Given the choice between a paper bag of perfect French fries and a meal of Beluga caviar, Périgord foie gras and Kobe beef on Spode china, I'd pick the potatoes in a New York minute.
At Five Guys Famous Burgers & Fries (a chain founded in Arlington, Va., in 1986 by the Murrell family), oblongs of fried potato are golden brown and lightly crisp on the outside, creamy and sweet within. "Yes," I said to myself after tasting one, then another, then way too many others, "this is what fries are really about."
The simplicity underlying these fries becomes apparent when you enter the red-and-white-tiled store; piled near the front are 50-pound sacks of spuds. The point of origin of the tubers being fried on a given day is written on a dry board. Nothing comes out of a freezer.
The potatoes are hand-cut, soaked in water to remove the starchiness, precooked, then fried in peanut oil after they're ordered. Emerging from the fryer, they're shaken exactly 15 times to remove any oiliness, thrown into a basket, scooped out, seasoned (with salt or a subtly hot Cajun spice blend) and served. But you get more than what's initially shaken into either a small or large cup; another scoop-full is thrown into the paper bag that contains the rest of your order. A small order of fries will feed a family of four. A large order is a virtual party.
Of course, there are hamburgers, too, hand-shaped from freshly ground beef. On my first visit, I was told I couldn't get mine rare because of safety regulations. "Don't worry, it will be juicy," the young woman behind the counter said. She was right. It was crusted on the outside, oozing a beefy essence when bitten. Next time, I'll request my bun extra-toasted, for the lightly toasted buns can get mushy under the weight and moisture of the free toppings (choice of raw onions, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, jalapeños, green peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, relish, hot sauce, barbecue sauce, mayo and A.1. Steak Sauce). Cheese and bacon are available at an additional cost.
Here, a hamburger actually means two 3.3-ounce patties; a "little" hamburger, just one. The friend who ordered a two-patty hamburger - topped with lettuce, tomato, barbecue sauce, grilled onions and mushrooms - had a hard time getting his mouth around the hulking sandwich. I fared better with a "little" hamburger, with mushrooms, grilled onions, tomato, mustard and relish.
The rest of the menu is brief. A favorite of mine is the Hebrew National hot dog, which is split before being grilled, making for more crusty, savory bronzed surface area, the inside juicy and garlicky. The other choice is a vegetable sandwich, a bun piled with as many of the toppings as you wish, with or without cheese. Again, unless you get the bun extra-toasted, you may be faced with a savory mush. And you can get a grilled cheese sandwich, as well.
On a Saturday afternoon, I found the place packed, much of the clientele children. Because orders can take from 7 to 12 minutes to complete, unlimited peanuts in the shell are provided, giving people something to nibble on while waiting. Despite the crowd's size, I got a surprisingly calm vibe from the place.
Perhaps that's because the assembly-line method of cooking only what's ordered as soon as it's ordered seems to work. I requested seven sandwiches, each with a different combination of toppings, and found the order executed faultlessly, each sandwich wrapped in paper, labeled with a number and accompanied by a computer printout of numbers and corresponding toppings.
In the best of all possible worlds, this would be the way all fast-food operations operated - with the emphasis on food, not fast. When quality is at stake, timeliness beats speed.
Unusual burgers (9/22/09): Sacks of potatoes and boxes of peanuts are part of the decor and appeal of this Virginia-based chain, where fries are hand-cut and cooked when ordered at the counter. Munch on peanuts while you wait for your number to be called.
Here, a burger (actually a double) comes with any number and combination of free toppings: mayo, relish, onions, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, jalapeños, green peppers, A-1 sauce, barbecue sauce, hot sauce. Cheese and bacon cost extra. Though cooked well done, burgers are juicy, crusty and flavorful. Recommended combo: bacon and barbecue sauce.
Burger bill: $3.29 (for single little hamburger to $5.79 (for bacon cheeseburger).