The Albany suburb of Latham, NY is blessed with an abundance of upscale burger stores. Four can be found along a two-mile stretch on Louden Road and a fifth is a short hop away. Thus, a group of intrepid Yelpers was able to spend a rainy Saturday comparing these products in sequence and at close range.
By better burgers, we mean fast food establishments that are a cut above the industrial sludge at McDonalds and its ilk, yet do not claim to be fine dining. All are chains, meaning there must be a formula that can be replicated from location to location. None has a drive-through but all offer takeout.
The variations in ambience were more striking than the differences in burgers themselves. BurgerFi and Smashburger provide a straightforward experience with generous but not particularly luxurious table/bench/chair seating. Elevation Burger tries harder with a similar layout but a clean, natural look (including some real wood here and there) that reminded some of Starbucks. Five Guys was crowded and “dirty” though that’s possibly due to the shells on the floor from the complimentary peanuts. Burger 21 was, as will be seen, in an entirely different category.
But on to the food. We standardized on a single patty cheeseburger with whatever the place considered its default toppings; because these varied we adapted the spec to lettuce/tomato/onions (grilled onions if available) with pickle and “special sauce” or equivalent. (Benjamin M had a slightly different order, but his responses tracked with the others.) Prices before tax ranged from $5.19 for a “Little Cheeseburger” at Five Guys to $7.25 at Elevation. Zena GofF was kind enough to bring a ruler and scale; the burgers were very consistent in the 8-10 ounce range (including bun and toppings) and around 10 cm diameter. (The “Little Cheeseburger” from Five Guys was actually the largest of the lot, by weight and height.)
The first stop, determined because it was at the northern extremity of our itinerary, was BurgerFi. We have one of these in my home town of Saratoga, and I eat there frequently. We noted that the burger came out unusually quickly, something I’ve experienced on other visits. Unfortunately, this place turned off some diners with a sticky floor and loud ambient music they could/would not turn down. Elijah M felt the bun “had no taste” while Benjamin wondered, “is this a McDonald’s cheeseburger in disguise?”
Elevation Burger, a chain based in Falls Creek, VA, took an unusually long time to serve us for a fast food place (another phenomenon I’ve experienced this on previous visits to this chain.) This is a very finely curated concept with wood touches as I’ve mentioned and unique mini-sheet pans for serving the burgers. Sarah liked the “fresh pickles not cheap ones” and char on the patty, but others marked it down for too-mild sauce and a floppy bun.
Then on to Burger 21, a franchise based in Tampa, FL you can read about here. Its price was in the middle range but in almost every other way it differed from the other spots. On entering you go to a sort of maitre d station, instead of a counter, to place your order. This was the only store that asked us our desired degree of doneness for the patty. (We ordered medium well, which they said was the default.) You add your own sauces from a condiment bar. (We conservatively chose chipotle mayo, something close to a standard “spread”.) The kitchen is hidden from view and waitstaff bring orders to tables. And there is a sort of soda fountain with stools where I expect you could enjoy a milkshake. (Big stirring machines were on display.) Zena called this a “perfect experience” while Sarah gave it a 5 (best) for customer service. Steve N described “wonderful, crusty caramelization on the patty” and Stephanie remarked on the “good char on the burger” and said “restaurant feel also elevated this burger experience.”
Just across the parking lot, but a mile away conceptually, was Five Guys. These boys had a bunch of built-in fans among our group. Karen kindly ordered favorite fries to share and Steve, who is the Duke of Burger 21 on Yelp meaning he checks in more than any other customer, said he actually prefers the good crispy char he gets on his patties at Five Guys. Others said they normally like Five Guys and this visit may have been below par.
The final stop was Smashburger, dictated by location but also because they had beer we could drink while discussing our scores. Our tasting process was thrown off by a promotional triple-double presented by mistake as a standard cheeseburger, but we recovered. Sarah and Zena gave them props for their available milkshakes, and Elijah M actually gave Smashburger his highest rating before confirming Burger 21 was really his favorite.
You can already guess the winner, but a veteran of a number of tasting tours sponsored by FussyLITTLEBlog I’ve never seen a result so unanimous. Burger 21 was the winner on every ballot, almost universally scoring several points above other tightly grouped competitors. Stephanie said “the char on the burger gave it really great flavor. The restaurant feel of this establishment also elevated this burger experience,” while Benjamin M said “wow, about the same price as Five Guys but a lot better. A real surprise!”
Here are final scores: BurgerFi 96.5, Elevation 104.5, Burger 21 133, Five Guys 107.5, Smashburger 103.75. That’s based on a multi point system including burger/cheese, condiments, bun, ambience and overall with 1 being worst, 5 best. I find it interesting that the scores (other than Burger 21) are so close together but maybe it’s not that surprising since we were tasting a standardized product with every store trying to hit the same marks with the same customer base.
The bad news is that Burger 21 is very sparsely distributed; the Latham location is actually the only outlet in New York state. If you find one, hit it… I know I’ll be back for more.