It’s 10:40 on a Friday night in Santa Ana, and I’m lined up for one of Southern California’s most beloved traditions: a run to In-N-Out.
For the next 27 minutes — the time it takes for me to inch my car about 400 feet, from the gas station around the corner of the drive-thru to me grabbing a cheeseburger combo from a young employee decked out in all-white save for his black shoes, red apron and a corny baseball cap out of the “Bad News Bears” — I keep asking myself: Why?
The fast-food burger chain is one of the few things Californians seem to universally agree upon. Its iconic sign — a bold yellow zigzag intersected by In-N-Out’s name in a sans-serif font — beckons weary freeway travelers from Chula Vista to Redding with cheap, filling, fresh grub. Athletes, movie stars and the late Anthony Bourdain are among those who swear by its trademark, trademarked Double-Doubles and Animal Style fries. Even the Golden State’s culinary Brahmin class loves In-N-Out, from Thomas Keller to Alice Waters and even Julia Child, who once boasted to the Los Angeles Times that she knew every location between Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
The love is so fierce that when California Democratic Party Chair Eric Bauman called for a boycott this past summer because the Irvine-based company had donated to a Republican PAC, liberals and conservatives alike ridiculed him into walking back his threat.
All this hubbub for a so-so burger!
Yes, there, I said it. So-so. Hear me out.
The best part of an In-N-Out hamburger is the lettuce — it’s crunchy and moist. And when that’s the best you can say about a burger, you’re not saying much. Every other component is unremarkable. The beef patty might never get refrigerated, but it isn’t revelatory; the bread that holds it together easily disintegrates under even the gentlest of grips: the onions are, well, onions; and the tomatoes are a reminder that people don’t know what good tomatoes taste like. And the American cheese tastes like it just got flash-grilled onto plastic.
All this leads to the question I ask whenever friends invite me to In-N-Out: Why?
In-N-Out is a symbol of Southern California at its absolute worst: Eternal traffic. Nostalgia for a past that never really existed. A mob mentality. Fast food. And, worst of all, all hype and little substance.
And it’s increasingly looking to move away from us. Under CEO Lynsi Snyder (the 36-year-old granddaughter of founders Harry and Esther Snyder), the nearly 70-year-old chain has focused expansion plans away from its traditional California/Nevada/Arizona stronghold and into Utah, Texas and Oregon, with sights set on Colorado early next decade. Displaced Californians across the nation regularly beg for expansion farther east.
In-N-Out has captured the California dream in wan buns, drenched it with pink spread and exported it to yearning yahoos to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales. But how can anyone say a burger chain is the best in anything when even fans admit that the french fries are little better than pencil shavings?
There’s just not much to care for in In-N-Out. The much-vaunted “secret” menu? In-N-Out lists most of the “hidden” contents on its website. None impress. The variations of stacked patties and buns only compound the burger’s shortcomings (the biggest combo you can get now is a 4×4, because too many bros like my friend abused that special; he once ordered and ate a massive 20×20 in one sitting, describing the final bites as “tasting just like congealed blood”). A grilled cheese highlights the chain’s bland fromage; ask for chopped pickles to be tossed inside any order, and each bite turns into an oversalted mess. The Protein Style (a regular burger with lettuce in place of buns) negates In-N-Out’s one true burger miracle: Usually, they’re wrapped so tightly in paper that nothing ever leaks. But with the bun gone, the spread drips out of the lettuce leaves like water leaving a corroded sink pipe.
Good things to say about In-N-Out? The milkshakes are always stellar, although they need a bigger straw (that is, until California bans plastic straws). It is famous for paying its people a good wage — even Eric Schlosser, the “Fast Food Nation” author-prophet, hailed In-N-Out as exemplifying how a fast-food chain should be run.
I actually like the company’s notorious habit of hiding Bible verses on its cups, burger wrappers and even fry boats to turn diners on to Christ. Looking up verses online reminds me to read the Good Book more often, you know?
After I finally completed my 400-foot marathon in the drive-thru lane, I pulled over in a nearby residential street to see the message at the bottom of my cup of saccharine pink lemonade. The passage was Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding,” per the King James Version. Heaven-sent, indeed, because that’s In-N-Out’s message to fans: Don’t question; just wait in line.
And make your order Animal Style because everyone does — even if they don’t exactly know why.
Three California fast food burger chains better than In-N-Out
- TK Burgers: This tiki-themed Orange County outfit does great beef, ahi and chicken burgers, all enlivened by a creamy, tangy secret sauce. tkburgers.com
- Jim’s Burgers: One of those classic SoCal stories: former chain turned into independent contractors, with menus that started solely with burgers but now encompass everything from pastrami burritos to Mexican-style omelets. And good burgers!
- The Habit Burger Grill: The Central Coast’s answer to In-n-Out; its expansion last decade now means you can dine on its signature Charburger at more than 200 locations. Get it teriyaki-style, sweet and savory. habitburger.com
- 335 Locations in California and other Western states