by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Not all hamburgers are created equal. More to the point, there are a lot of different ways to craft and deliver that most iconic American sandwich. Considering how Capitol Hill has become Seattle’s burger nexus over the past couple of years, ground beef enthusiasts can hit nearly every point on the spectrum just by staying in a radius of one square mile.
Freddy Junior’s is the latest burger joint to make a bid for an increasingly crowded market share, and, frankly, it has the toughest competition. Every burger place in the neighborhood does things a little differently. The 8 oz. Burger Bar veers gastro pub trendy, L’il Woody’s is a neighborhood crowd-pleaser with a good sense of humor, Sam’s Tavern (intentionally or not) puts a funky twist on family restaurants like Red Robin or Johnny Rockets. Freddy Junior’s is treading on hallowed ground, though. Its closest analog is Dick’s Drive-In, a long-time Seattle institution, and a Capitol Hill landmark.
With similar products and price points, the two beg for comparison. Here’s how Dick’s and Freddy Junior’s match up when we put them to the test of the Holy Trinity of Fast Food: the hamburger, the French fries and the milkshake.
The Challenger: Owner Freddy Rivas may be new to the burger business, but not to quickie restaurants on the Hill. He’s the man behind Rancho Bravo Tacos, a no-nonsense Mexican spot on Pine Street that’s among the best cheap eats in the neighborhood. Freddy Junior’s opened its doors late in July at 1513 Broadway, with a menu that’s pretty daring and ambitious for a slider joint.
The Champion: Dick Spady and his business partners, Warren Ghormley and Tom Thomas, opened their first burger drive-in in 1954. They established the busy Capitol Hill location one year later when Spady bought a house in the neighborhood. Dick’s Drive-In joined a fast-food revolution that included future mega-corporations like McDonald’s and White Castle, though Spady et al decided to keep things local.
Dick’s: All told, Dick’s gives you more for your money. The Special is $1.80 for a thin, single patty, and the Deluxe is $2.70 for a double. The patty itself is literally meatier than the slider patty at Freddy Junior’s. It’s simple and firm. The signature burgers at Dick’s also don’t screw around in the sauce department. Their take on the “special sauce” concept is an honest mix of mayonnaise and sweet pickle relish.
Freddy Junior’s: FJ’s opts for the slider, a sandwich that’s about half the size of the Special at Dick’s, though with a thicker patty. The sliders all run between $2.00 and $2.50, which make it a slightly poorer deal, but nothing bank-breaking. The patty is looser and, like the iconic White Castle slider, has a distinctly onion-y taste. FJ’s aims for novelty by offering a lot of different burger styles (even with vegan field roast patties), but it lacks necessary restraint with toppings. Ketchup and mustard are standard, but they have no business coexisting with teriyaki, barbecue or, for the love of Pete, tartar sauce. FJ’s needs to cut out this ketchup-and-mustard-with-everything business pronto.
Winner: Dick’s, for keeping things simple but not boring.
Dick’s: Hand-cut and a bit thicker than the average fast food fry, the taters at Dick’s are softer and a bit greasier than those at FJ’s. They have a more potato-forward flavor and only the slightest pinch of salt. In essence, they’re as simple as French fries get.
Freddy Junior’s: Freddy’s fries are thin and crispy, also made in-house but frozen before frying (which actually has some solid practicality and science behind it). The result is a golden-brown batch that doesn’t stick together because the process eliminates extra starch. FJ’s over-salts the fries a bit, but that’s easy to fix.
Winner: Freddy Junior’s, for making them crispy and dry, not gummy and sticky.
Dick’s: Dick’s goes for the classic, hand-dipped milkshake in one of three flavors: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. No frills, no novel flavors, no cherry on top. Just ice cream you can sip through a straw.
Freddy Junior’s: FJ’s opts for floats instead of shakes, which leads to mixed results. Minimally, floats need to have ice cream and soda, but they really benefit from high-quality soda water. FJ’s delivers patrons a paper cup with some ice cream in it, then directs them to the standard-issue soda fountain. This gets better results than one would expect, but that’s not saying much.
Winner: Dick’s, for not half-assing it.
Freddy Junior’s won’t be unseating Dick’s Drive-In any time soon, but none of its problems are irretrievable. If FJ’s uses some common sense in building its novelty burgers and perhaps invests in a nice soda water system, it could be something special. For now, it feels like a fast food joint struggling on a learning curve.