& Bar). One is the DC-sprung chain that’s captured the hearts (or, occasionally, ire) of hamburger enthusiasts worldwide; the other is a classically yuppie-ish endeavor to rethink how we eat a beef patty between a pair of buns. In this matchup, we see a clash between the populist and the elite, even—dare I suggest it?—the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. They almost seem difficult to compare, with their totally different audiences and goals, but as they have both committed themselves to the Way of the Burg, they must be seen as equals, as much brothers as they are opponents in their quest to serve that ever-ephemeral ideal of the Perfect Patty.
Most of you, even outside our nation’s capital, are probably familiar with Five Guys. Upon walking through the door, you’re greeted by the smell of peanuts and some soft classic rock (in my case, Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up”) playing over the restaurant’s charmingly nostalgic white and red interior. I went to the counter and ordered a bacon cheeseburger with “Everything” (in truth, about half the toppings they offer) and a medium fry. I go over to my seat of choice, and my eye flashes over a plaque, marking the last meal of Vasily Yurchenko before he defected back to the Soviet Union. I feel the weight of history as I wait for my hamburger.
Upon my number being called, I retrieve my brown paper bag containing my lunch. As I open it up, I find a veritable ocean of fries, mocking the small white cup meant to contain them, forming a jungle of salt and grease. Pulling out the tinfoil wrapping, I encounter a very familiar item, not only because I am a frequent patron of Five Guys, but also because it taps into some primal knowledge of what the classic hamburger looks like. It’s a loose construction, lettuce and onions threatening to drown the patty and burst from the bun—indeed, the dressing often does feel like it’s competing with the meat for attention, as strong as it makes its presence felt. Though it may be an overused phrase, “comfort food” seems the best way to describe what Five Guys has to offer—an unpretentious and imperfect but nonetheless rewarding culinary experience.
Thunder Burger seeks to offer a different experience from the first minute. Through a pair of exceedingly narrow doors, Thunder Burger finds its home in a tastefully dimly-lit, spatially economical M St. establishment, one that, unlike Five Guys, fully asserts its restaurant-ness with a hostess and waiters, which gives a strong sense of legitimacy even if it does hint at a certain level of superfluousness. I was able to secure a table in a small nook at the front of the restaurant after a thankfully brief wait, and after some consultation with the menu (which contains many burgers, and several other options besides), I settled on the Pig In a Cow Suit, a pulled pork-accented burger that seemed like a good middle path between their most basic burger and their more extravagant offerings (Boar? Elk??).
The burger arrived with no small amount of calculated grace: arranged with a practiced haphazardness and accompanied by a metal cup filled with the textbook form of “gourmet fries” (frequently an unfortunate addition, as it is here). Though the sheer amount of gusto in the presentation might make one skeptical, the burger certainly did bring the thunder—cooked to a perfect medium-rare, unbelievably juicy, and packed with as much content as its bountiful buns could hold. Thunder Burger’s product seems to almost justify its over-compensatory surroundings, presenting a truly admirable and unique hamburger journey, one that, even given the formidable size of the patty, seemed to be over all too quickly.
So then, how do the two measure up?
Considering only the beef itself, there’s nearly no contest. Where Thunder Burger’s patties are robust and carefully cooked, Five Guys’ are thin and uninspiring—functional, to be sure, but not quite as exceptional as their rival here. Similarly, where TB uses large, satisfying buns, FG’s bread component seems like just a shadow of the ideal of the Sesame Seed Bun. The toppings, however, are a more complicated comparison: while TB certainly offers a far wider variety of potential accents for its burger, FG sticks to the essentials (lettuce, onions, pickles, mustard, and so on), which makes burger selection a much more streamlined process, where TB’s options may be distractingly obtuse (foie gras on a burger though?).
In the realm of presentation, too, the extravagance of Thunder Burger proves to be a liability. In this humble writer’s opinion, burgers are not a food that needs excessively polished plating and organization—a burger ought to speak for itself. The carefully considered plating that I was offered at Thunder Burger, then, does not inspire me in the same way that the simple but effective tin foil wrapping of Five Guys does (also, perhaps trivially, there’s something to be said about the psychological gratification of Five Guys’ trademark onslaught of fries). Five Guys also carries an advantage in the value category—at Five Guys, for less than fifteen dollars you can get any burger you want and more fries than you can handle, but Thunder Burger makes it a challenge to drop any less than 20, if, admittedly, for a somewhat larger burger. I suppose that’s the M St. quality that you pay for.
Ultimately, what are we comparing? It’s pretty clear that Thunder Burger offers the more expertly crafted burg, but Five Guys offers something that is more than the sum of its parts. The Burger Experience is an important part of any dining endeavor, but can we really say it supplants the actual quality of the food? It wouldn’t be hard to argue that an excellent atmosphere can make the difference between two meals of similar quality, but it’s just too hard to deny the culinary expertise behind Thunder Burger. So, with perhaps some reservation, I feel that I must allow Thunder Burger to advance to the next round.
The Final Standings:
Photo: Andrew Gutman/The Georgetown Voice
Graphic: Daniel Varghese/The Georgetown Voice