Overland miles: 0 Tacocount: 0 Days without Tea: 0
I should preface this post with a disclaimer: I don´t generally go anywhere near fast food in Britain – or at least the rulling troika of Mickey D´s (as it´s known in the US), BK or the Colonel. But if I could select a couple of new entrants to disrupt the UK market, and which I would definitely patronise, they would be Denny’s and the In n Out Burger.
As we were staying in the home of fast food, and the capital of the car (outside of Detroit, obvs), it seemed appropriate to go in search of the perfect burger at a joint whose whole name and branding conjours up 1950s Californian curb-culture. Indeed the chain is still a local family-run affair, with only around 200 outlets in 5 states nationwide, most of them in this one. Add to this the fact that In n Out was immortalised in the Coen Brothers´1995 stoner-bowling classic, The Big Lebowski, and it was a pilgrimage I had to make.
There is actually a double deception at work when you get to the Epcott-style diner: the menu is deceptively simple, featuring a mere three burgers and one side (fries). The first two sandwiches are, naturally, a hamburger and a cheeseburger, and the third one is the infamous ‘Double Double’, i.e., twice the quantity of patty and cheese as you get in the cheeseburger. But this stark menu reductionism is a con-trick because (WARNING: Burger spoiler alert) there´s a secret menu, developed in apparent response to the Californian quest for health through fast food. So there´s a tofu burger for veggies, an Atkins-friendly ´protein style´burger wrapped in a lettuce leaf, and the ‘Flying Dutchman’, catering to those dieters who, somewhat bizzarely, can only eat the patties and cheese. I guess the super-skinny wrapper-only option is still in development. Oh, and you can also go ánimal style´on any item on the secret menu. I don´t have the space to go into this particular prediliction here, suffice to say that those in the know go single-fry crazy for the secret menu – some going as far as eating the whole thing in one sitting.
The second deception is that unless you are actually driving-thru, you aren´t going to get in n out in any hurry. Avghi, our host in LA, informed us that there´s always a queue round the block for these greasy beauties, and so it proved on our arrival at the restaurant in Westwood. There´s one, more formal queue to place your order, and a second, more makeshift wait-zone to collect it. I reckon we spent around 15 minutes in both – nearly my maxium wait time for any burger on this planet. I was getting an itch for the ´witch.
But when it came, it was definitely worth the wait. The company’s honesty lies entirely in the quality of its product. This thing hands-down beats similar options at McDonalds, Burger King or Carl´s Jr., by virtue of their dedication to the fresh-not-frozen principle: the patties are made from freshly ground beef, the lettuce is hand-picked and the fries are sliced and fried on site daily.. I’d plumped for the Double Double (first-timers never go off menu), Clare for the cheeseburger – and this, gentle reader, is what sat before us.
Product quality oozes through at once. The meat is tender if not overtly juicy (you can also order it medium-rare on the secret menu), the salad fresh and crisp, the cheese drips over the patties in deliciously gooey puddles, and the special sauce, is, well it´s pretty spesh. It easily passed the two first tests of a great burger: 1. it looked like the picture on the menu 2. the whole thing held its shape before and during consuption. The pickles available next to the tomato sauce were a nice option to spice things up a gear.
I have a minor quibble: the fries may be hand-chopped, actually taste of potato and are not just sugared starch-sticks and all, but double-fried equals double pleasure. That just makes sense given In n Out´s preference for multiplying the fun (And I´m all for that, although the 100 x 100 seems a little over the top to say the least). Other than that, I can´t fault it. I´m not saying their burgers will start a fast food revolution, nor even that they match the offerings synoymous with the ´gourmet burger´ trend going on in London right now, from places like Dirty Burgers, Lucky Chip or the mighty Meat Liquor (any Americans reading this post and likely to visit soon: do not fail to try one of the above!). But here’s the thing: it’s been successfully proving that you can make cheap fast food well since 1948 (the Double Double comes in at the very attractive price point of $2), and that’s enough to make your PFB correspondent go animal.