The hamburger might have been invented in Europe, but it was in America that it became a pop culture icon and a street food staple.

Conflicting claims on the origin of the hamburger all share certain things in common; The idea that it was developed by immigrants from Europe, and that it was designed to be an affordable sandwich from the beginning. The expansion of cattle ranching across the North American continent facilitated the rise of this ground beef sandwich and lead to the addition of cheese; The cheeseburger was born.

Cheeseburgers were the staple of the dinners and dive bars that dotted America’s open roads during the dawn of the automobile. When these establishments were concentrated and consolidated into fast food franchises, the cheeseburger was once more the focus. Multinational corporations like Burger King and McDonalds built their empires on serving cheeseburgers quickly to the masses.

Debates and discussions on America’s best fast food cheeseburger often comes down to three places that all specialize in this particular sandwich and very little else; In-n-OutShake Shack, and Five Guys. Comparing all three often leads to something of a regional rivalry, but it’s time to ignore availability, and judge America’s best fast food cheeseburger on taste, and then factor in price. It’s a triple threat match for the heavy weigh champ of the high quality fast food burger.

In-n-Out Burger

4x4 Animal Style Burger and Animal Style Fries from In-n-Out Burger.

Formerly an In-n-Out Secret Menu item, the 4x4 or quad quad features four beef patties and four slices of cheese.
Quad Quad with Animal Style Fries from In-n-Out Burger

In-n-Out burger has a cult following all across California. Part of this is because this fast food chain was exclusive to the state for decades before expanding into nearby areas. Even today, locations are still saturated in the South West and non-existent on the East Coast.

Another reason that Californians love In-n-Out is simply because their quality is truly exceptional for the price. Their high standards and limited availability are actually closely linked, since the founding family insisted on keeping the company privately owned, and close to privately owned farms that could consistently provide high quality, fresh beef.

Ordering Animal Style is the way to make the most of the In-in-Out experience. A few years ago, this method of getting your patty mustard-cooked, and served on the bun with a heap of grilled onions was part of the In-in-Out secret menu along with the option to get a burger stacked twenty beef patties high, but now it’s proudly advertised as being “not so secret”.

Animal Style Fries involves their already delicious French fries being doused in a cheddar cheese spread, some secret sauce, and then topped with chopped grilled onions.

Animal Style Fries from In-n-Out Burger

In-n-Out burgers are often criticized for being over-rated and not much better than standard fast food cheeseburgers like Burger King’s Stacker or a Quarter Pounder from McDonalds.

These critics aren’t entirely wrong. An Animal Style burger is fast food perfected, but not much more than that. However, the fact that neither Burger King nor McDonalds has been able to create a suitable replica is testimony to In-n-Out’s excellence.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Cheeseburger and Boardwalk Style Fries from Five Guys Burgers and Fries

Five Guys Burgers and Fries was founded by a couple who named the company after the patriarch and their four sons. Over time, a fifth son was born and the father took a backseat, so the five guys are now all brothers.

Once upon a time, Five Guys was all the rage because of their customizable menu with options like A1 steak sauce, Jalapeno peppers and more. The peak of this pop culture status might have been when President Barrack Obama ordered from a branch in Washington DC for himself and staffers.

President Obama orders lunch at Five Guys in Washington, D.C. during an unannounced lunch outing May 29, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
President Obama ordering from Five Guys

In the time since, both the concept of the celebrity politician and the customizable sandwich has fallen out of fashion somewhat. Five Guy’s lost some of their novelty while simultaneously raising their prices.

Even though a Five Guy’s burger is not the bargain that it once was, they do manage to more than deliver, especially if you love to mix and match burger toppings because they offer fifteen of them for free, including jalapeño peppers, grilled mushrooms, and A1 steak sauce. Their boardwalk style fries are always cut fresh and made to order and they also offer them “Cajun Style” where they’re doused with spicy seasonings. While delicious, they aren’t as decadent as cheese fries, but their extreme generosity with portion sizes more than compensates. As an added bonus, some locations have Coca-Cola Freestyle Machines, so the beverage options are even more diverse than the burger toppings.

If In-n-Out can be called over-rated, then Five Guys can be seen as a bit over-priced.

Shake Shack

ShackBurger with Bacon Cheese Fries and Shackmeister Ale from Shake Shack
Shackburger with Bacon Cheese Fries and Shackmeister Ale

The newest of these cheeseburger chains is Shake Shack, a company that was originally supposed to be a stand-alone burger stand at Madison Square Park. The concept was more of a community center for midtown Manhattan, but they expanded due to growing demand for their fine dining approach to fast food.

The standard Shackburger is put together so perfectly, that it almost always looks like the picture on the menu. In the fast food industry where reality is often disappointing, this is quite an achievement. Articles on the company often reveal how much thought went into perfecting their craft in the earliest days of the company.

The beef patty is a bespoke blend of ground Angus beef from a third generation New Jersey butcher who specializes in dry-aged steaks. The bun is a potato roll that cradles the meat perfectly, absorbs the juices, but never gets soggy.

Every single element of the menu was artfully selected with the ultimate goal of creating the best fast food cheeseburger possible. The company even partnered with a local craft beer company to create an ale that’s meant to be enjoyed alongside their burgers. The crinkle-cut fries are also the best in the three, and possibly the best fast food fries in general; especially when slathered in their cheese sauce.

Shake Shack Burger review and comparison to In-n-Out and Five Guys

The fact that most locations serve both craft beer and wine is an indication that prices are going to be steep since they’re fusing fast food with fine dining concepts. First time customers might be shocked to discover that buying a burger in a brown bag costs as much as casual dining chains like Red Robin and Johnny Rockets. Ultimately however, few people would be disappointed by the quality and presentation of a Shake Shack burger with cheese fries.

Comparing In-n-Out, Five Guys, and Shake Shack really just reinforces how different they all are. What they have in common is a certain amount of exclusivity in terms of locations and a loyal cult following.

Neil De Grasse Tyson probably said it best; “In-n-Out is a fast food joint that makes a really good burger, whereas Shake Shack is a gourmet shop making a fast food burger.”

Five Guys falls somewhere between these two, but they also offer some additional differentiation via an alternative style of premium fries, and the opportunity to customize orders in more ways.

For me, In-n-Out offers the ultimate fast food cheeseburger. Shake Shack and Five Guys are both great but the former is a bit too high end, while the latter is a bit too over-complicated in terms of options. Ultimately, they both lose the simplicity of a beef patty, cheese and a bun with few other ingredients offered at an affordable price.