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The Ins and Outs of In-N-Out Burger

IMG_5817A few weeks ago I took my daughter to Los Angeles to look at colleges. Though it was tempting, I decided not to turn this trip into a big eating adventure filled with dinners at the kind of restaurants that earn you foodie bragging rights. Instead, we hung out with friends and ate wherever convenience directed us.

One friend made us wonderful braised rabbit he bought from a market that sold them live and butchered them on the spot. Another took us to an entertainment industry party where we got to gawk at famous people and shove surprisingly good cheese panini into our gobs. And then, without much research, we ended up at a terrific Shanghaiese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley that serves pan fried pork buns called sheng jian bao, bready wonders of culinary engineering that crunch with sesame seeds and gush hot soup when you bite into them.

There was, in fact, only one name restaurant I was interested in trying: In-N-Out Burger. This fast-food chain has been an L.A. staple since the first one opened more than 60 years ago. Over the past decade, the company has started to expand into a few other Western markets — most recently Dallas in 2010.

I know ex-Angelinos who must make their In-N-Out pilgrimage when they return home. Popular culture lionizes the quality of food at In-N-Out, in particular the iconic Double-Double burger stack that was an influence on the famous 10 p.m. Holeman & Finch burger stack here in Atlanta. In-N-Out seemed like it was one of those restaurants that any committed face-stuffer needs to visit once in his life for American cultural literacy.

As luck would have it, we were staying in the eastern suburb of Baldwin Park (in the central San Gabriel Valley), where the very first In-N-Out Burger opened. That restaurant was razed to make room for the I-10 expansion, but another built in its place nearby shares a campus with the company’s training facility and corporate gift shop, called In-N-Out University. And it was only a mile from our hotel.

Here's my kid (face obscured) in front of her perspective college

Here's my kid (face obscured) in front of her prospective college

We struck gold. After forcing my poor teenager to pose in front of In-N-Out University and then texting the image to everyone in our family (“Haha! Look where she wants to go to college!”), we ate.

Even though it was past 2 p.m., a line snaked out the door. The kitchen seemed like a military command center, bigger and busier than any fast-food kitchen I had ever seen.

The menu board above the front counter seemed as basic as possible. In addition to the Double-Double, you could order a hamburger, a cheeseburger, french fries, a milkshake or a soda. That was it. No grilled chicken wraps or fried apple pies or low-cal salads with fat-free dressing.

But I knew that part of the In-N-Out lore involved the so-called “secret menu” that everyone knew about. However, the only part of the secret menu that stuck in my brain was the existence of something called “animal-style.”

When the incredibly cheerful young woman at the counter took our order, I asked for a Double-Double. “Is that it?” she asked.

“Um, can I have it animal-style?” I kind of mumbled. It just sounded so wrong.

“Of course!” she chirped, directing us to the waiting area where little kids were climbing all over their parents.

We sat there and watched the burgers and fries come out, and I have to say they were beautiful. The burgers were half-wrapped and set sideways on the trays so that you could see the bright red of the tomato slice, the ruffle of the “hand-leafed” lettuce and the brown, toasted surface of the bun. Skinny fries heaped up alongside. We also espied several orders of chili-cheese fries — presumably from the secret menu — that looked quite snarfable. We were ready to pounce on this food.

My kid liked her cheeseburger well enough, though she declared it less good than its counterpart at Five Guys Burger and Fries. I really liked my animal-style Double-Double, which contained grilled onions and mustard cooked into the patties, as well as a bit too much of the goopy pink sauce called “spread.” We both agreed the fries were too dry and chalky.

But what I really liked most was the way you waited a few moments longer — fast food or not — for something that clearly looks handcrafted.

The robust good cheer of this restaurant — the bright red-and-yellow color scheme, the gleaming bustle in the kitchen — doesn’t seem forced. In fact, it seems particularly Californian. Almost more than any other place we had seen or eaten at, In-N-Out Burger gave me a sense of being on the West Coast.

I’d hate it if my kid goes so far away for college, but if she does, I’ll look forward to visiting her and getting my In-N-Out fix.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

30 comments Add your comment

Edward

November 12th, 2012
11:08 am

Oh, I do love In-N-Out. Glad you remembered the “animal-style”. The chili does go well with the fries. I can’t really compare In-N-Out to any other chain restaurant available here, not to say there aren’t a couple of good ones. Smashburger, Boardwalk Burger, and of course, Five Guys are standouts. The H&F burger is in a class by itself.

Art

November 12th, 2012
11:11 am

They do make good burgers but it’s really the mystique and limited availability as much as it is the burgers. I liken it to Coors beer in the late 70’s when you couldn’t get it east of the Mississippi; East Coast beer drinkers were literally turning their cars into rolling coolers to maximize the number of cans of this frosty elixir they could bring east. Once Coors was readily available everywhere, it joined the regular beer ranks. As In-N-Out expands eastward, it too will join the regular burger ranks.

Political Mongrel

November 12th, 2012
11:26 am

I’ve eaten several times at INO out west. I remain only slightly impressed. It’s terribly overrated.

Native Atlantan

November 12th, 2012
11:58 am

Spent close to 5 years working on the west coast…..never understood the draw of in-and-out burger. But, hey, I like the Varsity so who am I to question.

david c

November 12th, 2012
12:00 pm

I still prefer a Chili Cheese Dog with Extra Chili From Original Tommy’s whenever I’m in Los Angeles. But I like In ‘n Out Burgers (maybe with Tommy’s chili?) better than Tommy Burgers.

Grasshopper

November 12th, 2012
12:01 pm

No iced tea?!

What was the calorie count of your animal-sized meal? I mean, with most Kessler fast-food reviews we get the added joy of a fat and calorie sermon. Why not this time? Too much mystique?

Patrick

November 12th, 2012
12:06 pm

Try the location just outside LAX!

They have an outdoor eating area right right under the glide path to the runways. You can eat your burgers and watch the planes land at close range. Nothing like looking up at the undercarriage of an A380 as it comes roaring in for a landing!

It is really cool! My “first stop” whenever I travel to L.A.

Joe Mama

November 12th, 2012
12:13 pm

Ah, John, welcome to the INO Horde. Visit your daughter often and explore the wonders of the INO Secret Menu, including items like:

3×3 or 4×4 burger (they used to go even larger, but no more)
Protein Style Burger (wrapped in lettuce, no bun)
Flying Dutchman (meat & cheese, no bun, no veg)
Veggie Style (no meat on the sandwich, just toppings)
Grilled Cheese (just what it sounds like)
Onions, raw or grilled on request
Pickles and/or chopped mild chilies
Fries light, well, cheese &/or Animal Style

And from the drinks station:

Neapolitan shakes
Arnold Palmer
Root Beer Float

They’ll even toast your burger’s bun longer or shorter as you specify. And they are *glad* to do these special-handling orders for you! I’ve never been treated like I wanted something weird at an INO when I’ve ordered any of these things.

It’s not that INO is so much better than any other burger joint — because they’re not, but they really do seem to *try* harder, and the level of customization you can get is really nice, IMO. The closest approximation I’ve found in the East is Five Guys, but I always seek out INO whenever I’m out west.

Scooter

November 12th, 2012
12:56 pm

Did I miss something? What is “animal style”?

Joe Mama

November 12th, 2012
1:09 pm

“What is “animal style”?

You get pickles and Thousand Island “spread” on the sandwich, plus they grill onions and mustard right onto the burger itself.

I prefer my INO burgers Animal Style, and you can get your fries done Animal Style, too (onions, cheese and Thousand Island).

Google “In & Out Secret Menu” and you should find several sources that lay out all the different unadvertised ways they’ll serve their food. But be advised that they won’t make any burger larger than 4×4 any more (four patties and four slices of cheese). College students started ordering obscenely large burgers for laughs a few years back and INO put a stop to it.

Lorenzo

November 12th, 2012
3:19 pm

Having lived in In-N-Out country for 15 years, I just don’t understand the relatively recent hype (other than it possibly reflecting the best word-of-mouth marketing campaign the restaurant industry has ever seen). The drive-thru at In-N-Out was simply where we went after we had been out drinking or when we were hung over, because a Double Double was a good sloppy burger that was at least better than a Big Mac, but we hardly considered it “the best burger.” With all the really great food out in Southern California that’s hard to find here in the South, In-N-Out is nowhere near the top of my list when I visit nowadays.

Did you really like your animal style Double Double better than all the skinny patty double burgers that proliferate around here these days?

It baffles me why people who have great burgers where they live visit Southern California and swoon over In-N-Out, since half the attraction to me was simply the convenient locations with their drive-throughs. If you’ve got to go out of your way to get to an In-N-Out, you surely have at least as good if not better burger options.

Jim

November 12th, 2012
3:33 pm

Animal style, the Only Way. Always get one while in CA. Hope they open in Atlanta, it’d be the end of a lot of the marginal burger places!

John

November 13th, 2012
12:54 am

Tried it for the first time in August. I didn’t even finish the burger. The “spread” is too much imo. Won’t waste a meal there next time out west.

BurgerGeek

November 13th, 2012
9:14 am

Whenever I am out west, I go in seach of an In-N-Out. I have staked out a spot in Las Vegas and always go to this particular restaurant. I too like the appearance of the food and genuinely like the burgers. Oh, I like 5 Guys too, but they cost about twice as much as the burgers at In-N-Out, plus they don’t have the paper hats (likeThe Varsity) that In-N-Out has. Looking forward to heading west again soon.

Edward

November 13th, 2012
9:37 am

I would much rather take visiting friends to a place like In-N-Out than Varsity. I’ve tried to warn several visitors about Varsity, but they’ve all read about it online and think when they finally come to Atlanta that it is some necessary thing to do. Alas, they all come away with a “WTF???” reaction. But, I did try to warn them, first, so I’m personally off the hook for it. Then we go somewhere like Fox Bros. or BoBo Garden or Man Chun Hong and Atlanta is then spared further criticisms.

Joe Mama

November 13th, 2012
9:49 am

Lorenzo — “It baffles me why people who have great burgers where they live visit Southern California and swoon over In-N-Out”

I can see why you’d think that if you lived in Southern CA for that long. The ubiquity of INOs would surely make it a more commonplace thing.

But FWIW, I’ve *never* eaten at an INO in Southern CA. San Francisco, Phoenix, a handful of other places. But never in S. CA, so I guess that preserved the rarity of it for me. Plus, after dealing with a serious medical issue for some years, I have to be choosy what goes into and on my food — so I prefer restaurants that are willing to customize their offerings. INO’s willing to do that — with a smile. And that gets my vote.

JB

November 13th, 2012
10:19 am

For a basic burger joint, it’s really good. Better than the Arch, Carl’s or Any type cheap place. The food is fresh. No shortcuts. They have their own buns made. Fries fresh cut. It’s simple, fresh and good, it’s not gourmet. It’s 6 bucks.geez

PTC DAWG

November 13th, 2012
10:25 am

Hey I like the Chili Steaks at the Varsity…and the rings…and the PC’s..and the fried pies…and the hats.

Some of you guys have issues. :)

Domino Dominick

November 13th, 2012
10:47 am

Ya’ll need to try their “Barth-style” where they’ll blow their nose into it before giving it to you. The chef’s keep the burgers warm under their armpits, too! C’mon…it’s a refrenece….anyone get it?

Evan

November 13th, 2012
5:45 pm

John, As an recently Atlanta transplant from LA, I really enjoyed this post. I would consider relinquishing one of my nonessential digits for a Double-Double right about now.

As an ex-copy editor, I also feel obligated to tell you that Angeleno is misspelled above. The spelling you use pops up in a few LA-related names, such as the neighborhood Angelino Heights, but the correct spelling for an LA native or inhabitant has two Es.

Art

November 13th, 2012
7:00 pm

I agree with Edward that the Varsity may not have the best of any one thing but I have to admit that every six weeks or so, I have to get my fix of 2 chili slaw dogs and an order of rings; both with a dash of table-side cayenne pepper. On a more topical rant, I happen to think that Whataburger, another chain that’s not in our area, makes a pretty good burger as well. I particularly like the jalapeno and cheese version.

AzCat

November 13th, 2012
10:29 pm

Amen, Art! Whataburger makes a great, affordable burger (notice I didn’t say cheap). I’ve had INO on three different trips to Vegas and loved it every time. If you want to talk way overrated and far too expensive for what you get, then Five Guys wins hands down.

Edward

November 14th, 2012
10:21 am

Art, for me it is a chili cheese foot long from Zestos, maybe twice a year. :-)

Bacchus

November 14th, 2012
2:20 pm

I have had better burgers at sit-down restaurants (Hand in Hand $2 burgers on Tuesdays are excellent), but In-n-Out is worth waiting 5 minutes for a fast-food style burger and a good shake.

Best Location: by far, the one at LAX on Sepulveda Blvd. Nothing like a sunny afternoon with widebody aircraft from all over the world passing less than 300 feet above the parking lot. Easy to get to with the free shuttle to a nearby off-site airport parking garage. Popular with airline crew, travelers, plane spotters, and locals.

Typical Redneck

November 14th, 2012
3:17 pm

Whattaburger is fantastic.

Paul J

November 14th, 2012
3:41 pm

It’s a great trip for you guys.. I also like hanging out and exploring food chains. But I like it more to eat foods that attract or entertain me while they prepare my food! It’s a great share.

lisa

November 14th, 2012
5:27 pm

what is on the INO secret menu and what is animal style?

JM

November 15th, 2012
11:23 am

THANKS a lot, John. Right before lunch and now I’m craving INO. I lived in LA for 25 years and we used to go to the one in the Valley (the one that had the double drive-thru) every weekend after a long night of drinking.

Roger

November 15th, 2012
7:36 pm

Sorry but no chili can be present on those fries, none in the stores in fact. What you saw were Animal Fries, with grilled onions and melted cheese, virtually the only dish that can be eaten with a fork (takes the fast out of fast food I guess but then your fingers are a little cleaner).

As for Five Guys I have really tried to enjoy that place but it really not that clean with all those peanut shells, can be slow when you order, is very greasy, (look at the bag) and has so many choices that it makes your head swim. I find it to be good but not worth the money, approximately double that of In’N'Out’s prices.

And for another off the menu item try the very trendy Neopolitan Shake (as for a vertical) and the Coffee shake, both exceptional.

And the tee-shirt at $9.50 a pop is the bext wardrobe enhancement you can buy. And of course Sugar Fries (no hints–you have to guess).

And the staff are the best too.

Roger

November 15th, 2012
7:37 pm

The not so secret menu is on their website and the itnernet as well.