I'm no stranger to In-N-Out, the massively popular California-based fast food burger chain (that is apparently poised to expand East, if only a couple states closer to me—hooray!). And of course, I've been aware of their secret menu for years. I've eaten plenty of their signature veggie-heavy, never-frozen, well-balanced, tangy-sauced creations. I've even had them frozen and FedExed across the country in order to recreate them at home (that particular experiment was a great success, by the way). That said, last Sunday I found myself about to attempt something that I've never done before.
The Location: the In-N-Out near Sausalito, just out of San Francisco.
The Time: Sunday afternoon, 3 p.m.
The Mission: Order and document every single item and option on the menu, public, secret, super-duper-secret.
Anybody who's been halfway around the block is aware of In-N-Out's secret menu, which allows you a few custom options other than the regular hamburger, cheeseburger, fries, shakes, and Double-Double that appear on their printed menus. But the options don't stop there.
Before I ever set foot in the store, I culled the Internet, eventually stumbling upon the Davis County Wiki, which has a full user-generated page devoted entirely to In-N-Out menu options. I drew up a list that included about two dozen distinct menu items designed to demonstrate the entire width and breadth of the custom options available at your typical In-N-Out location before hopping into the car.
Along with the listed single and double, you can add up to four patties to any sandwich. Ask for a three by three or a four by four, and what you get is a triple cheeseburger or quadruple cheeseburger, respectively. They used to accommodate sandwiches larger than 4 x 4 (check out a 100 x 100!), but no longer do. I was fairly certain that they could also accommodate a 2 x 4 or a 4 x 2 (that'd be two patties, four slices of cheese, or four patties, two slices of cheese), but hadn't actually tried it in action on an unsuspecting cashier.
You can up the flavor by asking for any burger mustard grilled. After cooking the first side, the cook will squirt some mustard onto the top of the patty before flipping it so that it sizzles into the meat on the grill. It's so good that I've started doing it myself at home.
That said, there are those rare moments in life when all you want to savor is the cheese. Order a grilled cheese, and what you get is a soft toasted In-N-Out bun with two slices of American cheese beautifully melted in between. I like to eat these with pickles. If you ask for it, you can even get the standard lettuce, tomato, and raw onion slices stacked inside.
Of course, those aren't your only veggie options. Grilled onions cooked down in the collected meat juices on the hot griddle can be added to any sandwich, and come standard if you ask for your burger or fries Animal Style. An Animal Style burger also includes extra Thousand Island spread, mustard grilled patties, and extra pickles. Animal Style fries, on the other hand, are topped with cheese, spread, and grilled onions. You'll want to mix 'em up with your fork before the cheese starts to coagulate (of course, you can also ask for just plain old cheese fries). And these options are just the start.
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With such a large and complex order, I figured the best strategy to achieve my goals without getting kicked out of the restaurant would be to order in waves, always including one simple, anchor sandwich (say, a regular Double Double) along with a few of my "special" requests. My first interaction with the bright-eyed, young cashier named Thomas went easily enough.
"Welcome to In-N-Out."
"Hi—I want to make a kinda weird order, ok?"
"Of course!" he said, almost a little too brightly. I must remember to shed my mistrusting New Yorker attitude.
"Ok. I'd like one regular cheeseburger, with everything on it. Then I'd like one regular cheeseburger with chopped chilis.* Oh, and could I also have a bag of chilis on the side?** After that, I'll need a cheeseburger with everything, split in half,*** along with an order of fries, well done,**** if you can do that."
"Sure we can! Anything else?" He's totally unfazed.
"Uh yeah, I'll take a root beer float***** as well, and... that's it for now."
"No problem. You'll be order number 4 today."
* That's super-hot pickled sport peppers chopped and pressed into the bottom of the burger.
** A small bag with two whole sport peppers.
*** Any burger will be cut neatly in half upon request.
**** Fries cooked extra long.
***** Root beer with vanilla ice cream
Our order arrived a few minutes later, produced exactly as requested. Shocking! At my local McDonald's, the cashier has trouble even getting a single cheeseburger right, never mind special requests!
After documenting the goods, I went back for me second order.
"Hey—you're back. Still hungry?"
"Yep. I'm going to order a few more weird things."
"So, are you just trying to order everything on the menu?"
Sh*t, I thought to myself. The gig is up.
"Yeah...," I said sheepishly.
"Awesome! I've been waiting for this day ever since I started working here!"
Things just got a whole lot more fun. We proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes poring over our options, colluding like '80s kids in a clubhouse trading Garbage Pail Kids, expanding my original list with Thomas' insider information.
Here's some more: If you don't like your onions chopped, you might want to instead opt for a whole grilled onion. Thomas was hyper-enthusiastic about this one, saying it was his favorite, and describing the flavor as "almost diner-like." I've got to concur. It's fantastic.
Buns come toasted, and burgers come medium-well by default. But you can, of course, request that your bun come either no toast or extra toast, the latter helping to help protect it from excess burger juice. Say the magic words medium rare, and any burger can be cooked so that it retains a nice pink center. Don't worry, the patty still manages to form some of that signature In-N-Out brown crust.
As for those chopped chilis, I'm no amateur when it comes to heat, but biting one of these diminutive fire-bombs in half nearly brought me to tears. They're not for the faint-hearted!
Those who want to mix up the flavor of their condiments without setting fire to their throats might instead want to just ask to add mustard or add ketchup. I was surprised when I found that you can opt out of the delicious Thousand Island-style spread and instead go for the more familiar red and yellow squirts. Thomas assured me that it was an uncommon request. By the way, you can indeed order 2 x 4's or 4 x 2's, or even 1 x 4's if you are particularly fond of American cheese.
"Some people even like their cheese unmelted," said Thomas, with an air of disapproval. If you are this type, you can ask for cold cheese.
As we were working our way through the order, I noticed the couple beside me asking for a veggie burger. If for some reason you've decided to step into In-N-Out as a non-meat eater, no worries, this is a hippie town after all. You can forgo all the beefiness for a simple salad-in-a-bun. Also known as a wish burger (as in, "I wish there was meat in this burger"), it's a toasted bun piled high with hand-leafed lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and of course, onions, spread, and pickles upon request.
If you really love veggies and really hate carbs, you can also get your burger as a lettuce wrap by asking for it protein style. Some idiosyncratic folk prefer to keep their roughage and their meat in separate beds. If this adequately describes you, you might consider ordering a salad on the side. Even Thomas admitted that only a few of the deepest, inner-circle In-N-Out employees will honor the request, but you can always hack your way to it by requesting extra lettuce, tomatoes, and onions on the side. It'll come tucked into a Double-double wrapper. Ask for an extra packet of spread, and you've got yourself a fully-seasoned daily-allowance of vegetables at no extra cost.
That should make you feel better about yourself when you tuck into the meat and cheese fest known as the Flying Dutchman—the ultimate Atkins-friendly menu item. Two slices of cheese melted between two burger patties. No rabbit food, no wimpy buns, just pure protein and fat. Want to kick up the manliness by yet another factor? Ask for a Flying Dutchman Animal Style and they'll add a scoop of diced onions to the cheese. Pickles and spread will come on the side, so you'll have to add them yourself. "I wish we could add the spread and pickles for you, but it's just too messy for the cooks," explained an apologetic Thomas. The result definitely wins the award for messiest menu item of all time.
Moving on to the liquid side of things, you have your standard choice of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry milkshake (yes, they will honor a request for a black & white). Ask for a Neapolitan, and you get all three flavors in one gloriously integrated and harmonious cup. Not big into shakes? The words root beer float will get you a half cup of root beer topped with a swirl of vanilla soft-serve.
Everyone knows that In-N-Out's fries are notoriously bad despite being fresh cut in-house—it's because they only fry them once instead of the superior McDonald's-style double-fry—but there are ways to improve them. First, you can get them extra crispy by saying well done. The fries turn out more dry and crunchy than crispy with a fluffy center, but it's a definite improvement. If you're on the opposite end of the spectrum, you can also request your fries light, where they'll come to your tray almost completely blond, limp, and greasy. I dunno. Some people like these, apparently. Thomas corroborated the rumored accounts of customers who go even more extreme; one customer regularly ordered two minute fries, which were still crunchy and raw in the middle.
Potential fry hack: Order a few trays of in-n-out fries extra light, bring them home, then refry them yourself. By resting them on the way home, they should be in perfect shape to crisp up into perfect, double-fried fries by the time you get them into your own kitchen, providing you with fresh, double-fried potatoes with the tedious cutting and initial deep-frying work taken care of for you.
And of course, if you want to gussy up your gear, all you've got to do is ask for some stickers. You can get either the classic In-N-Out crossed palm trees over a white background, or a 16-piece sticker-puzzle that features a couple of boys hiding behind a car and being very naughty indeed.
As we wrapped up our order and he rung it in, Thomas confided that "this was the coolest day I've ever had at work." I agreed. It was a cool day, and I thought I was all done until I spied a customer doing this:
Genius. Like ice cream scooped onto apple pie, shoving fries into a burger just makes sense, right?
I turned to Thomas one last time to make one final small request. "I'd like one last cheeseburger please, with fries inside."
"I'm sorry, we just can't do that."
I was floored. Of all the odd requests, this was the single one that couldn't be fulfilled? Had our hand-in-hand menu-trotting adventure meant nothing to him? Was he yet just another corporate shill kowtowing to the man? Was the entire deep, burger-fueled connection that I perceived between our souls nothing but a a lie, as fragile and hollow as a well-done fry? He must have seen the devastation on my face because he quickly continued with, "but I'd be happy to order you another cheeseburger and fries and you can put them in your sandwich yourself. I'll give you some extra napkins. And would you and your friends all like some In-N-Out hats?"
Yes ,Thomas, yes we would, I said softly, dabbing at the onion-scented tears that suddenly welled up in the corners of my eyes with greasy spread-covered fingers. This time it wasn't from the chilis.
We left the store positively high on good burgers and even better service and spent the next hour on the beach at Golden Gate Park staring into the sea and pondering how great the world would be if every fast food experience could be as uplifting.
And that about sums it up. You are now officially a full-fledged member of the In-N-Out Super-Secret Menu Club. Now go forth and burgulate.
So you think you know every In-N-Out burger variant on the menu? Think again. Check out the slideshow above for a full visual guide to every option on the menu!