A 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.
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