As a self-styled burger maven, I took last week’s Now Magazine cover story as a call to arms. Toronto’s alt weekly newspaper had a feature on the city’s best burgers, complete with photography by my friend Mike Watier (who took what is perhaps the only good photo of yours truly, both for my book and blog - his site is here). I’ve already eaten at most of the burger joints covered in the magazine, but the articles gave me the impetus to try out a few newer places that I hadn’t got to yet.
Five Guys' cheeseburger.
This is my report. To readers who may not live in Toronto, never fear - I’m willing to bet the two places discussed here will be expanding dramatically soon.
First up is The Burger’s Priest, which claims to be “redeeming the burger one at a time.” The tiny hole in the wall opened up in the Beaches neighbourhood, ironically right across the street from a Harvey’s, just over a year ago and has been crammed ever since.
The signature burger, which I tried earlier this week, is the Double Double, not to be confused with the way we Canadians order our coffee. Simply put, the double cheeseburger was one of the best I’ve ever had, right up there with In-N-Out Burger in the Western U.S. and Port of Call in New Orleans (a big reason why I’m getting married in that city next year!).
Indeed, the In-N-Out comparison is apt, if not downright intellectual property theft, because the two restaurants’ burgers are amazingly similar. In-N-Out’s signature burger is also called the Double Double, with both packing two patties and cheese slices. Both are also about the same size and come in small paper envelope. Both restaurants also have very small menus with only a few items for sale, although In-N-Out also has a “secret menu” (see the comment on this post). I have no idea as of yet if Burger’s Priest has followed suit. Needless to say, the rabidly popular U.S. chain came first - it was founded in the 1940s - and I’m willing to bet it served as the inspiration for the new Toronto joint.
There is one big difference between the two - price - but more on that in a second.
Next up was Five Guys, which started in Virginia in the mid-1980s. The restaurant proved to be a hit and has been expanding across the U.S. to hundreds of outlets ever since, even claiming Barack Obama as a fan. The first Canadian Five Guys opened in Alberta last year and the chain has been growing quickly since, with 13 locations in the Great White North now.
I checked out the newest store on Wednesday, in Scarborough, and had the cheeseburger. Alas, I had no warning that it was actually a double cheeseburger, but I suppose when it comes to an American chain, that shouldn’t be a surprise. The burger came in a brown paper bag, wrapped in nondescript tin foil, both of which gave it that sort of 1950s, pre-commercialization retro feel. So too did the restaurant itself, a roomy cafeteria-like environment decorated with a simple red-and-white checker pattern.
Just as with Burger’s Priest, Five Guys’ burger was delicious, although it proved to be considerably messier. The patties were thicker, which meant the burger itself was taller and thereby harder to eat, requiring copious napkins. I’d put Burger’s Priest slightly ahead in taste, but Five Guys definitely lives up to they hype. If you like burgers, I highly recommend checking either or both places out.
The two restaurants did get me thinking about price, or how much a burger costs in different places. Both charge around $7 for just a burger, which seems a little high for a simple fast-food joint. All of the In-N-Out restaurants I’ve eaten at have, by comparison, charged about half that.
Further to that anecdote, The Economist has its own Big Mac index, which roughly compares purchasing power in different countries by the local price of a McDonald’s Big Mac. Based on that measure, Canada is indeed a pricey place, especially when Scandinavian countries aren’t counted.
For kicks, I made a few phone calls to Five Guys’ outlets around North America. The first two I called, in Medicine Hat, Alberta and downtown Manhattan, charged about the same for a cheeseburger as in Toronto: $7. A number of other places around the United States, however, charged only $5.
The price discrepancies between Canada and the U.S., outside of expensive New York, can be explained by a number of factors, including volumes and good old “what the market will bear.” Yet, with veritable parity in currencies, there’s no getting around it: Canada has costly burgers.
On the bright side, at least those expensive burgers - derived as they are from the U.S. - are tasty.