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The Eat Beat Dining around South Florida
with Mike Mayo

As Shake Shack opens in Fort Lauderdale, we put it to the test against BurgerFi, Five Guys and Habit Burger Grill

Shake Shack arrived in Broward County Monday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at its new Fort Lauderdale location, 2400 N. Federal Highway. As fast-casual burger chains have proliferated in South Florida, I figured this would be a good time to check out the offerings at four fast-growing, national players: BurgerFi, Five Guys, Habit Burger Grill and Shake Shack.

Over the past week, I visited each and ordered the holy trinity of American burger joints: cheeseburger, fries and shake. I rated each experience on a one-to-four patty scale, taking into account flavor, efficiency and atmosphere. I certainly did not factor in health, because these are gut-busting, artery-straining experiences loaded with calories (1,730 to 2,230), fat, sodium and carbohydrates. I excluded regional favorites such as Pincho Factory and Char-Hut in order to focus on national brands.

What is fast-casual dining? Diners order and pay at the register, then wait a few minutes until food is ready. Fast-casual chains feature higher prices and supposedly higher quality than fast-food giants McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. Some offer beer and wine, and Five Guys offers free peanuts. Fast-casual burger and pizza chains have exploded in popularity in recent years, fueling a national surge in restaurant revenue.

BurgerFi

Background: BurgerFi is a homegrown success, founded in 2011 by a local group including David Manero of Vic & Angelo’s. Its first locations were in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Delray Beach, and the chain now has 106 outposts in 20 states, including 22 locations in South Florida. It is known for Angus beef burgers, fresh-cut fries and its logo branded on buns. It also offers hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and plant-based Beyond Burgers.

My visit: I went to the Fort Lauderdale location, 1465 SE 17th St., at 7:30 p.m. It was busy, but things moved efficiently. The vibe was cool and modern, with warm lighting and reclaimed wood inside and neon-green picnic tables outside. At BurgerFi, diners are handed a vibrating buzzer that flashes when food is ready. Payment to pickup took seven minutes, within the fast-casual goal of 10 minutes. The “BurgerFi cheeseburger” listed on overhead menus is a double patty, which can trip unsuspecting diners, but singles are available. Shakes are offered plain or with whipped cream and sprinkles.

Cost: $14.53, including tax, for a single-patty cheeseburger ($5.87, 535 calories), regular fries ($3.17, 640 calories) and black-and-white shake ($4.67, 880 calories).

Food: The cheeseburger, pressed thin while cooked on a flattop grill, was surprisingly juicy and flavorful and had a nice crust. The yellow American cheese was melted well, and I ordered my burger with pickles and special sauce (a creamy, slightly spicy mayonnaise). Lettuce made an unordered appearance, but it was a mild scattering. The bun was jarringly colder than the rest, but was soft and fresh. Very satisfying bites, not unwieldy, with excellent quality beef, which BurgerFi proclaims is free of antibiotics and added hormones. The fries were thick, fresh-cut, crunchy, hot and terrific, with nubs of darkened skin on each end. The black-and-white shake, using vanilla custard and chocolate syrup, was a bit sweet (with a whopping 123 carbs) and similar in flavor to a McDonald’s chocolate shake. It was served with a very wide straw, which made for easy — but rapidly draining — sipping.

My takeaway: I could eat these burgers and fries all day long, but I could live without the too-sweet shake.

Rating: 3 1/2 patties.

Five Guys

Background: Five Guys started in 1986 in Arlington, Va., began franchising in 2003 and now has 1,284 locations (down from a peak of 1,421), including two dozen in South Florida, with annual revenue of $1.4 billion. Five Guys is known for its lone side: fresh-cut potatoes fried in 100 percent peanut oil. It also offers complimentary peanuts in the shell as a snack while food is being prepared. Turns out I needed them.

My visit: I was surprised when I walked up to the Five Guys in the Harbor Shops of Fort Lauderdale and found it shuttered with furniture stacked inside. “Temporarily closed for remodeling,” a sign on the door read. “Reopening in the fall.” I went to the Five Guys in Hallandale Beach, 800 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd. I arrived at 8 p.m. to find a cramped and mobbed eatery. When I attempted to order a shake, I was told this location did not have shakes. Another unwelcome surprise: Not all Five Guys offer shakes. Shouldn’t chains have consistency in menus and customer experience? My group noshed on nuts and waited. And waited. It took 31 minutes until our food was ready for pickup, and another 10 minutes to rectify a mistake: The non-meat eater in our group found a beef patty on her grilled veggie sandwich. Oops. There are no trays at Five Guys: All orders are served in paper bags, even if you dine in.

Cost: $10.68, including tax, for a single-patty cheeseburger ($5.69, 610 calories) and regular fries ($4.39, 950 calories). No drink.

Food: The cheeseburger was OK, smashed and smooshed to smithereens on the flattop grill by the line cook. It made for good crust, but little juiciness, and the meat itself was ordinary, when tasted apart from the sesame-seed bun, cheese, grilled onions, pickles and ketchup. The patty seemed similar to the fresh beef now used by McDonald’s in its quarter-pounders. And those are $2 cheaper. The fries were astoundingly good, perfect golden crunch on the outside and hot, soft and creamy inside. A front board listed the potato purveyor as Raybould Brothers of Saint Anthony, Idaho.

My takeaway: It seems burger quality has slipped at Five Guys (I had a negative experience outside Boston this summer), and other burger eaters have mentioned the same to me. But those fries are still a knockout.

Rating: 1 1/2 patties.

Habit Burger Grill

Background: Launched in Santa Barbara in 1969, this California invader has grown from 23 to 172 outposts in the past decade, including seven in South Florida. It is known for char-grilled burgers and California twists, such as sourdough bread and sliced avocado topping for its Santa Barbara burger, and grilled pineapple on a teriyaki burger.

My visit: I went to the location in Plantation, 1740 N. University Drive, at 6:45 p.m., and found a mellow and well-appointed eatery, with modern lighting fixtures, comfortable booths, wooden walls and a fixings bar with peppers and hot sauces. Prices are a bit lower here than at other fast-casual chains. Combo meals with fries and a drink are offered. The buzzers read, “Kick back. Relax. Fresh is worth the wait.” Ours went off in eight minutes, and we fetched our food from the friendly attendants.

Cost: $10.63, tax included, for single cheeseburger ($4.09, 470 calories), regular fries ($2.25, 440 calories) and chocolate shake ($3.69, 820 calories).

Food: My char-cheeseburger, served with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayonnaise on a lightly sesame-seeded bun, was a disappointment, with a flavor that tasted odd and slightly of chemicals instead of charred. It wasn’t juicy, and it wasn’t good. I didn’t finish it. The fries were industrial cut to medium thickness and unremarkable, although crispy. The shake was excellent, with custard extruded from a machine mixed with milk and syrup and then blended in a Hamilton Beach mixer.

My takeaway: Disappointing that a place that looked so good was so underwhelming in the flavor department. It does not hold a candle to that other California burger legend, In-N-Out, which so far has not branched east of Texas.

Rating: 1 1/2 patties.

Shake Shack

Background: Launched in 2004 as a single stand at New York’s Madison Square Park by acclaimed restaurateur Danny Meyer, Shake Shack has grown to almost 200 locations worldwide, including six in South Florida. It offers Angus beef, applewood-smoked bacon, organic chicken, crinkle-cut fries and custards, concretes and shakes. Gluten-free buns are available besides the standard Martin’s potato rolls.

My visit: I’ve been to many Shake Shacks in South Florida and beyond, but my latest visit came during this past weekend’s soft opening at the new Fort Lauderdale location. An eager, smiling and large work crew was on hand, and there was no line when I walked in at 4:30 p.m. The eatery was bright and attractive, with wooden tables and seats, large windows overlooking Federal Highway and many televisions scattered around the dining room. The lone drawback: a split order (part eat-in, part takeaway) required two buzzers, which made things clunky. Both went off simultaneously after five minutes.

Cost: $14.70, tax included, for cheeseburger ($5.59, 530 calories), fries ($2.99, 470 calories) and black-and-white shake ($5.29, 770 calories).

Food: The standard ShackBurger cheeseburger comes with two patties, but I ordered a single, with melted American cheese, Bibb lettuce, Roma tomatoes and special sauce (red, creamy mayonnaise). It was smashed to a good crust but still juicy. The soft, pillowy potato roll soaked up juices and flavors. The crinkle-cut fries were fine, very light and crispy from the new fryers but the interiors were airy to the point of nothingness. There was hardly any potato inside. The black-and-white shake was tremendous, a perfect, creamy balance of vanilla and chocolate and not too sweet.

My takeaway: A delicious, pleasant and satisfying experience, but I wonder how it will do once the hangry mobs start swarming.

Rating: 3 1/2 patties.

Conclusion

In my dream world, I’d take a BurgerFi burger with Five Guys’ fries and a Shake Shack shake, from a restaurant with Shake Shack’s efficiency and Habit Burger Grill’s atmosphere. In the real world, I’d have a hard time deciding between BurgerFi and Shake Shack. Both are winners, but best enjoyed in moderation. New arteries do not grow on trees.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

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