Chain Reaction: My First Time at In-N-Out
Editor's note: A few weeks ago, Todd asked for advice on what he should order during his first visit to In-N-Out. Today, he shares the results of his first meal, made possible with your help!
She had me pegged the moment I stepped up to her register. As cool as I had tried to play it, I'm sure I got a little wide-eyed once my pupils adjusted from the blazing Texas sun at high noon. There it all was, just like it had been described to me. The stripped-down and impossibly clean interior. Sparkling, almost. The genuine smiles on the faces of an expeditiously-moving kitchen staff. The absurdly small menu—only four food items on a lightbox smaller than the TV in my living room. The line of people a dozen deep, who actually had less of a wait than the line of cars over twenty deep (!!!) at the drive-thru. All just as expected. I let my kids, my wife, and my in-laws order first, allowing me a last few seconds to mentally rehearse what I was about to say, hoping it would come out effortlessly and naturally, like I was a regular whose heart wasn't beating just a little faster than usual. No. I would be the Iceman, not some mumble-mouthed rookie. Soon, it was go time.
"Welcome to In-N-Out."
"Okay..." I smiled. I may have been actually rubbing my palms together anticipatorily.
"This is why you went last, isn't it?"
Damn. She got me.
"Yep. We're gonna be here a minute."
Thanks in large part to you, AHT Nation, I had what I felt was a rock-solid order for my first time at In-N-Out. A little bit tried-and-true, a little bit I-didn't-know-you-could-do-that.
One regular cheeseburger. To get my INO baseline, I figure.
One Double-Double, medium-rare. The back of my head felt a few gazes from the folks within earshot. I waited for her to balk and tell me that, in fact, you can't do that. Nope, she kept right on punching the keys.
Mustard-grilled. I had debated long and hard about "Animal Style." It's the quintessential In-N-Out not-so-secret-menu order, but the thing is those pickles. I truthfully don't want 'em at all, so I certainly didn't need even more of them. But having a squirt of liquid gold applied as my patty cooks to infuse the meat with that tang? Hells. Yes.
Whole grilled onion. Lots of onion flavor. More than the Animal Style's chopped onion bits, I'd convinced myself. And with caramelization. Love this option. But although my receipt showed what I believe to be the official INO shorthand for "whole grilled onion," my carefully-considered and painstakingly-crowdsourced sandwich's onion showed none of the gorgeous color that Kenji's did, which inspired this add-on in the first place. Boo, hiss. I was bummed that In-N-Out's famously impeccable customer service seemed to miss this one, but not enough to demand a do-over.
You guys were all over the map on how to deal with those legendarily bland fries. Your suggestions ranged from "just deal with 'em" to "light" to "well-done" to "get 'em from McDonald's." In the end, I went Animal Style, hoping the melted cheese, chopped onions, and signature spread would compensate for these spuds that get so universally slandered. Animal Style helps, but I was warned to mix 'em up fast before they congeal into a solid mass. Good call. (I was so worried about this that I managed to squeeze off only one pic of them, at the top of this post.) For a chain that demonstrates such staggering attention to detail, the fact that In-N-Out's fries suck is perhaps baffling. I honestly think, though, that it's become part of INO lore, and that alone is reason enough for the Baldwin Park brass to not make a change.
Was it life-changing? No. It was really, really, really good fast food. The crisp-edged beef, the delicate crunch of the toasted bun, the textbook-perfect proportion of LTO, the spot-on melted cheese... all made for an thoroughly enjoyable burger. But as I sat and contemplated why it hadn't totally rocked my world, I found myself once again taking in the trademarks of the tiny chain. The crazy-long line. The overly friendly staff. The surgical-grade cleanliness of the store. The astonishing consistency of every single burger I saw walk away from that counter. The crossed palm trees out front. I even turned over french fry sleeves and cups to make sure the Bible verses were there, just as I'd always heard. Yep. And then I had a revelation of my own.
It's as much about being in the In-N-Out club as it is about the burgers. Yes, the burgers are high-quality and beat the pants off just about anybody else's fast-food offerings. But it's that cult mentality. That steadfast stubbornness (or stubborn steadfastness) to not offer more than four food items. That secret menu. The palm trees. The Bible verses. The fact that there's not a location on every street corner... but that you can go into any one of them and know without looking that the menu is exactly the same—and has been for 50 years—with no limited-time offerings, no rejiggered numbering system of the value meals, no would-you-like-to-try-our-new-this-or-that. And most important, the take-it-to-the-bank knowledge that your food will taste exactly the same today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, next decade... crappy fries and all. In-N-Out won't change. They'll be there waiting next time you come back. And everything about it will be exactly as you remember it. By not acting like every other fast-food outlet on the planet, In-N-Out has become the only one that remains what fast-food outlets were originally supposed to be.
I left my first In-N-Out experience thinking, "Good, sure. It doesn't live up to the deafening hype, though." But damn if I'm not already thinking about my next trip to visit the in-laws in Dallas so I can go back.
About the author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.
The Ultimate In-N-Out Secret Menu (and Super Secret Menu!) Survival Guide
The Burger Lab: The Ins-n-Outs of an In-N-Out Double-Double, Animal-Style
Adventures at In-N-Out: We Make a Shooter's Sandwich with 16 Burger Patties
In-N-Out vs. Five Guys vs. Shake Shack: The First Bi-Coastal Side-By-Side Taste Test