Sunday, June 29, 2008

Throwdown: Five Guys vs. In-n-Out

As a native of Southern California, I grew up worshiping at the Temple of In-n-Out. Moving to New York meant a lot of changes in my lifestyle, not the least of which was that the closest Double-Double went from being just down the block to over 2500 miles away. So it was a happy day for me when I discovered the east coast version of In-n-Out: Five Guys Burgers and Fries. The mission of both places is the same: high quality burgers and fries, made from the best ingredient and cooked fresh for the hungry masses.

Recently I learned that this was no longer a simple East Coast vs. West Coast affair. Five Guys is busily expanding all over the country, including opening stores in Los Angeles, perhaps In-n-Out's biggest stronghold. I believe competition is a good thing, so I thought I'd do a run down of the pros and cons of each restaurant. You never have a love like your first, so naturally my own bias is for In-n-Out, but I'll do my best to be neutral in this assessment.

Five Guys crushes In-n-out in this category, largely because of their opposite business models. In-n-Out is privately owned and has repeatedly turned down buyouts, franchising and attempts to go public. In contrast, something like 85% of Five Guys are franchises. By my count, their are Five Guys locations in 28 states and they are aggressively expanding all across the country and into every major metro area. In-n-out has traditionally limited itself to California, Nevada and Arizona. Great if you happen to live in one of these states, heartbreaking if you don't. Only recently has In-n-Out taken the bold step of expanding into Utah, a move which coincides with the opening of the first Five Guys in Salt Lake City. Someday historians will write about the great burger wars of the 21st century and how they were started in the Beehive State.

As far as I know, there are no Five Guys locations which have a drive thru, and no In-n-Outs which don't have one. Neither place takes that long, but In-n-Out is generally quicker from the time you order to first bite. Five Guys tries to offset the wait by offering all the free peanuts you want.
Red. White. These are the base colors for both establishments. Rumor is that when Five Guys first opened, In-n-Out was threatening to sue for image infringement. FG keeps it simple with red stripes on white and a red/white checkerboard motif on their walls, cups and menu. In-n-Out is lavish by comparison, including yellow in their logo and a smattering of blue and green on cups of certain sizes. In-n-out takes this category with their palm tree graphics and understated touches that reference surfer culture. Not to mention the bible verses hidden on the bottom of their cups, reassuring you that God approves of your choice of lunch.

Now we get down to brass tacks. First the similarities: Both places use only fresh, never frozen, high quality ground beef. Both will serve a single, double, triple or larger if you want. Both cook them fresh at the time you order them.
Five Guys patties are larger, so while I personally will always order a double-double at In-n-Out, I usually just get a single at FG. Five Guys will only cook a burger well done. They say this explicitly on their menu. Given the size of their patties, this can lead to drier, less tasty burgers if you are unlucky. To me, this is the biggest strike against Five Guys. Its hamburger, not chicken, don't overdo it. In-n-out still cooks their burgers through but stops short of well done, and their smaller size means less cooking time and no risk of drying out, so the burgers are always juicy and flavorful. In-n-out also wins the bun battle with their fresh baked sponge buns. Five guys buns are fine, but nothing special. Overall, Five guys makes a solid burger, but In-n-Out is still the best.

Burger Extras
Any burger loving Californian knows the meaning of "animal style" (grilled onions), "Protein style" (sans bun, wrapped in lettuce), or concept of an N-by-N burger (n patties with n slices of cheese) at In-n-out. Many will not eat a burger any other way. Great as these options are, Five Guys beats In-n-Out in the extras department. Bacon, the king of sandwich toppings, is available for a small charge. The rest of the extras are free, including: Fried onions, mushrooms, Jalapeno peppers, green peppers, A1 sauce, BBQ sauce, and hot sauce.
Both places make fries from fresh cut potatoes. Five Guys opts to use peanut oil, while In-n-out prefers vegetable oil, and both boast about their oil's lack of cholesterol, as if health conscious people actually eat this stuff. I prefer the skinner, crispier fries from In-n-Out, but I seem to be in a minority in this opinion. FG fries are not only larger, they come in multiple serving sizes and you have the option of regular or Cajun seasoning. In light of this, I reluctantly give this round to Five Guys.
Other food
At In-n-out its burger or bust. Five guys offers Kosher beef hot dogs, to which you can add Bacon or Cheese, thereby making them not Kosher. If third grade taught me anything, its that two negatives make a positive, so therefore the final option, the Bacon Cheese Dog, actually becomes Kosher again. I've never actually had one, so I reserve judgement, but they sound tasty. Five Guys takes this round by default. Both also offer a "grill cheese" but again I don't know how good either are, so we'll call it a draw on those items.
(Note: Five Guys also offers something called a "veggie", which I think is a sandwich. Why anyone would go there and order this is one of the great mysteries of the Universe)
In-n-Out strikes back with their tasty, thick milkshakes, always made with real ice cream. Chocolate, Vanilla or Strawberry and perfect on hot sunny days or cool summer evenings alike.
As mentioned before, In-n-Out thrives in a California's car based culture, with every location having a drive thru and employees offering to package their food differently if the customer plans to eat in the car. But suppose a normal burger run won't do the trick for your hungry party. Suppose you need volume. Help is here: The In-n-Out cookout trailer. That's right, your picnic, party or shindig can have a portable In-n-Out all to yourselves.
I played football in High School, and at the end of two-a-days one year our coaches surprised us with a post practice visit from the Cookout trailer. My teammates and I were worn down, struggling to make it through the last grueling practice of summer before the season started. The sight of the trailer headed down our street and into the parking lot was a bigger motivator that the threat of a hundred up-downs or a mile of bear crawls. Instantly there was a spring in our collective step, and I doubt a handful of greenies chased with a pitcher of Red Bull would have given us more energy.
Five Guys is in the Business of selling burgers. This is their official motto, written in bold red letters on their website. A fine mission indeed, though limiting. In-n-Out is also in the business of selling burgers, but also has a wide array of logo merchandise for sale. T-shirts, polos, tanks, Fossil watches, sweaters, jackets, ball caps, beach towels, golf balls, license plate frames, and much much much more. My Dad has an In-n-Out Hawaiian which he often receives compliments for from total strangers, many of whom are eager to learn how to acquire one of their own.
If logo clothes aren't your thing, maybe you'd prefer the In-n-Out foundation Bear. He's cuddly, he looks sharp in his uniform, and all proceeds go to charity.
I think its pretty obvious from this post that, given a choice between the two, In-n-Out wins out in my mind. That's not meant as a slight against Five Guys. Both have room for improvement: In-n-Out needs badly to open a location here on the West Side, and Five Guys has a dearth of cuddly bears and milkshakes. But for now I think we can be happy to have both these fine burger joints which stand head and shoulders above the rest of the fast food world. Bon Appetit!

Wanted: my sanity back.

So once again, I've been had. I should have trusted my instincts, which were warning me to stay far, far away. Practically screaming at me. But a combination of peer pressure and the misguided advice of supposed experts convinced me to give it a try, and so here I sit, $12 poorer and noticeably dumber.

I went to see the new movie Wanted yesterday with some buddies. When I first saw previews for it, my reaction was "This is Crap! Stupid stupid crap! Stay away!". Usually I trust such instincts and they rarely let me down. But as I did my weekly check of movie reviews over at RottenTomatoes and Metacritic, I noticed something strange: This film was getting passing marks. Meta gave it a good overall rating, and the Tomatometer came in at a staggering 75% positive reviews, which is solid for any film and practically a perfect score for a summer action movie. Trusting the aggregated judgement of the nation's bitter, cynical professional movie watchers, I let down my guard and was convinced to give the film a shot.

Sigh. It wasn't as bad as I originally thought it would be. It was worse. A truckload of rats with bombs stuck to their bodies worse. A horrible rip off of an oh so obvious plot twist worse. Its a derailed trainwreck of a movie which falls off a mountain bridge and slams into the side of said mountain while magically not smashing the main characters into ground chuck. Its a bullet which can literally do a complete revolution around a circular room while passing through 7 different people's heads and not slowing down or stopping or being deflected off its mystic voyage. I only wish I had a magical loom which prints out binary messages using mis-sewn threads which I could decode to reveal the secret warning message about how horrible this abomination of a film was prior to shelling out my $12 for it. I'm pretty sure I could have spent that cash on the cheapest, nastiest hobo swill that can be legally sold in this country, downed it all, and have killed fewer brain cells than I did in those lost two hours of my life.

Look, I knew going it that there were going to be stretches, even outright impossibilities in this movie. Curving Bullets from a handgun? Fine. Driving a sports car with your feet while dodging rush out traffic at 100 MPH and hanging out the car window gunning down the bad guys? Sounds like half the missions in GTA. But it went too far, way way way overboard with the stupidity.

Plus, this movie is about a group of secret awesome assassins who supposedly kill the bad guys of the world with gusto in order to protect all us innocent folk. "Kill 1, save 1000" or some BS. Yet anything they do in the movie involves massive collateral damage, usually in the form of high speed car wrecks, or the aforementioned derailment of a full commuter train. I bet if they had shown Angelina Jolie's character going out to buy a gallon of milk she would have managed to knock off at least a dozen innocent people during the trip to the store. Hopefully they use FreshDirect to avoid running the body count up too much.

On a side note, I'm starting to worry about the collective judgement of our movie critics in regards to action movies. Early this year there was a huge outpouring of praise for Iron Man. It scored an incredible 93% positive on RT. 93%!!!! Most really good films fall into the high 70s or low 80s. Given the action movie/comic book movie grading curve, a 93 translates to roughly 145% for a regular film. I saw Iron Man and liked it, and I believe its easily the best recent film based on a comic book, but that's a genre where the bar isn't set very high. Was it a fun, watchable movie? Sure. Worthy of collective praise that would make most Oscar worthy films green with envy? Not on your life. So shape it up movie critics.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Our Team Sucks! Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb Dumb!

As I've mentioned previously, I hate it when sports fans lean on the rhetorical crutch of calling a player or team "overrated". Nevertheless, I understand why its so appealing. Its a simple but unmistakable insult. Its vague and therefore hard to really refute. Most of all, there are a lot of peripheral things in sports which are subjectively determined: all star selections, MVPs, HOF inductions. When making the case that your favorite athlete deserves such honors, its almost necessary to state that others are "overrated" and therefore undeserving.

However, one thing I can't understand is that stupidest of sports chants:

"OVER-RATED!!!! *clap*clap*clap*clap*clap*!!!"

For those unfamiliar, this chant usually makes an appearance at the end of an upset victory, shouted loudly and moronically by the fans of the victorious underdog. From North to South, sea to shining sea, you need only stumble upon an unexpected win and your ears will be assaulted by this catch ditty. It is, for the most part, a phenomenon limited to collegiate and high school level sports, where subjective rankings are often matters of life and death to die hard fans. Fans of professional sports are prone to several dumb behaviors, including shelling out $9 for a plastic cup of Miller Lite, but at least they mostly avoid this chant.

The idiocy of the "overrated" chant is as plain as day. If the team your team just beat really is "overrated", then your victory is diminished. In effect, these joyous fans are taking what should be a moment of celebration and crapping all over themselves by declaring in unison: "Your team sucks, and as proof, you just lost to US!" It logically follows that their team also sucks.

Perhaps the worst part about this cheer is when its used during a victory which is largely the result of bad luck on the part of the losing team. One example especially sticks out in my memory. This last season I was watching college football, Oklahoma at Texas Tech. At the time the Sooners were ranked high in the BCS polls and had a pretty good shot at a bid to the national championship game if they could win all their remaining games. Tech was unranked but it was a conference home game so they were up to play.

On the very first series of the game, starting Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford suffered a blow to the head, resulting in a concussion. Rules of safety and common sense meant that he was done for the evening, turning the offense over to the inexperienced hands of his backups. Anyone who follows football knows the value of an experienced starting QB, especially in a hostile road game. Tech took advantage of Bradford's absence, feeding off the energy of the home fans and building a large lead. The Sooner offense finally got on track later in the game and staged a rally, but time ran out on them and the Red Raiders took the game by a TD, 34-27.

For a college football fan like me it was a great game to watch. And then I heard it through the TV, coming from the joyous Tech fans: "OVER-RATED!". I was stunned by their stupidity. Not only were they discounting their own team's hard fought victory, but they didn't even acknowledge the huge gift handed to them when Bradford had to leave the game. The Sooners with their starting QB were one of the best teams in college football. Indeed, after Bradford healed and returned to the lineup, and the Sooners went on to win their Conference. But the idea that they were the same team after having their star knocked out and replaced by an inexperienced backup was asinine. I'll try to express it as a mathematical model:

(Highly ranked team)-(vital star player) = (No longer highly ranked team)

To top it all off, the backup eventually found his bearings and staged a decent 4th quarter rally, forcing Tech to hold on by their fingernails to secure the win. Had Bradford been able to play, its fair to say that the Sooners would have played a lot better prior to the 4th quarter and probably would have taken the game. His injury was a godsend for Tech, and here their fans were too stupid or arrogant to acknowledge this stroke of good fortune.

So please people, ditch this chant. I know its tempting, in the heat of the moment, as your favorite team of scrappy underdogs pulls one out against the hated powerhouse rival and the thrill of victory is rushing through your veins, to join in and shout it out at the top of your lungs. But please resist, you're only denigrating yourself.

If anything, fans should try a 180 on the whole thing and start an "Under-Rated" chant. The reasoning is simple: "That team there, our opponent, they are clearly underrated! # 8 in the country you say? Pfft! What a farce! They are easily top 5, and if those voters had a collective brain between them they'd be #2! I demand they be given their rightful ranking! And since they are # 2 in the nation, judging by the scoreboard of this match, which shows our side clearly ahead, it must be that our boys are the true #1! Huzzah!" This could work people.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Bon Voyage, Will Leitch!

Deadspin is probably my favorite site on the entire Internet. Its right over there on the top of my blog roll. As anyone who's spent more than 10 seconds online can attest, there's a lot of good stuff out there, so to be someone's favorite site is no small thing. I've been a Deadspin reader for about 2 years, my discovery of the site corresponding roughly with my graduation from college and move across the country. For a fun loving sports fanatic like me, Deadspin is perfect. I still remember the elation I felt when I first discovered my commenting privileges had been turned on. Even though I rarely comment on anything, just the knowledge that I was accepted as part of the commentariat made me ecstatic and remains to this day as a (small) feather in my cap. I might even list the fact on my resume if I ever actually try to get a real job.

Today is the last day at Deadspin for Will Leitch, its founder and editor these three years. I've already left my first comment in months on the site wishing him well, but I felt a little more was needed. So thanks Will, for founding Deadspin, keeping it going, making it awesome, allowing all its spin off blogs to sprout forth and entertain, and generally making both the Internet and the world of sports more enjoyable for us all. Good luck to you wherever your path may lead.


I watched Hitman last night with some friends. We all agreed it was a disappointing rip off of several better films, including but not limited to: The Bourne Identity (and sequels), The Matrix, James Bond, with a bit of Scarface thrown in, and possibly even Ocean's 11. I'm all for sex and violence, and this movie had plenty of the latter and a decent amount of the former, but nothing made a lick of sense. I don't expect much from the plot of an action movie, but this was awful.

The coup-de-grace of stupidity is this scene where four of the badass secret assassins, of which the main character is one, have a Mexican standoff. From what I could tell, the other three were supposed to be hunting down the main character. But instead of all attacking him, they all walk towards each other with guns drawn. When they finally get into the standoff, they all look around at each other, then simultaneously eject their gun magazines, drop their weapons, and each pulls a pair of short katanas out of the back of his sport coat. Honestly, they all supposedly had a pair of 3 foot razor sharp swords up their shirt on the off chance this situation arose. Once again, instead of a 3 against 1 sword battle as logic would dictate, they all start fighting each other. This scene perfectly sums up the entire movie: Over-styled, under-thought, and ultimately a failure as a result.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ratings don't matter!

I'm a huge sports fan. Football most of all, but really any kind of quality competition can draw my interest. Baseball, Basketball, Golf, occasionally Soccer, Hockey, Iron Chef, whatever. High school, college, pro, international, I'll probably find a reason to watch or at least check out the highlights. As a sports fan and consumer of sports culture, I'm exposed to a large number of viewpoints about athletes and teams. Opinions about their talent, place in the sport, their deviant sexuality, or whether or not an indictment on spousal battery charges should disqualify them from sainthood.

I accept all these opinions and viewpoints as part of being as sports fan. Its fun to discuss the game, the players, to trash talk a bit after your team came out on top. But there's part of this discourse I've grown to truly hate, the go-to insult from message boards to the corner bar: "he's overrated".

Calling an athlete or team "overrated" is boring and meaningless. It is the hollowest of critiques. "Ratings" don't really exist in sports, with a handful of exceptions. College football has its polls. But they only ever really matter for 1 game a year. Usually its pretty easy to figure out which two teams should be chosen for that game, and when its not easy then there is really no solution in which someone doesn't get shafted. Some tournaments have seedings which are subjective, though still based in the reality of past results. That is to say, a #1 and # 2 seed may be interchangeable, but there are no #13 seeds which, pre-tourney, can really gripe about not being a #1. Boxing has "rankings", but pro boxing has long been a corrupt circus. The point is, even in these areas in which rankings are important, the games still have to be played, so the rankings are eventually meaningless as the results sort things out.

Teams and athletes are what they are. Any "rating" they have are the result of media and fan perception. Change the "rating" all you want, it won't make them any better or worse. The true, underlying value of each player or team is unaffected. Furthermore, "overrated" doesn't necessarily mean they aren't still awesome. For example, recently a poll of MLB players asked them what players were the most overrated in their sport. # 1 was Derek Jeter. # 2 was A-Rod. That's right, two guys who are already practicing their speeches for Cooperstown are "overrated". I hate the Yankees, and even I'll concede that Jeter is a great SS and A-Rod is perhaps the best baseball player in the entire world.

So please, find a better criticism of those athletes you hate. Cite their spotty defense. The high strikeout rate. Or poor turnover/assist ratio. Or the fact that their rap sheet is longer than "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner". But let's can that over hyped, overexposed and overused cliche once and for all.

Save the Humans!

In a practical sense, I'm not much of an environmentalist. Theoretically I'm all about it: save the Earth, protect endangered species, conserve our finite resources! Who could argue with such noble sentiments?

When it comes down to it though, I'm at least as wasteful as the average American slob. I don't recycle if it takes any sort of effort on my part. I hate the airlines for several reasons, but none of them involves the massive carbon footprint of a 747. I come from a place where driving hundreds of miles a week is an accepted part of daily life and mass transit is more likely to be the name of a band than something you take to work. And I can't function for more than a day without consuming the sweet flesh of some factory farm raised pollution machine.

Notwithstanding the hypocrisy of my eco-actions, I am sympathetic to the cause of environmentalism. And I think the whole movement could gain a lot more traction with some simple re branding. The way I see it, we shouldn't simply advocate "saving the Earth" (or the whales, or the six spotted leather wing beetle which happens to live only in this one really small pond which would be a great location for a new Barnes & Noble). The "Earth" was here long before humans showed up, and she'll be around long after we're gone. At some point in the future, the Human race will no longer inhabit the Earth. Maybe we'll all don our metallic one-piece jumpsuits and head for the stars. More likely we'll be wiped out, possibly by blasting ourselves to kingdom come, or perhaps as the result of a horrible plague a la "I am Legend". Personally I'm betting on an asteroid impact. Good enough for the dinosaurs, good enough for us.

The point of all this is that the Earth will survive us. All the oil derricks and strip mining we can muster as as species will eventually fade away, the world will be cleansed of our influence, and new species will grow up in our place. So simply advocating that we "save the Earth" is a hollow rallying cry which too often falls on deaf ears. Instead, environmentalism should try this message on for size: "Save the Humans".

The reason we need to reach for sustainability is to ensure that our species continues to live as long as possible with an ever increasing quality of life, instead of cutting short our chance at survival. At it heart, that's what environmentalism really is: an effort to ensure that future generations 1) continue to exist on Earth and 2) have a decent quality of life. So that maybe we will advance to jumpsuits and hyperspace drives, or so when that asteroid comes calling we'll be ready to blast it into space dust. This is a purely selfish (and wholly rational!) motive which can appeal to even the thickest of car idling, motor oil dumping, spotted owl eating clods among us. Like me.