A good burger is a thing of beauty. As two cult chains open in London, we ask if the new imports are any better than what's already on offer
What seems like a hundred years ago, a phenomenon arrived in my provincial city. Its name was McDonald's. My fellow citizens went wild for the place, overwhelmed by its novelty, by the thin salty 'fries' ("Fries? Whit the buggery are yon?"), the burger that actually bent in the middle and its sweet, exotically seeded bun, the whole, glamorous American-ness of it all. As food writer and burger maven Josh Osersky puts it in his book on the iconic beef sandwich: "nothing says America like a hamburger".
A couple of decades later, I thought we had outgrown all that nonsense, that goggle-eyed thrall to all things corporate You-Ess-of-A. Apparently not. Two Stateside behemoths just landed in London with every bit as much worshipful fanfare as if aliens had parked their spaceships above the piazza in Covent Garden. Here's Shake Shack, from arch-restaurateur Danny Meyer with its "smashed" patties and potato buns; over there is Five Guys, allegedly beloved of Barack Obama, with its proud no-freezers, peanut-oil-only boasts. People camped overnight in anticipation of the openings. A friend who heroically joined the day one, two-hour long queue for Five Guys reported that people were joining the queue simply because there was a queue. What is it about burgers that's creating this current critical mass? It may be an overused word, but the burger can genuinely lay claim to the status of "icon". It can be dressed up à la Daniel Boulud (probably the first of the big name chefs to become burger-obsessed just over a decade ago) with his sirloin burger stuffed with braised short rib and with foie gras or dressed down like the 'Dirty Burger' below. It has moved seamlessly from a snack to grab on the run without care for provenance or sustainability, to the knowing plaything of the foodist classes. Burgers are the perfect fodder for a recession-hit Britain newly fixated with what it is putting down its neck: the latest, hottest new burger will still cost you less than a fairly ordinary plate of pasta. Although, as George Osborne found to his cost after tweeting his "posh" Byron burger, you will be judged on your choice. These aren't just burgers, these are semiotics. Lest we forget, a good burger is a thing of beauty, a satisfying, messy manifestation of all things umami: fine beef, sticky cheese, tomatoes: , both fresh and in ketchup, all ready to be loaded up with your heart's content of bacon, relish, salad, pickles, chilli … there are few things culinary that can be relied on to do their job as effectively. But hey, even a bad burger, a Maccy D's or a Burger King, isn't going to disappoint its legion of fans.
They know what they want and they can get it, cheap and filling and – crucially – consistent, time after time. It is a perfect package, a pop art idol, an unimprovable piece of design. Proper burgers are also tricky to replicate at home unless you have a patient butcher prepared to faff around with percentages of chuck, short-rib, brisket and bone-marrow – just feel those American cuts – and a professional grill in your kitchen. Plus a professional extraction system. Why would you bother anyway, when the High St continues to offer more and more of the things? Chances are, the first time you went out to eat as a child, it was for a burger. At some kind of fundamental level, they allow you to experience food in a way you probably haven't since you were very small. And you can laugh in the face of cutlery like a giant toddler. The current furore might die down after the discerning discovery that the new imports aren't much more exciting than the old ones. And it's not like we haven't been creating some pretty magnificent specimens of our own, spearheaded in London by the likes of the MEAT liquor crew and rapidly colonising most of the UK's major cities. But, when the queues do disappear, burgers are here to stay, defying health advice and food fashion. Businesses like them – nice fat markups. And punters love them. It will be ever thus until we all combust in a giant ball of methane. Which is exactly how I feel after road-testing this little lot.