Upscale quick-casual restaurants (think Noodles, Chipotle, Cosi, Panera Bread) were initially an alternative to fast-food places where the hamburger is king. Inevitably, more upscale burger franchises elbowed their way into the market, notably Five Guys Burgers and Fries, a national chain born in Arlington, Va., with a local outlet on State Street. Five Guys sells itself by using never-frozen meat and making its French fries from fresh Idaho potatoes. The only other thing on the menu besides burgers and fries is hot dogs. Five Guys won the Serious Eats Chain Burger Tournament this year over In-N-Out Burger, after defeating others in the prelims.
I will 'fess up that I am not enamored of Five Guys' burger, so one of my main criteria for evaluating Bub's Burger Joint, a locally owned operation on East Washington Avenue pretty obviously fashioned after Five Guys, was inevitably, "Is this better than Five Guys?"
Ambiance: Bub's. While Bub's is not going to win any design awards, it is trying. The walls are covered with old-timey photos and salvaged vintage doors and window frames, like a Bizarro-world version of Nostrano. The mishmash of decor is sort of jarring. But it's at least a few steps up from the impersonal fluorescent glare of State Street's Five Guys.
Plus, Bub's often has really good music playing (like a live version of "Cowgirl in the Sand" from Neil Young). Everybody behind the counter seems to be working really hard, too.
Burgers: Bub's. The base burger is called the Bona Fide, and it comes with two beef patties. If you're not quite so hungry, remember to order the single Bona Fide, which is plenty for average appetites. Bison patties are also available.
The buns, a puffy sesame-seed model, were fresh and had some body and flavor. Pick from cheddar, Swiss, American or pepper jack cheese, or add bacon.
All toppings are included: mayo, relish, onions (raw or grilled), lettuce, pickles, jalapeños, tomatoes, relish, A1 steak sauce, grilled mushrooms and, of course, ketchup and mustard. There's also a raft of various hot sauces available that you can apply yourself.
The meat was almost pink in the center and was moist, but the overall taste of the hamburger was from bun, grease, cheddar cheese and salt; that is, it was all quite pleasurable in a drive-in sort of way, without carrying any discernible meat flavor.
We have become so accustomed to the fast-food burger in this country that we barely notice that we're not tasting any meat - so much so that a thick burger with a center that's so far away from the bun and the cheese that you really do end up with mouthfuls of just meat can seem like too much of a commitment.
No one at Bub's is asking you to make that kind of commitment. In the scheme of mass-market burgers, Bub's is comfortably on the high end of fast, but not approaching what I guess might be called a "gourmet burger," i.e., something that actually tastes like meat.
Fries: Five Guys. Fries at Bub's come in regular or sweet potato, and in two sizes, regular and large, which might better be described as "ridiculously too many" and "way more even than that." They're freshly cut in-house (you can even see the boxes of potatoes and yams stacked up near the counter), but both versions come limp rather than crisp, and at the same time a little burnt-tasting.
Other menu items: Bub's. An all-beef hot dog is joined by a ribeye sandwich, a chicken sandwich and a veggie walnut burger. Keeping in mind the rule of thumb that when the name of a place is "burger joint," it's usually best to order the burger, I will say that the walnut burger is a welcome sight on the menu. They come from Madison's own Nature's Bakery. Walnut burgers are pretty much fried nuts held together with tofu - add some cheese and other fixings and they don't taste that different from the Bona Fide patty, maybe even more worth savoring.
Bub's also serves beer (Ambergeddon, Hopalicious, Fat Tire, Schlitz and PBR) in bottles.
Bub's doesn't serve anything like a side salad or even coleslaw, which is a big minus.
But then, neither does Five Guys.