Post-Ephemeral Hype, Does Five Guys Hold Up? Nah.

By Sophie Steiner, June 18, 2021

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I lived across the street from Five Guys for three glorious years in Chicago, so I consider myself to be somewhat of a Five Guys connoisseur. Weird flex, but I was on a first name basis with all the staff there; they saw me at some of my highest of highs and lowest of lows (regular 4am drunk burger cravings, a dark time in my life...)

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image courtesy of Five Guys

So, I skipped the initial rush, avoided the three-hour line snaking down the street and waited for the ephemeral hype to pass for a burger that served as a key food group in my diet in the not-so-distant past. 

Plus, I really love dipping my fries in an American diner-style milkshake, and their milkshake machines were held up in customs for the initial opening; if I'm going to punch people out in line, it is not gonna be for a non-ice cream-soaked fry.

I’m not an animal, people. 

Food Chain Hierarchy

In the US, Five Guys serves its purpose in the food chain hierarchy as an affordable fast food burger, available at all hours, made with comparatively fresher ingredients. But, it still acknowledges what it is – a greasy, cheap burger ideal for soaking up late night booze or a filling lunch to get you – physically and emotionally – through a shit workday.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

In Shanghai, however – and like Shake Shack  Five Guys is not a corner burger shop in Middle America packed with drunk college kids; it’s the hottest new American chain, filled with Wanghong-obsessed wannabes changing outfits every five minutes for another round of photo shooting.

Nearly two months after opening, lines are still over an hour at peak times, and staking out a seat is like the opening scene in the Hunger Games. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Ignoring the clientele, Five Guys in Shanghai is both familiar and unfamiliar – it has an uncanny resemblance to outlets in the USA, but something is off in atmosphere. It’s too bright, too cheery, too busy. 

The fact that it’s such a destination here takes away from the humble unpretentiousness that makes a Five Guys burger taste so good elsewhere. Point in case, the buildup kills the burger. 

Price Comparison

Let’s get down to brass tacks – the reason anyone comes here: the burgers. A Hamburger goes for RMB60, or add two slices of American processed cheese for RMB70. Bacon brings it to RMB75, and if you want both bacon and cheese, you’re looking at an RMB85 burger. Do note that these are all double patty burgers – the standard at Five Guys – clocking in at about 100 grams of beef total. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

All burgers come with as many free toppings as you want, spanning lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mayo, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, relish, raw onions, jalapeños, green peppers, BBQ sauce, steak sauce and hot sauce. We do not suggest getting all of those at once, but hey, it’s your burger, your life. 

If you prefer to skip the extra meat, the ‘Little’ version of each burger is also available with just one roughly 50-gram patty, for RMB40-65, but know that this skews the suggested meat-to-bun ratio, a common measurement of sound burger architecture by burger experts of the world. 

Comparison time – a cheeseburger in the USA costs $7.69, which comes out to RMB49 –a more than RMB20 markup we assume is due to import costs? But that extra markup, when spread across a full meal adds up – resulting in dropping some legit cizzash for something that is unapologetically average. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Fries come in Five Guys style – standard salt – or Cajun style, and range in price from RMB32 to RMB52 – a nearly 30% markup compared to the USA, even though they are using local potatoes from Inner Mongolia. No biggie, just paying extra for an added serving of hype. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Five Guys’ whole shtick is that their fries are pure potatoes – fresh cut and cooked in 100% pure peanut oil, never processed nor frozen, so the freshness makes them taste better.

I call bullshit.

Other fast food chains drop dehydrated, frozen fries into hot oil while Five Guys soaks its potatoes in water after hand-cutting and twice frying them to achieve the ‘optimal crispiness.’ 

Fry making at Five Guys is an art, but the ‘French fry artists’ in Shanghai are slacking. Our fries weren’t crispy, lacked salt – an egregious error – and within minutes became mealy, mushy and stale tasting – something even a hefty dunk in ketchup couldn’t fix.

The spices on the Cajun style make those fries slightly better, but only because they tasted less bland. If you can’t deliver on the ‘hand-cut, pure potato’ mumbo jumbo, then bring on the crinkly fake shit and own it by serving a yummy fry.

Image courtesy of Five Guys

Flavor Test

The true equalizer that can nullify everything previously discussed is taste. If something is downright delicious, I personally don’t care about the level of mafan it takes to obtain it – that’s part of the experience, right?

In the case of Five Guys, wrong. 

The burger is standard, basically the same as the USA – albeit lacking salt – with an everyday bun. Nothing noteworthy, like the pillowy doughballs at Shake Shack that help me justify dropping RMB85 for a cheeseburger there. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The Bacon Dog (RMB50) is good. I like that they slice it lengthwise and grill it for extra smoky char, but the bun is too thick, and it’s not a ballpark snap dog. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Milkshakes are a solid deal at RMB45, with your choice of any mix-ins for no additional charge. Toppings include bananas, strawberries, vanilla, coffee, malted milk, chocolate, peanut butter, salted caramel, Oreos, bacon and whipped cream. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

No complaints about the milkshake whatsoever – it’s creamy, thick (with two c’s) and luscious – the perfect texture for dipping a French fry in – the ultimate test of a milkshake’s cream to milk ratio. But again, it’s nothing special when we’ve got top notch milkshakes at Charlie’s, Luneurs, Al’s Diner… the list goes on, all of which don’t involve a queue. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

It’s not that anything is bad (well, maybe the fries – but I’ve already fallen down that rabbit hole once in this article) but just that... nothing stands out. There’s zero wow factor. If I’m standing in line for an hour, I want to be impressed. Instead, I was left feeling like a sack of shit for the entire duration of the afternoon as my body attempted to digest the 1,000+ calories I put inside of it in one sitting. 

Final Verdict 

While the food is similar in quality, flavor and resemblance to that in Five Guys chains around the world, I guess, who cares? Five Guys isn’t the first Western chain or even the first Western burger chain to come to China. It’s like, the fifth. The novelty of dropping RMB150 for a Western burger meal has worn off when there are so many other equally viable options.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

So, will I wait in line again? Definitely not. Will I go when there’s no line? Probably not.

I’ll stick to Habit Burger for RMB29 a pop – a solid joint that already fills the need in my life that Five Guys is trying so hard to fill. You’re too late to the Shanghai game, Five Guys, and you’re trying to be something you’re not. 

See a listing for Five Guys. [Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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