Note: Although people may call In-N-Out Burger overrated, it gets plenty of love: from regular consumers, famous chefs, famous actors, a book about its history, and imitators—if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In case you're not already familiar with this Southern California-based burger chain, our New York City-based burger correspondent Nick Solares is here to share his thoughts on what makes it so good.
I travel to Los Angeles three or four times a year from New York City and spend about a week there on each visit. Back in my early days of reviewing for AHT, that meant a lot of hamburger consumption. But since we are fortunate to have the estimable Damon Gambuto on board as our Los Angeles correspondent, I now feel a sense of liberation as I don't feel the need to seek out burgers to review the way I do when I travel elsewhere. Rather, I can return to the burgers that I have fallen in love with, such as the classic from Pie 'N Burger in Pasadena or the uniquely cooked one from Cassell's downtown, while still allowing me to explore the other aspects of Los Angeles's rich food culture, not to mention try Damon's recommendations.
It also allows me to visit In-N-Out Burger without completely overloading on burgers, something I do on my way to and from the airport, with a visit or two in between for good measure. I generally fly into Burbank and stop at either the Sunset Boulevard location or the one on San Fernando Boulevard, but I have eaten at In-N-Outs all over—in Orange County, out in Anaheim, over by LAX. If I find myself by a location that I have not dined in, I make it a point to stop in. The experience, at least in terms of food, is virtually identical at each location I have visited.
Fresh and Made-to-Order
The consistency of product across the chain is remarkable not because it is so unique—pretty much all fast food joints have managed to rationalize the means of production to the point of delivering consistently similar burgers—but because only fresh ingredients are used and the food is created in each location, not in some factory ahead of time. While a typical fast food drone need only dunk a bag of frozen fries in to a fryer with a predetermined cooking cycle, an In-N-Out employee takes actual potatoes, puts them in to a press to make the fries fresh before cooking them. They can even honor special requests such as "light" or "well done"; try that at your average fast food joint.
While the printed menu is admittedly sparse, restricted to only a handful of items, the combinations possible by ordering off the not-so-secret but unwritten "secret menu" adds several options. (Honestly, if the menu were so secret, In-N-Out wouldn't have listed it on the company's website and many of the items on it wouldn't be trademarked.)
Of course, not everyone is as enthralled by In-N-Out as I am. Despite the chain having a passionate and loyal following—I am most assuredly not the only traveler who makes In-N-Out their first stop when landing in Los Angeles—there is an inevitable backlash against the place. The dissension usually revolves around the notion that In-N-Out is "overrated" and that it is "just fast food." As for the notion "overrated," I don't see how this is possible. A Double-Double, which handily trounces any other fast food burger I have tried, costs under $3, and it even compares favorably to many far pricier burgers. Of course the proper context in which to assess In-N-Out is in relation to other fast food joints, not a custom blended beef burger on a fancy bun that costs several times the cost of a whole meal at In-N-Out.
"Just fast food?" Putting aside the concept that a hamburger is supposed to be fast food, In-N-Out at the very least represents the platonic ideal of what a fast food hamburger should be. Our world would be a very different, and in my view better, place if all fast food chains operated using the same standards (both in sourcing and preparation of ingredients as well as labor practices) that In-N-Out adheres to.
There's More to it Than Taste
Having said that, it's not that I think In-N-Out is the best hamburger out there, although I certainly think it is a very good one. It is just that I don't eat there purely for the taste; I eat there because eating at In-N-Out make me feel assimilated into Southern Californian life. To me, eating at In-N-Out is more than just a meal—it's a cultural ritual, a right of passage even—as if consuming an In-N-Out feast (Corpus California, if you will) brings me closer to the Golden State's incarnation of the American Dream the way that a Catholic might find that the Eucharist brings them closer to Christ.
I eat there because I am nostalgic for the zeitgeist of post-war America, the boom years when the interstate highway system created a mobile society (both literally in the locomotive sense and figuratively in the socio-economic sense) and the hamburger became the closest thing we have to a national dish. It was during this post-war boom, when the country was flush with cheap steel and cheap beef, that In-N-Out got its start. Subscribing to the zeitgeist of the era, the chain served only fresh ingredients and adopted its motto—"Quality you can taste"—that has become a mantra whose exhortation is actualized daily.