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09-Cheeseburger.jpgIn-N-Out Burger, Las Vegas, NV, Tasted on October 30, 2003 — Sometimes it irritates me when people assume that I am only on a mission to find quality food that's expensive. I admit that many of our favorite experiences haven't exactly been cheap. But we've also had quite a few fantastic experiences with food that you can get for practically nothing. The amazing tacos that come from a truck (yes, a truck) parked at a Seattle area gas station (yes, a gas station). The bowls of inexpensive noodle soup at a chain of restaurants across London. The yakitori joints at Shinjuku train station in Tokyo. These are all testament to our love of good food, expensive or cheap.

And while it's a relief to get that bit of defensiveness off my chest, I do have to admit there are a few reasons why many of our positive experiences are fairly costly. Unsurprisingly, great food usually involves a lot of work. And work costs money. It takes work to find (and create) the best (even if not rarest) ingredients, and the talented people who prepare that food are hard to find as well. It's not as easy to find cheap wonderful food as one might think. Certainly you could make it yourself and that's something we'll be exploring more over time. But when it comes to restaurants, cheap and wonderful often elude discovery.

Now you may scoff at this, as you can crawl through stalls of street food in hundreds of cities across the planet and find incredible flavors by the dozens. But, that aside, it's still hard to find restaurants that are inexpensive and wonderful. Not because they don't exist, but because they simply don't get the press. When I go to a new city to try and find its best food, I scour sources far and wide, personal and professional, to get leads on where to eat during my limited time there. And the small, cheap, great places often fly under the radar.

Of course, the largest class of (mostly) relatively inexpensive and well known restaurants across the planet are the "chain" restaurants. McDonalds is of course the iconic representation of a chain restaurant but chains cover the gamut. Fast food like Taco Bell and Krispy Kreme are everywhere but there are also "next rung up the ladder" places like Cheesecake Factory and Applebee's. And while many of these are well known everywhere in the U.S., and often almost everywhere on the planet, there are regional chains as well. In the Pacific Northwest there's Pallino Pastaria. There are even "upscale" restaurants like Ruth's Chris steakhouse that's become a surprisingly large chain with around 90 branches in North America and outlets around the world, including one in Taiwan (a location which Ruth's Chris' website calls "exotic"). Can food produced at scale ever be good food?

Heitz Cellars, one of the oldest and most respected wineries in Napa Valley, has a variety of wines they offer. Among their most renowned (and most expensive) is their Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It's a great wine. How many bottles of the Martha's Vineyard did Heitz produce from their 1997 vintage? Keep in mind that 1997 was one of the recent great vintages from Napa Valley and a bottle of Martha's from that year went for roughly $140 a bottle. They produced 67,440 bottles of that wine that they released for sale. This was not an artisanal run of a few hundred cases. They produced this wine by the truckload. Now of course, there's scale, and then there's scale. They can't compare in quantity to the hundreds of thousands of bottles of two-buck chuck and other super-cheap wines that get produced, but still, it's not a small amount. What's the point here?

Large-scale is definitely not particularly conducive to making a great food experience. But that doesn't mean it makes it impossible. So today we add a section in our restaurant guide for "chain" restaurants. We'll need to evolve the definition of what makes a restaurant a chain over time. Does the local Thai place with three branches qualify? I don't think so. Does the local pasta place with 8 locations that's adding more every couple of months qualify? I think yes. I admit it's not scientific, but I'll try to get more specific over time. And since we're not going to bring any prejudice to our judgment of "chain" restaurants, whether something's in that category or not doesn't really matter. What matters is whether the food is any good. And that brings us, finally, to today's topic.

01-IN-N-OUT.jpgAfter our trip to Los Angeles, we were lucky enough to stop for 24 hours in one of my favorite cities on the planet - Las Vegas. Although we were in a hurry to get to the hotel from the airport, we weren't in such a hurry that we didn't ask the taxi driver to make a detour through the nearest In-N-Out Burger so that we could get our fix. Seattle doesn't have In-N-Out Burger. Yet.

Let me take a moment to explain why we made the stop by way of my wife Debbie's love for pizza. She LOVES pizza. And I will admit that I have had pizza in my life that I have loved. But I don't love it unconditionally like she does. I do feel that way about hamburgers. I absolutely adore them. I love the juicy savory meat (medium rare please). I love fresh crisp vegetables. I love cheese on them. I love when they put ketchup and mustard on them, or even thousand island dressing. I don't mind themed burgers with things like mushrooms and onions and barbecue sauce, though I'll admit I draw the line at pineapple. I also don't like soggy bread, or when the hot parts and cold parts have decided to meet somewhere at a mediocre average temperature. I have eaten hamburgers at McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, Fatburger and more. I have made hamburgers at home in the oven, in a pan, and on a grill. I have often made hamburgers that resemble the ones described in Eddie Murphy's standup act when he used to be funny. And although he makes fun of them, I love the ones with big chunks of onion and pepper. And in the interest of full hamburger disclosure, I have never had Daniel Boulud's famous $30 burger at DB Bistro (though some close friends have partaken a couple of times and have said it was worth every penny - I will get there eventually).

But on this day we were out to eat what is currently my favorite hamburger on the planet, the one made at (as far as I can tell) any In-N-Out Burger with uncanny consistency. One thing I've found in terms of making great food at scale - less is more. Some of the best least expensive food I've ever eaten was from vendors who made only one item. In-N-Out's menu is a monument to simplicity. There's the Hamburger, the Cheeseburger, the Double-Double Burger, French Fries, Chocolate, Vanilla, and Strawberry Shakes, and a variety of sodas. The burgers come with or without onions, with lettuce and tomato, and some "spread" (which seems like thousand island dressing to me). Very simple.

But of course, I am a sucker for any marketing gimmick that makes me feel like I'm "in the know" or part of the club. I'm so transparent that even a hamburger chain knows how to appeal to my insecurity about belonging to the group. The "secret" menu (of which they publicize only a portion of on their website - more brilliant marketing) contains items like the 3x3 - three patties, three slices of American cheese (yes there's a 4x4); Animal Style - add mustard, pickles, grilled onions, and extra spread to your burger; Protein Style - burger minus the bun, wrapped in lettuce; and the Neapolitan Shake - a mix of all three shake flavors.

And here's the funny thing - their shakes are very good but not mind-blowing, and their fries are honestly mediocre. They make them fresh right in front of you but there's something limp about them that the freshness can't make up for. (You can order them “well done” but that didn’t make a huge difference in my opinion.) McDonald's fries (when they were fried in animal fat) were way way better. And none of that matters. Because their hamburgers are to die for. The fries and shakes were just filler in my opinion. The name of the place isn't In -N-Out Fries or In-N-Out Shakes. It's In-N-Out Burger, and that's what they do well. Very well.

The patty itself is thick and relatively small in diameter. It's not a broad flat patty so it's not convenient to store, and doesn't lend itself well to stacking. It's an unwieldy (almost) ball of meat. The bun is freshly baked, and serves its purpose. It's not there to shine. It's there to deliver its contents in a package that doesn't get your fingers completely greasy. The rest of the contents of the sandwich can only be described as slathered over either the meat or the bun. The cheese and spread are generously oozing from your sandwich opening as it sits peeking out of its paper holder. I got mine with fresh onions as I love the bite and the crunch. Biting into this burger fills your mouth with absolute essence of hamburger. It's not fancy. It's basic. It's hamburger distilled into it's most simple and perfect form and then concentrated to pack one monster hamburgian punch. The contrasting temperatures, the mix of textures - all combine to make for a diverse and yet simple experience. And ultimately (at least for me) all the anticipation is rewarded by that first comforting bite. And unlike many fast food chains (or chain restaurants that optimize around speed) there's no sick feeling after I'm done eating.

08-Box of Burgers.jpgMy friend Alex generally eats three of these in one sitting. He used to get two Double-Doubles, but felt the singles had better crunch. More patty didn't necessarily equal more enjoyment for Alex. And I have to agree. It's the entire sandwich as a unit that sparks the enjoyment. I eat two cheeseburgers with onions. These are not White Castle mini-burgers, but they're not oversized monstrosities either. They're just right. If they were any smaller, you'd end up with too much bun. If they were bigger, then by the time you got to the last third or so of the sandwich, the temperature of the ingredients and the crunchiness would be well past their acceptable ranges of goodness. As with so many things that are great, what seems like simplicity can actually be relatively complicated, and is certainly well thought out, even if in its final form, it's a simple pleasure to enjoy. In-N-Out is a simple pleasure.

I live in Seattle and don't get to eat at In-N-Out very often, but when I lived in Northern California I remember being willing to eat lunch at 2pm to avoid the seemingly endless lines that snaked out of the local branch. Don't think that at 2pm the lines were not there, just more tolerable. I'll admit it's rare to find a large-scale chain that serves something so delicious, but like I said - I don't care whether it's cheap or expensive, I don't care what business model they employ, and I don't care whether they have a national ad campaign, or a hand- painted sign over a wooden table. I just love food that tastes great. And In-N-Out Burger's hamburgers fit squarely in that category.











Tastingmenu is focused on superlative restaurant experiences from two perspectives: behind the plate and behind the stove. Tastingmenu is written by Hillel (professional eater) and Dana (up-and-coming professional chef) in Seattle, Washington.

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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