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Burger Madness 2009

Rating the new crop of burger joints

Burger Madness 2009
Photo by Todd Buchanan

I just ran a brief back-of-the-envelope calculation: I’m guessing I’ve had 1,000 burgers in Minnesota as a restaurant critic. (I’ve been doing this since 1995, so that’s something like 10,000 restaurants, plus there’s last year’s effort to make a sort of Life List of the very best burgers in Minnesota you must try before you die, which involved a lot of burger-eating.) All of which means that I’m pretty qualified to judge the newest crop of Big-Deal Burger Joints that have opened in recent months in the Twin Cities.

So, how did these much-hyped new burger places stack up?

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Five Guys is an award-winning burger chain that started in the Washington, D.C., area in 1986. The line is that it’s the In-and-Out Burger of the East Coast. I’ve been to In-and-Out Burger, and I say: nope, not even close. The burgers here are totally roadside generic: good, but not a heck of a lot better than those at Hardee’s. The fries are very good. They taste real, and kudos to Five Guys for putting out malt vinegar to eat with them (it really brings out the potato flavor). Other than the fries, though, Five Guys mostly made me feel really sad for the people standing in the long line there. Are Edina residents really so burger-starved? Psssst, people of Edina: You’ll find far, far better burgers at the Convention Grill or Salut Bar Americain.


Smashburger is another chain, this one based in Denver, which is also the home base of another locally prominent chain, Noodles & Co. The similarities are many. Both chains are stylish, contemporary, upscale fast-casual restaurants with wine and beer licenses, and a price point half-way between fast and fancy food. How are the burgers? Darn good! Flavorful meat, well-enhanced by fresh toppings, and hooray for big leaves of fresh Romaine. This is by far the best-tasting burger of the new crop, and I even liked their whisper-thin onion rings and well-flavored vanilla malt. And yet, it’s still not in my top 200 of local burger experiences.

Why? Do you have any idea how many excellent local burger spots did not make my Life List of great burger joints last year? Adrian’s, in south Minneapolis, for instance, didn’t even make that list, and it serves a well-charred, perfectly homey burger (one that puts me in a real and valuable universe, that of preschoolers and tee-ball practice and beetles captured in jars with holes punched in the lids).

Yes, I’d be thrilled to find a Smashburger at any airport I found myself stranded in. But when it comes down to a choice between a good burger and a good burger offering an emotional connection to a real place, I’d rather go to Adrian’s. Or the 5-8 Club. Or The Drive-In Restaurant in Taylors Falls. But let’s say you don’t care about that stuff. If you’re just talking burgers, irrespective of ambience, there are better ones than those at Smashburger. The excellent burgers at Ciao Bella, Zelo, and Bacio, for instance. Smashburger is really very good, but it’s not really very great.

Burger Jones

Burger Jones is the most disappointing of all the new burger joints. Parasole, the people behind one of my favorite local burgers, Salut, opened Burger Jones this spring, and on paper it looked phenomenal. It’s a gastropub of enormous burger indulgence, with upscale versions of all the foods Minnesotans love to love: cheese curds, French fries, hamburgers, cheese curds on French fries, and cheese curds on a hamburger! Yet somewhere between Salut and here, Parasole’s burger knowledge seems to have fallen off the truck—to which I say: Pull over and look for it! Burger Jones burgers lack flavor, seasoning, char, distinctiveness, and, most of all, any sense that people eat with their taste buds, not their brains.

The place still looks fantastic on paper: They make poutine, the Montreal work of genius fusing French fries, gravy, and cheese curds—with bacon? Fantastic! Or it would be if the gravy didn’t taste canned. The “chicken-fried bacon” (yes, that is battered, fried bacon), which appears on the “White Trash Burger,” sounds amazing, but tastes as if the coating somehow removed all the flavor from the bacon. The fried cheese curds are indeed fantastic, the crisp exterior is lacy and distinct, the flavor fresh, sweet, and gooey. Even better—truly phenomenal—are Burger Jones’s shakes, made with local Liberty Custard. The salted caramel shake, infused with tangy dulce de leche caramel, is actually worth driving across the state for. It’s rich, salty, and tangy, taking the goodness of Liberty’s great frozen custard and gilding it in a perfect restaurant sort of way. Equally excellent are the “hard shakes,” in which Liberty Custard keeps company with Maker’s Mark, frozen peaches, and a few Nilla wafers. Yum. My advice: If you go to Burger Jones, gorge on cheese curds and get everyone at your table a different shake—but don’t expect much from the burgers.

All in all, this season of burger frenzy has taught me two things: One, we really do live in a burger paradise; two, never underestimate the complexity of simplicity.

3900 Silver Lake Rd.,
St. Anthony
Five Guys
Burger and Fries
3871 Gallagher Dr., Edina
Burger Jones
3200 W. Lake St., Mpls.


Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Old to new | New to old
Jul 29, 2009 03:15 pm
 Posted by  Moline

You left out Sonic!

Ha, just kidding!

Aug 4, 2009 02:04 pm
 Posted by  MN Patty

Did you really go to these three places because I couldn't disagree more . Five Guys by far was the best experience, best burger, best fries, and best atmosphere. Yes if your looking for 10 different cheeses to put on your burger or if your looking for a salad or chicken on the menu, Five Guys isn't for you, but if your looking for a great burger and fries quickly it's by far the best option. Smashburger takes forever and yes the burger was good but the fries were terrible and the atmosphere was like an art gallery. As for Burger Jones I'm not looking for a two hour burger experience for a very average burger. I say try Five Guys again, your the one missing out if you don't!!!

Aug 4, 2009 05:20 pm
 Posted by  Dewy

Dara, perhaps the 1000 burgers you've eaten in the past have ruined your taste buds. I couldn't disagree more. I used to live in Denver and I can tell you that Smashburger is barely surviving in the Mile High City. It's often dead and patrons order more chicken sandwiches than they do burgers. There is a reason Five Guys wins best burger or best fries in nearly every market they open. It tastes like a real burger. No need for all the complimentary toppings they offer, which is nice, the meat is fantastic! As for the Inn-N-Out comparison, I think it's a perfect analogy. The INN-N-Out of the East Coast. I'm not saying it's better, they both are solid. I've always felt the double double at Inn-N-out was just a bit too small. Another plus at Five guys, one burger is plenty, and the fries, not even close. Five Guys blows them away, even Californians will tell you that. To compare it to Hardees is ridiculous. I guess the rest of America is crazy. I recently read that Five Guys is the number #1 franchise in America. It's the only Zagat rated burger on your list, but I suppose you are more qualified than the most recognized and reputable food source on the planet. I have yet to eat at Burger Jones, don't feel I need to. People of the Twin Cities, like all food reviews, you have to try it for yourself. We all have our own pleasures when it comes to food and a burger is no different....

Aug 5, 2009 09:26 am
 Posted by  burger brother

I had my first 5 Guys burger and fries in floriday 2 years ago and i couldnt be more thrilled to get one in Edina! I am on of those people standing in line>>>>and it is well worth the wait! The burgers and fries are always hot and the wait is short.....FIVE GUYS WINS HANDS DOWN BEST BURGER IN THE CITIES!!!!!

Aug 7, 2009 12:42 pm
 Posted by  Hoppa Boy

Five Guys Rocks! "as my son says". I have to agree. We went to Smashburger and what a waste of time. Five Guys Burgers and Fries are by far the best in town!!! The service and atmosphere is awesome......Enjoy!!!

Aug 15, 2009 06:23 pm
 Posted by  steve/vicky

Dear Dara,

Thank you for the nice things you said about the shakes at Burger Jones made with our frozen custard. Burger Jones was our first wholesale account and we were exited about expanding our business and customer base. They had approached us in April and told us that they were looking for a local supplier of ice cream and thought that our product made the best shakes. They also told us that they had no problem with our price quote.

Fast forward to this morning. We received a call from the manager of BJ telling us that they found an out-of-state supplier of "bulk frozen custard" at a lower cost and would no longer be purchasing our product. He also said that the new product is "not nearly as good" as our product, that the decision was cost driven, and that his "hands were tied."

So if you want a taste of our yummy frozen custard, you will have to come to our shop at 5401 Nicollet Ave. in S. Minneapolis. At Liberty we never have and never will sacrifice product quality to reduce costs.

Thank you for your support.

Steve and Vicky
Liberty Frozen Custard

P.S. our shake of the month in September will be Caramel Sea Salt.

Aug 17, 2009 10:59 am
 Posted by  Kelly F.

Steve & Vicky, Check out Dara's reaction:

Burger Jones: Striving for Mediocrity


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