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
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
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.
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.
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.