When my crew of hearty eaters and I heard about Five Guys coming to Salem’s Lancaster Drive, we were wound up with joy and anticipation.
Were the rumors true? Could this truly be the source of the best burger on the planet, or at least on Lancaster?
According to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, Americans eat more than 14 billion burgers each year. That translates to approximately 150 burgers for each man, woman and child. If we’re going to eat burgers, we figured we should eat well.
Our journey started on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Each of us is uniquely qualified to examine the intricacies of the burger. We chose a bacon cheeseburger for our palates, as we wanted to see how each burger establishment mixed the complexities of flavor, texture and edibility that we expected.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries – 2323 Lancaster Dr. NE
When we arrived at Five Guys and Fries, we were greeted by enthusiastic crowds and all the peanuts we could eat, even before we ordered. The kitchen is on full display where hordes of workers in red prepare the burgers in an assembly line before wrapping them in shiny foil wrappers.
The food is ala carte and isn’t cheap by fast food standards. However, for the price, Five Guys left a pretty good taste in our mouths.
The standard bacon cheeseburger comes with two beef patties, bacon and American cheese. You choose toppings, including lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, catsup and mustard.
Upon consumption, Autrey and I were less enthusiastic than our teenage counterparts, citing a slightly soggy bun and plain flavor. MacBean was thoroughly impressed by the American cheese and Peters declared the bacon was crisp and tasty.
While Autrey wasn’t smitten with the burger he noted, “It’s pretty good for a $5 burger and I would definitely eat it again.”
Consensus: 13.5 stars out of 20
Red Robin – 3760 Center St. NE
Red Robin Restaurants wear their burger prowess on their menus like a proud mother showing off her baby so we expected good things. After all, under the bacon cheeseburger heading, the menu states, “We claim this to be the best bacon cheeseburger in the known burger universe.”
With high hopes we ordered our burgers. The menu says the price is $9.79 with fries. For a good burger and fries, it may have been worth the cost; however, we soon discovered if you don’t want fries, the price stays the same.
The fries are included free,” our waitress, Brittany, cheerfully declared.
Our burgers arrived on a nicely toasted bun. We all agreed the beef was well-seasoned. Once again, MacBean and Peters swooned over the cheese, though we all agreed the bacon was lackluster in flavor and texture. Peters also declared the vegetables unfit for a good burger.
“The vegetables added very little,” he said. “I thought it must just be there for color.”
For the money, Red Robin may have a reputation and the service was impeccable; however, the burger wasn’t worth the brag.
Consensus: 11.5 stars out of 20
Original Roadhouse Grill – 481 Lancaster Dr. NE
Once again our foursome found their way into a peanut lover’s haven. Peanuts were at the door, on the floor, pretty much everywhere. We began to wonder if the salty snacks were meant to kill our taste buds prior to our meal.
Like Red Robin, The Original Roadhouse Grill is not fast food, but a dine-in experience. As we entered, we could see the cooks behind glass throwing hand formed beef patties onto the grill, definitely a good sign.
The menu offers several patty choices, including beef, bison or turkey and several cheeses, not including American. We chose the Original House Bacon Cheeseburger with beef and cheddar.
Although it took some time, more than 20 minutes, we were pleasantly surprised by burgers that were pleasing to the eye. Although three of us picked out lettuce chunks, our first bite was a perfect blend of slightly charred beef and bacon that was crisp and flavorful and not hidden by sauces or the burger patty.
“I liked the contrast between the lettuce and the char,” Autrey said.
MacBean was also pleased.“You could finally taste the bacon,” he enthusiastically noted. “You could see it wasn’t pre-made. It was cooked right there and put on the burger.”
We learned from our ever-cheerful waitress that the restaurant’s California owners frequently visit the restaurant and serve customers, clean dishes or stand behind the grill. As a former restaurant owner,
Autrey said this was an important consideration in food quality.
While not directly affecting the taste of the burger itself, the price was easy to digest. It costs just $5 to get a burger and fries during random weekend specials. Even at the full price of $8.99, all of us agreed this burger is worth it.
Consensus: 18 stars out of 20
Sonic Drive In – 220 Lancaster Dr. SE
The next fast food burger joint we chose was the Sonic Drive In just south of Center Street. Given its reputation and crowds, we anticipated a good, although basic bacon cheeseburger. After we ordered via microphone from our table, we casually watched a server on roller skates flitting from car to car with a tray heavy laden with burgers, tots and drinks.
We received our $3.69 bacon cheeseburger and on first glance had to wonder if there was really any food in the wrapper. We opened our packages and found a sloppy bun, flat burger, a minuscule piece of rubbery bacon, a few lettuce shreds and mayo and little else to excite the senses.
However, we were men on a mission and we each took one bite. That was all we could muster.
“It all runs together for me,” Autrey said. “Bun, meat, bacon – there is no distinction in flavors at all.”
Peters agreed. “Where is the bacon?” he asked. “I tasted the mayo and lettuce above everything else and that is not a good thing. It was kind of a disappointment.”
MacBean also had a few words. “This is flavorless, very flavorless,” he said, looking slightly downtrodden. “I can’t even see the bacon. I can hardly see the burger. I definitely won’t be back.”
Consensus: 3.1 stars out of 20
Carl’s Jr. – 1501 Lancaster Dr. NE
While Autrey and I fended off indigestion and worried about the risks of heart attack driving home, our teenaged counterparts had one last burger to eat. In the spirit of quick eats, we decided to consume one last burger at Carl’s Jr.
Our burger of choice was the Original Six Dollar Burger with bacon for $5.29. It took just minutes for our meal to arrive and size wasn’t an issue. It was a thick burger made with Black Angus beef, American cheese and the typical vegetables and condiments.
As we reached up and took our first bites, we weren’t disappointed although we had some concerns.
“I think I need more water,” Peters noted after two bites and tasting the salt. It needs to be seasoned instead of just throwing in salt.” I took a different approach.
“After that Sonic burger I found it refreshing,” I noted to my foodie colleagues.
One of the biggest concerns was the bacon. Even after pulling it out and chewing on it, MacBean said it was tasteless.
While we had concerns, we decided in a pinch, Carl’s Jr. would serve us a quick and filling meal as long as we ordered the soda to wash down the salt.
Consensus: 12 stars out of 20
So there you have it. When searching for a place to fill that burgerless void in your gut, there are options on Lancaster Drive that can offer good food at a reasonable price. As a group, we agreed that the Original Roadhouse Grill offered the best sit down burger while Five Guys Burger and Fries was the best choice for food on the fly. Eat well and thrive …