Restaurants come and restaurants go in Ithaca, and we've got our share of national chain eateries, but we can't remember the last time a restaurant opening sparked quite the excitement and anticipation of last year's arrival of Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Ithaca's is the 475th franchise of this DC-based chain that specializes in just burgers, hot dogs, and fries, all freshly prepared to order.
It's not surprising that a Five Guys opening in Ithaca would generate such interest. Unlike most burger chains and other fast food eateries, this one focuses on top quality by keeping things simple. The Five Guys web site says there are over 200,000 ways to order your burger, but if you want chicken nuggets, or cheese sticks, or milkshakes, or cherry pie, you'll have to go somewhere else.
The core of the Five Guys menu is the selection of hamburger, bacon burger, cheeseburger, or bacon cheeseburger. These are two-patty sandwiches; if you've got a smaller appetite, go for the one-patty "little hamburger," and so on, a buck to a buck-fifty less. We're amused that the bigger versions aren't called "double," but we admit that the double version feels like about the right amount of food for a meal. Available toppings, all at no extra charge, include the typical lettuce, tomato, and onions, but go on to grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, and jalapeño peppers.
The less-famous Kosher-style Five Guys hot dog, one menu item that's not part of the restaurant's name, is a nice option if you're not in a burger mood. It's butterflied and grilled, then served with your choice of toppings. A non-meat-eater who stumbles into Five Guys, or who's dragged there with carnivorous friends, can choose from grilled cheese or a veggie sandwich -- not a veggie burger, but a bun piled high with veggie toppings. The buns are grilled on a different grill than the burgers, so the risk of meaty contamination is slight.
Of course, you should also get some of Five Guys's famous fries, not just vegetarian but vegan. A large is large enough to share with a friend or two. Really. Hand-cut from the sacks of fresh potatoes you can see when you walk in the door, the fries come in regular or Cajun style, and there's not only ketchup but malt vinegar available for them. The fries used to come in styrofoam cups, but after an early response to critics calling for more environmentally friendly options saying they were looking into the possibility, the company has succeeded in doing away with the styrofoam.
Ithaca's Five Guys will never offer local potatoes, as the chain always buys its spuds from farms in Idaho. But the company does take pride in its supply; a whiteboard in each restaurant identifies the source. Our Five Guys started off with sacks of fresh potatoes from Sugar City, Idaho. The company also never uses frozen ground beef, just fresh. The only lapse we can see in this trend is what seems to be canned mushrooms. We'll skip those from here on out.
All this fresh food takes a little while to prepare, especially since all Five Guys burgers are cooked to well done. (That wouldn't be our first choice, but they're still perfectly juicy, so we won't complain.) To tide you over until your burger's ready, the store provides baskets of roasted peanuts in the shell. This tasty appetizer is both a thoughtful touch and a potential allergy concern; the company acknowledges it's an issue, and provides clear warnings on the door so those with peanut allergies can stay outside in case they're worried about unavoidable bits of shell. While the company uses peanut oil to fry its fries, they say those with peanut allergies tend not to react to food fried in peanut oil.
Plan on spending $5-10 per person on a meal; going with the "little" burgers and sharing the fries will help save a few bucks. Five Guys Burgers and Fries is open 11am-10pm seven days a week at 222 Elmira Road in the Ithaca Shopping Plaza in Ithaca's southwest. Between Route 13 and the Old Elmira Road, this plaza also features Northside Wine & Spirits, and Taco Bell. Call 607-256-2565, order online at gofiveguys.com, or stop in and tell them you heard about them here.