The latest burger chain invasion 

5 Guys & Red Robin bring one-time “local” burgers to Indy tables

Whether it’s Porterhouse steaks, lobster rolls or lemon meringue pies, few foods fail to inspire heated debate among those who love them. Everyone seems to have different criteria for what makes an iconic food “the real deal” or what part of the country has the lock on a certain dish. You may think everything that could be said about a burger has already been uttered, but you’re wrong. Log onto the gourmand site, and a thread labeled “Your Favorite Chain Burger” currently has 116 replies, most of them rapturous recollections of buns, beef, and toppings.

Two places mentioned in that discussion have recently arrived in Indianapolis, and, while plenty of local restaurants offer superior burgers, it never hurts to see if the chains’ claims to excellence hold any water. What’s more interesting is that both of these chains ascended from humble, neighborhood haunts whose burgers became so “famous” they just had to take things on the road. 5 Guys Famous Burgers and Fries, for instance, had its start in the mid-‘80s in Arlington, Virginia, using buns from a bakery just up the street. And while it’s now based out of Greenwood Village, Colorado, Red Robin’s first location still stands at Furhman and Eastlake Avenues in a Seattle tavern that dates from 1940. But can these restaurants, now corporate franchises, deliver anything approximating the originals?

5 Guys, which now has three metro Indy locations, doesn’t waste much money on décor. The stark white-and-red tile storefront on West 86th Street, for instance, is a shrine to its accolades in other cities. Clippings from The Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine line the entire place, along with Reader’s #1 Choice awards and quotes from the Zagat guide. It gives you something to look at while you wait for your number to be called. If you simply can’t wait, big cardboard boxes of free peanuts let diners do some pre-burger munching, though stern warnings about allergic reactions forbid customers from taking them out of the store.

Like other new burger chains, 5 Guys uses no frozen meat and only fresh potatoes. They even post where the spuds for the day’s fries come from. The menu is noticeably brief, with only cheese and bacon versions deviating from the pure burger. Beware of the regular burgers, however, which contain two whole patties. The “little” burgers are plenty filling. These burgers are the thin, crisp-fried burger type that while well seasoned — even a little salty — deserve some dressing up. Go “All the Way” for surprising toppers such as fried onions and sautéed mushrooms (though these seemed suspiciously canned).

The beef on my “little bacon cheeseburger” ($3.99) was definitely juicy, though it didn’t exactly pack a ton of beefy flavor. Bacon was definitely on the crunchy side. But the whole marriage of bun, burger, bacon, cheese, and toppings did make for a quite tasty traditional burger. Fries ($1.99) are hand cut and hearty, and they’re perfectly fried, though also a bit salty. All in all, 5 Guys is definitely a must try for aficionados of this most American of meals.

At the other end of the spectrum is Red Robin in Plainfield’s Metropolis shopping center, which is both the place to sit back and get served — and to get any number of variations, from a 5 Alarm burger to one topped with a fried egg. Even at lunch, there’s sometimes a wait, and while the place has the ubiquitous postmodern blur of décor items — including a mock Statue of Liberty and a television in the floor — the service is particularly friendly and chatty, making it feel a little more like home than something trucked in.

Medium thick burgers here are particularly lean, a tad bit over-processed, and so plainly seasoned that aggressive toppings are a must. Some combinations work, others aren’t quite right. The Whiskey River BBQ burger ($8.99) is the zenith of burger crafting. The bacon seasons the meat, cheddar is just right, onion straws provide a nice crunch, and the smoky sauce doesn’t distract. The Bleu Ribbon burger ($8.99), on the other hand, with hunks of very creamy bleu cheese and a piquant chipotle sauce on an onion roll doesn’t achieve quite the same balance, the sweet and spicy flavors almost masking the meat. “Bottomless” steak fries could be a tad crisper, but onion rings have a nice crunch to them from a dusting of breadcrumbs. Whether this stuff is as good as the original in Seattle is hard to tell, but it’s worlds apart from your typical takeout burger.

5 Guys Famous Burgers & Fries
2902 West 86th Street

Hours: Monday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Food: Three and a half stars
: Three stars
Service: Three stars

Red Robin
365 South Perry Road, Plainfield

Sunday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Food: Three and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three stars
Service: Four stars

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