OK, there's Eleanor Rigby and there's Cathy Rigby, but the town of Rigby had me stumped. The large white board beside the Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries order stand proclaimed, "Today's potatoes are from Rigby, Idaho." Is there potato terroir? Is Rigby the Bordeaux of potatoes? A quick Internet check of the city of Rigby shows a potato on the town flag. Hmm. These are serious potatoes.
Acknowledging the birthplace of their potatoes is only part of the marketing design at Five Guys, a corporate burger chain/franchise. A father and four sons started Five Guys Enterprises, LLC, in a Washington, DC, suburb in 1987. Today Five Guys has stores from Connecticut to South Carolina, with two in Charlotte and one in Gastonia.
On a Friday night, the Five Guys in Ballantyne was as tightly packed as the spuds in their bags -- which, along with industrial-sized canisters of peanut oil, lined the area beside the order counter. Filling the red and white dining room was a boisterous basketball team, a couple of tables filled with teenage girls and families with kids. You definitely know you're in Charlotte suburbia. While waiting to order, one unsupervised child seated in the dining area dipped a long fry into his soft drink and then shook the soda off the fry in my direction. At other tables, adults cracked open the complimentary salted peanuts. (Note: Five Guys is not the place for people with peanut allergies, a warning that's clearly posted at the entrance.)
Items are cooked to order here. Regular burgers consist of two hand-formed patties of beef that has not been frozen. (The "little" burger contains just one pattie.) The burgers are grilled well done and served with a choice of toppings including green peppers, sautéed white mushrooms, fried onions and jalapeños. No slaw or chili here.
Fries are hand cut and served two ways: regular and with Cajun spice. The regular order -- large enough for at least two hungry people -- is served in a cup and placed in a brown paper bag. Grease from the fries dots the bag. The fries, with skin, are cooked to perfection. In addition to ketchup, malted vinegar is on hand to cut through the grease. Also good are the plump kosher hot dogs and greasy grilled cheese sandwiches.
The menu is limited to those items: burgers, fries, dogs and veggie or grilled cheese sandwiches. Drinks are 24 ounces and come with free refills.
Already, Five Guys is raising the bar for fast-food burgers. But the draw that will bring me back are Five Guys' fries -- true treasures from Rigby, Idaho. I guess there is potato terroir, after all.
On the other side of town is Cook Out, a Florida-based franchise that recently made its way into the Charlotte market. Cook Out has become legend in other North Carolina towns, typically cities with universities. As one UNCG graduate reported, "Going to Cook Out at 4am was part of the initiation rites of becoming a freshman." The Cook Out on Freedom Drive has become the late-night drive-thru for people departing downtown bars and dorms.
Cook Out's burgers, grilled on an open flame, come in four sizes. The largest is a one-pounder, thick enough to eat with a fork. The most satisfying are the Carolina burgers, loaded with chili and slaw. The cheddar on the cheeseburger has a similar taste to melted, processed cheese curds -- popular snacks in Wisconsin. They're greasy, but not biting. The thick-cut fries were cool the night we ate them, while the batter on the onion rings was better than the onions themselves, which tasted old.
As good as the burgers are, I am convinced the main draws are the after-midnight hours, low prices and the shakes. The menu lists 40 shakes, although some, such as egg nog and watermelon, are seasonal. An employee at the Freedom store noted that 36 different shakes are always available. They're not overly sweet, and they're so thick a straw can stand alone. The banana pudding shake was dense and divine.
Also on the menu are hot dogs, minced barbecue and chicken nuggets. Prices range from $1 for a dog to $4 for a barbecue plate, which is a lot cheaper than the national fast-food burger chains, and the flame-flavored burgers are much better. At heart, Cook Out is what the American burger drive-thru used to be.
Back by popular demand is Taste of the World, showcasing the ethnic diversity of East Charlotte restaurants. The event will be held from 5pm until 9:30pm Thursday, April 6; $35 per person. Eighteen ethnic restaurants will participate; however, each group of participants will visit only three establishments. Diners should meet at the Charlotte Museum of History and then motor coach to the three preselected restaurants. Call the museum at 704-568-1774 or go to www.charlotteeast.com.
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