NEW YORK (MainStreet) It is the season for grilling burgers, but the retail value of beef has increased 9% from a year ago. Luckily, Memorial Day means roadtrips, and that means deciding where to get the juiciest burgers while on the go.
Also See: Top 10 Secret Menu Items at Fast Food Restaurants
This could be called a golden age of burgers. Meat quality has soared in the past ten years - which means the household names in fast food burgers just are not competitive in a roundup of America's best.
What did not make the list shows how high this burger bar now is. Not included: FatBurger (a onetime personal Los Angeles favorite many years ago), Steak 'n Shake (a onetime midwestern mecca), Blake's Lotaburger (a New Mexico all-star where burgers are paired with Hatch chiles), not even celeb chef Bobby Flay's Burger Palace with its "crunchified burgers" (served with potato chips on top). All good, just not good enough.
Here, for your dining pleasure, is the countdown to America's best burger.
Note: one-off establishments were not considered. Only chains were in the running for the honor of being cited as MainStreet's Best Burger. And only fast food joints, at least "quick service" in the parlance of the trade. If there's a white tablecloth in sight, that place was not considered.
5. 5 Guys
Even the First Guy himself, Barack Obama, has popped into Virginia-based 5 Guys for a cheeseburger. That's how magnetic this chain - now with over 1,000 locations, including a sprinkling overseas - has become.
It has a gimmick: munch on free (and quite tasty) peanuts in the shell as your burger cooks.
The menu is simple: burgers, hot dogs, and then there is a BLT, grilled cheese, even a veg sandwich. Fries are the only side. Order them Cajun style, with a sprinkling of cayenne.
My favorite is the cheeseburger, served on a bun that 5 Guys claims is sweeter and "eggier" than conventional buns. The burger is big, juicy.
You are out the door at around $10.
4. Culver's.= Heather Briganti, a tourism manager for Albuquerque, N.M., swears by Culver's and laments the fact that they are non-existent in her state.
Nationally there are fewer than 500 Culver's, mainly clustered in the midwest (125 in Wisconsin, 83 in Illinois, 54 in Minnesota). There are zero in New York, zero in California, zero in Florida, zero in Massachusetts.
The centerpiece is the ButterBurger, made with fresh, never frozen, U.S. beef. The cheddar ButterBurger ($4.19) is topped with cheese from Wisconsin.
Several other readers lobbied for Culver's and that is why it nabbed a starring role as the Midwest's best burger.
One reader calls it "ShakeShack without the guilt," because the burgers are made with organic, free range beef.
Ali Morris, who works for Visit Fairfax, that Virginia county's tourism arm, said that the burgers are "better for you and the environment."
There are 32 Elevations, mainly along the East Coast. Its westernmost outpost is Austin, Tex.
Fries ($2.79) are cooked in olive oil.
The Elevation Burger is around $11. Cheese adds about $1. Tomato, pickles, onions are free.
Order the "Half the Guilt Burger," and it's one beef patty and one vegetarian patty.
With around 300 stores, focused in California and the Southwest (Arizona, Texas, Nevada and Utah), In-and-Out may be the oldest purveyor to crack the top five (it was founded in 1948 in Baldwin Park, Calif.). But it has earned its cult following.
In-and-Out, by the way, has long paid its employees much more than minimum wage.
At a time where many fast food competitors have junked up their menus - with chicken or fish patties, salads and more - In-and-Out is old-school. It does burgers (hamburger, cheeseburger and "double-double," a kind of cheeseburger squared). Fries. Fountain drinks. That is it.
Oh, there's the secret menu and two phrases to remembers are "animal style" (the burger is cooked in a smear of mustard, and served with pickles and grilled onions) and "protein style" for the Paleos (kill the bun, the burger is served wrapped in a lettuce leaf). Go gonzo and order a double-double protein style, animal style. It's permitted.
A double-double costs around $3.40. Add fries and you are a little over $5.
How good is In-and-Out? Many times I have driven miles out of the way to eat there. Often I smuggle a hidden bottle of wine - Dry Creek Zinfandel pairs perfectly, in my opinion.
That is true gourmet dining. Even if I sip the wine out of little plastic cups.
1. Shake Shack.
New York fine dining guru Danny Meyer (he owns Union Square Cafe, the Modern, and opened 11 Madison, among other places) opened the first Shake Shack in 2004 in neglected Madison Square Park in Manhattan. Lines exploded. I have personally waited an hour for my burger, and I went back, again and again.
Today there are numerous Shake Shacks, at least five just in Manhattan. They also are in London; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Miami and many more towns.
Go. Order the double cheeseburger ($7.35 at Madison Square Park - now a swank part of town, incidentally). Simple: lettuce, tomato, cheese, and the meat is a mix custom made for Shake Shack. Add an order of fries ($2.85). Drink Shackmeister Ale from Brooklyn Brewing, $5.25.
You sit outside in Madison Square Park.
Dining does not get finer, and you did not spend $20.
--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet