Edward: A while back, I lamented the absence of good lunch options around where I work (the area around the Cottonwood Mall). It’s not so much that there aren’t any places to eat as that the choices are mostly dine-in restaurants (most of which are lame chains like Red Robin) or fast food. What’s a white-collar peon in the Paradise Hills area to do when he’s got an hour for lunch but wants something a little further up the foodservice chain than McDonald’s?
The Lunch Rush Gods must have heard my lamentations, because, over the past couple of months, not only has Urban Hotdog Company rolled into the neighborhood, but a couple of fast-casual spots have set up shops as well. So I figured I’d provide some incredibly narrowly focused public service, and do a quick shootout between three of the recent arrivals.
NOTE: Two of these three are national chains; Hannah and I believe in spending our energies spotlighting local establishments, but out here in the culinary wilderness, I’ve gotta take what I can get. There are some local eateries in the area, which I plan to get to eventually.
FIVE GUYS BURGERS & FRIES
Five Guys is an massively popular national burger chain, and they certainly have an attractive setup. The menu is pretty simple — mostly just burgers and hot dogs, with a welcome nod to non-meat-eaters with grilled cheese and veggie sandwiches — but the major draw is the ability to custom-build your food with a sizable array of ingredients, like A-1 Sauce.
The interior vibe is very much “old-fashioned diner,” with plenty of that insane cheerfulness that’s apparently mandatory for all upscale fast food joints now. You order at one end of the counter and wait through a lot of shouting before picking your food up at the other end. Those in the know, however, order online at their website or via iOS/Android app.
Ordering online is a godsend for the busy peon on the go. You can put together your order at your leisure, and at least on the iOS app you can store your credit card info, so you can pay right from your phone. Then you go in and bypass the long line and pick up your food from a register dedicated to online/phone orders.
One thing to keep in mind if you’ve never experienced Five Guys before is that the concept here is very much about BIG FOOD for people who want to EAT A LOT OF FOOD. People complain about the prices — my fairly standard cheeseburger/fries/soda came to about $12 — but keep in mind that their standard “hamburger” is other places’ “double meat hamburger.” The regular burger is a double, and the single burger is the “Little Hamburger.” It’s a genius concept, since most customers at burger joints will just order the cheeseburger or whatever, and upsize if they’re especially hungry — but here, you have to downsize to the “normal” burger.
So, how’s the burger? It’s OK. Some people love it; I like it, but I don’t love it. The extreme customizability is probably the best thing about it. The burger patties are juicy and thick and usually nicely charred around the edges. But I find them a little bland. You may be tempted to go crazy with toppings, but I think it’s a mistake — it makes for a crowded, soggy mess. As a burger fan, I like to actually taste the hamburger. If you’re familiar with the In-N-Out burger chain, this burger is pretty similar. It’s pretty fresh-tasting (one of their selling points is that they don’t have freezers at their locations — everything is fresh), clearly a quality product. But to my tastes, lacking in flavor, even with your zestier toppings. The bun is pretty generic, and the cheese, while plentiful somehow manages to be practically nonexistent in flavor.
As with the burger, let the buyer beware when ordering fries. Order the “regular” fries and you get more than a basket of fries at most places. Ordering the “large” fries results in a tsunami of potato product that should not be consumed by any single person in one sitting. The fries come plain or “Cajun” flavored, and are of the fresh-but-limp variety. Crispy fry lovers will find no joy here. But if you’re a fan of the softer fry, you’ll probably enjoy these. And in addition to the standard ketchup, they keep bottles of malt vinegar at the counter, which is a nice touch.
Lumpy’s opened up a few months ago in the area. I’m not sure if this is a second location for this popular local burger joint, or just a move, since I no longer see the Central Ave. location listed on their website. (Well done, by the way, on the website, which stands apart from many restaurant sites in that it ACTUALLY LISTS THEIR HOURS OF OPERATION ON THE FRONT — and every — PAGE.) As to the interior vibe…if Five Guys is a faux-diner-style burger joint, Lumpy’s is a faux-dive-style burger joint. Different genres, but fairly similar in many respects. Lumpy’s goes for what I can only describe as a polished downscale quirkiness.
There are a couple of fun — or rather, one fun and one questionable — gimmicks at Lumpy’s. You place your order by filling out options printed on a paper sack, using one of the crayons provided. The menu here is even more minimal than Five Guys: burgers, fries, drinks, and hand-made milkshakes. That’s pretty much it; the variety is provided by, as with Five Guys, a wide array of customizable toppings.
Some of the more interesting options include a fried egg, avocado, and a couple of mysterious-sounding sauces — “Cali Sauce” (basically “secret sauce,” perhaps the least secret sauce in existence — Thousand Island) and “Burque Sauce,” which is a creamy green chile sauce. (You can also get something called “Frozen Moo Juice” as a fry dipping sauce — I’m assuming this substance is milkshake, as some people unaccountably love fries dipped in milkshakes, but I haven’t summoned up the courage to request it.)
So once you’ve got your paper bag filled out, you head on into the line, where you come across some bins of potatoes — regular and sweet. Depending on which kind of fries you’ve marked on your bag, you pick out your own spud and take it with you to the counter, where it’ll be taken away and fried. This is both charming and extremely problematic. Charming: it’s pretty cool to pick out your own potato. You get the size you want, and if you care about such things, you know you’re getting a fresh, unblemished specimen.
Two problems with this concept: one, I just don’t care for fresh-cut fries that aren’t double-fried. This method results in fries that taste good for about thirty seconds after they hit your table, but quickly become soggy. Second, these (kid-level) bins are just out there for everyone (including yourself) to paw at with their grubby hands. I find this a little disgusting. I mean, yeah, yeah, once they’re fried at 350 degrees they’re not going to have any (living) germs on them, but if you’re a filthophobe1 like myself, you don’t want filth on your food, even if it’s sterilized filth. No bueno.
But enough about filthy potatoes — how’s the burger? Well, unfortunately, after all that buildup with the paper sack and zillions o’ options, what you wind up with is a disappointing burger. Again, like Five Guys, the standard “Lumpy” is a 1/2 pound double-patty, but you can get the quarter-pound “Umpy” or, God help you, the 3/4 pound beast that is the “Plumpy.” What’s good is the light Kaiser bun — I hate an overly bready burger, and this bun is sturdy but delicate. Toppings are fresh and I like the options here much better than at Five Guys. (The Burque Sauce is ostensibly a fry dipping sauce, but I find it a lot better on the burger. It’s very chunky, so I’m not sure why it’s offered as a sauce for the soft fries that aren’t sturdy enough to hold the pieces of green chile.)
The patty is where this burger lets me down. The burgers may be made fresh to order, but the patties don’t taste freshly formed. They may be, but something about the preparation makes them come out tasting not much different from burgers made from frozen pre-formed discs. The meat is bland and a little mealy tasting. (Caveat: I’ve only visited Lumpy’s once, so I may have just been unlucky. I want to give the place a fair shot, so I will be back in the near future, and will update this review if I have a better experience.) Everything else about this burger is pretty good, so it’s especially disappointing that the patty itself is a letdown.
Although the fries aren’t the crisp outside, creamy inside style that I prefer, I will say that Lumpy’s makes a pretty good version of the fresh-cut style (putting aside the filth issue for the moment). You can get them “Skinny,” which is a thin-cut fry, or “Skrewy,” which is even thinner-cut, supposedly resulting in a crispy fry. This is something I’ll have to test on my followup visit. I’m skeptical. In any case, Lumpy’s makes some pretty tasty, well-seasoned fries, and having the sweet potato option is pretty nice.
Chipotle, which only set down in Albuquerque in 2011, was one of the most hotly anticipated and prayed-for national chains to open up here, and they still command some pretty daunting lunch-hour lines. Fortunately, though, like Five Guys, Chipotle offers online ordering as well as a super-convenient iOS app (there isn’t an official Android app yet) that you can use to build your order and pay in advance. Unlike Five Guys, though, there isn’t a dedicated register for online pickups, which could be confusing if, like me, you don’t read the confirmation email they send you. But if you order online, you can bypass the line entirely and go right up to the counter to pick up your foodstuffs.
For those who choose the conventional route, the way Chipotle works is basically cafeteria style. You go down a line of servers who build your order to your specifications, and you pay at the end of the line. The process is brutally efficient: you choose your overall food format — burrito, burrito bowl, hard taco, soft taco, salad — then your starch/veg (cilantro rice, pinto or vegetarian black beans, or fajita veg), and your meat (steak, barbacoa, chicken, carnitas). Choose your salsas — all free. Chips and guacamole are available as extras, as well as sour cream and cheese. You can request customizations, of course, like half and half of meats, or extra meat (for an extra charge). Internet scientists are constantly hard at work refining the formula.
There’s a reason why Chipotle is insanely popular — the food is pretty damned good, considering it follows the Taco Bell model of a handful of ingredients rearranged into different configurations. My preferred configuration is the burrito bowl, with half barbacoa and half steak, over fajita veg (sometimes rice), with ALL THE SALSAS. Everything is extremely fresh — nothing tastes like it’s been sitting on a steam tray for too long. The barbacoa, braised in chipotle adobo and a mixture of spices including — sorry Gil — cumin, is tender and well seasoned. The steak, tender and juicy. This is simply a delicious bowl of food.
I wasn’t as enthused about the hard tacos, though for reasons that aren’t really Chipotle’s fault. The hard tacos — you get three with an order — really need to be ordered and eaten with a minimum of sitting around, or they quickly become a soggy mess. So for me they were a bit of a letdown (the one pitfall of online ordering!), but if I’d gotten to them right away they would have been delicious. I don’t know if these shells are freshly fried or not, but they do taste like it. The parts that were still crunchy were nice and substantial, no trace of staleness or old frying oil. And this is a hefty meal. I wasn’t sure what the portion size would be of these versus the burrito bowl, but as it turns out any of the choices are probably going to fill you up, no problem.
AND THE WINNER IS…
This was unexpected for me, since I’m a dedicated burger guy and, while I like Mexican (and Tex-Mex, and New Mex) well enough, it’s just not a regular lunchtime go-to choice. Plus, I’d much rather hit up a taco truck than get assembly-line food at a chain. But Chipotle won me over, with the deliciousness of their food, the impressive customization options, and unbeatable convenience. The ability to order and pay online and pick up my order almost immediately is a huge plus when time is limited. Also, there aren’t any lunchtime taco trucks around here.