Thirsty Bear, Stamford Street, London

Exceptional pub fayre

Burger source

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The Thirsty Bear positions itself as the “pub revolutionised” and in many ways it is. iPads adorn many of the tables, which also have beer taps attached, allowing you to order (and pour!) your drinks at the table, get food sent to you, call a waiter for help and so on. It’s a small but effective gimmick, cutting down queue/wait time and certainly makes things work differently.

The burgers are the staple of the pub’s American-themed menu, which also features wings, ribs, slaws, soft tacos and beyond. All we know is about the burger origins is that  “All burgers are a whopping 6oz of prime rib-eye, fillet and sirloin patty.”

The order

I ordered a ‘BBQ bacon’, and colleagues had various eccentric variations; one featuring pulled pork, one peanut butter. The BBQ bacon featured 6 oz beef patty, crispy smoked bacon, Monterey jack, lettuce, tomato, red onion, BBQ glaze, bun. Side of Cajun fries, and we had some wings and ribs too.

The meat of it

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Appearances can be confusing. In the darkness of the pub, what was clear was that this burger appeared to have a rather flaccid bun; there was ample (perhaps excessive) salad poking around the side. The burger was topped with thin-mandolined pickled cucumber. BBQ sauce was dripping around the bun. The cheese had an excellent melt and was glooping around the side. A stray red onion loop makes its presence felt.

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The cross section reveals a fine grind, densely packed. Not sure how this is going to go.

Then the first bite. The crunch from the uber-crispy bacon reports like a rifle shot. The taste is instant; the salt and crunch of the bacon; the slight resistance from the well-charred burger exterior. The juicy drip of its interior – drier than it could have been, but better than many. A smokiness and sweetness, from the meat and the BBQ sauce, peels through each mouthful. There’s a light bonus crispness and sweetness from the salad; tomato and onion, mild lettuce, perfect pickle. The meat blend makes every mouthful tasty, despite the fact that the burger is a little too dense and too chewy, and the lettuce portion is unnecessarily generous…  the overall impression is one of lush, well balanced flavour. This is an excellent pub burger.

Sides were fun: the Cajun fries (and the regular, and sweet potato fries colleagues ordered) were truly excellent. Crisp and well seasoned on the outside, squidgy in the middle, without being unduly salty. Cajun seasoning adds a (very) mild spice flavour.

We also tried some buffalo wings and ribs. The ribs were dry and tougher than they should have been; the sauce a little meanly applied though not without flavour. Overall, a solid meh. The wings, on the other hand, had a good crunch, decent heat coming through the hot sauce, and only a smidge too little sauce. The meat was juicy and not overdone. Definitely moreish, though, and recommended.

The colleagues I was eating with enjoyed theirs as much as I did mine, so verdict verified.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  4/5 – soft but surprisingly sturdy
Build – 4/5 – may not look like much but really very well contained
Burger – 3.5/5 – could have been a shade or two rarer without hurting anyone
Taste –  4/5 – very solid flavour, if a little dense and less juicy than it could have been
Sides – 4/5 – excellent fries, good wings, middling ribs
Value – 4/5 – £12 for burger and side, ish. Plus £5.50 for a pint, and £12 to share a jumbo starter.

Burger rating – 4/5 – really very good overall.

The deets

Just off Southwark Street, about 8 minutes down the road from Waterloo Station. Worth the diversion for supper and a pint. Limited Vegan options available.

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Five Guys, Westfield, Shepherd’s Bush

Overpriced, but competent burger in sterile environment

Burger source

Five Guys is an American institution. Founded in Virgina in the mid 80s, it made its way to the UK a few years ago and has been spreading like wildfire.

Unlike McDonald’s style fast food, the food quality is high – Five Guys prides itself on freshness, not having freezers, sourcing meat well (in the UK, it’s grain finished Irish beef), and offering extremely simplicity in their menu – it’s basically just burgers, hot dogs and fries, though the ‘25,000 customisations’ on offer come in the form of swapping out salad, cheese, bacon, etc. and various other toppings on offer.

They also have Coca Cola vending machines with endless customisation on offer – any syrup, with any flavouring. For a caffeine-intolerant person that’s never been able to try vanilla Coke… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The order

I had the bacon cheeseburger – standard salad options – and shared a large fries with Matt and James. And a bottomless Coca Cola vending machine drink.

The meat of it

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The burger doesn’t look particularly special, though it’s clearly good meat and a capable bun, it is somewhat squished into its wrapper. There’s a reasonable melt on the cheese and the salad looks healthy and fresh. So far, so ok.

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The cross section reveals a burger that’s cooked to well done, rather than my preferred medium. Not inherently an issue, the two 4oz ish patties still seem to retain a reasonable amount of juice. A taste of a stray bit of bacon – a thin slice fo streaky – reveals a good crisp finish and good bacon flavour.

On first bite – the burger is juicy but could do with a little more moisture. The meat has good texture, is a coarse ground, high fat-ratio item but the overcooking has left it somewhat wanting. I’d have liked a smidge more seasoning, but the cheese compensates somewhat. The bun is a standard seeded white roll, so the sweetness comes from the vegetables; in a rare break with personal tradition I leave the tomato in place and eat it as is. The pickles are (too) mild, but the mayo helps bind the lot together. The whole is somehow better than the sum of its parts, which – whilst passable – are unexceptional. When you take into account the price – £8.50 for the burger, followed by a share of £5 for the fries and £3.50 for the drink… it feels somewhat overpriced.

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The ‘large’ portion of fries is enormous (MyFitnessPal tells me that a full portion weighs up at 1,368 calories, so definitely share it) – the above is just overspill, the majority of the pack is elsewhere. The chips are crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, fried in peanut oil (peanuts are a major feature of the Five Guys experience, left scattered around the restarunt in large sacks, making it totally unsuitable for allergy sufferers like my wife and nephew).

HOWEVER…. the seasoning is completely overdone. I’d have far preferred a simple salt finish. I should have customised their cajun seasoning right off them, would have dramatically improved it.

The final piece…

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I discovered in about 2000 that I was caffeine intolerant, and am now completely incapable of consuming it. I loved Coke, though, and ‘gold Coke’ – caffeine free Diet Coke – has been my only option if I wanted the flavour. I’ve watched all these novelty flavoured Cokes come and go and been unable to try them.

So I drank a lot of flavoured coke with my meal. Vanilla (YUM), lime (not bad!), raspberry (chemical!) – totally worth the £3.50 for me, though probably not for any normal person who is happy with a single large cup of carbonated (fake) sugar water.

The one critical thing worth noting about the Five Guys experience is that the restaraunt is really very simply adorned; it feels like sitting in a McD’s, complete with over-bright lighting, occasional mess on the floor, unkempt furniture and dazed and confused patrons. It’s not a pleasant place to eat, and given that the price compares with some of the best burger restaraunts in London… well, it loses points on that front.

Monkey finger rating

Bun –  3.5/5
Build – 3/5
Burger – 3.5/5
Taste –  3.5/5
Sides – 3/5 – 4.5 without the cajun seasoning
Value – 3/5 – £15 for a fast food eating experience with better quality food.

Burger rating – 3.5/5 –  passable quality burger, but not excited to have another one.

The deets

Five Guys is everywhere in the UK now. Find your nearest here. We were en route to the Star Wars VR experience (The Void) in Westfield, hence choosing that particular eatery. THAT was amazing. Definitely try that.