"What’s It All About, Hamburger?"

2008
Dec
19

I really don’t like to partake in making controversial or unpopular statements in this blog (I save those for my 140-character mini-rants in Twitter). Okay, I did make a kind of a hissy fit directed toward Google last month, but it totally urinated me off the way their socially responsible “don’t be evil” image is so frequently contradicted by the way they actually do business. So I really don’t have much patience for companies that float by on mostly unearned goodwill while never really living up to their reputations.

On that basis, let me make this statement: In-N-Out Burger is rather overrated.

Now let me stipulate a few things where the ol’ In-N-Out is as good as they claim. Its hamburger meat appears to the eater with untrained palate to be at least comparable quality to the big fast food chains’ Premium Angus Sirloin Steak Buzzword burgers, and tastes more like actual meat than just about anything available at a drive-thru. Some of its other ingredients are also better-than-most, like the lettuce, simply by being consistently green, leafy, semi-crunchy and not bitter (at some other chains, “hold the lettuce” is an automatic part of my order), the tomato, which identifiably tastes like tomato but I always wish was sliced thicker, and the onion. I’m no fan of raw onion, but those who like that kind of thing certainly appreciate its entire-slice format, and the I-N-O has, for me and others, the grilled onions, easily requested alone or as part of its well-hyped secret AnimalĀ® Style. The only other fast food burger with grilled onions available right now is Jack in the Box’s Premium Don’t-Call-It-Angus Sirloin Steak Buzzword burger and Jack still undercooks the onions, falling well short of the caramelized scraped-from-the grill quality of In-N-Out.

But what’s with the cheese? Along with the other “FRESH” “QUALITY” ingredients the Double Doublers feature “Real American Cheese”, apparently meaning really flavorless. To me, it’s more bland than Mickey D or the other Big Burger chains, and that’s saying a lot. All this Genuine Dairy Product brings to the table (yes, I’m quoting Alton Brown) is 9 grams of fat and some adhesive quality keeping multiple stacked patties from falling over. Fortunately, by their more-sensible-than-most pricing structure, a Triple Meat costs only 10 cents more than a Double Double.

And then there’s the dressing only referred to as “spread”, never mentioned in the “quality ingredients” blurbs, it, like McDonalds’ Big Mac Special Sauce is just Thousand Island Dressing, but maybe even more sickeningly sweet and fluorescent orange than McD’s or Kraft’s bottled stuff. Or maybe that’s just how badly it sticks out among the other condiments. You can still get ketchup and mustard instead, but not plain bread-moistening mayo, and the spread is part of the default burger package.

Then there are the fries. It’s well established that the original appeal of McDonalds fries had to do with them being cooked in Beef Fat and when pressured to change to less-saturated fat, they didn’t do so until they had found a “natural flavor” to add to the oil to keep that Beefy potato flavor. In-N-Out is proud of its “100% Vegetable Oil”, and currently, their fries are about 12% lower in fat than McD’s. Which still seems like a lot, since In-N-Out fries taste like more like they were cooked in a microwave with no oil. There is some “real potato flavor” from the “highest grade potatoes”, but not as much as many others. They don’t pre-salt them so you really do have to yourself (and I have never been as good at even salt distribution with that little paper packet than the fry-jockey with the big shaker). And the salt often doesn’t even stick to the fries because they are so dry. Which brings me to the worst thing about In-N-Out fries: their texture or “mouth feel” (no, I’m not auditioning for Food Network, honest!). Instead of crispy, they’re kind of crusty, and there’s this lack of any kind of real moisture anywhere on or in them. I know they brag about never using microwaves, but that’s the impression these sad little potato pieces give me. And I’m sure we all know the tragedy that is French Fries Gone Cold, when even the finest fries lose palatability; I-N-O’s fries have the shortest window of opportunity to eat before going cold of any I’ve had from any fast foodery.

And yet there are people – many people – who claim to love these fries. Now, there are lots of food-thingies where I know I don’t share a ‘popular taste’ with the rest of the world (see raw onions above). But the only explanation I can come up with for the popularity of the In-N-Out French Fry is an Apple-Geek level of Groupthink. “Everything about In-N-Out is supposed to be good, so their fries must be”. Even I have been a victim of Exaggerated Assumptions about In-N-Out, just not about the fries – until recently I thought its beef patties were 50% larger than the ones McDonalds puts in the Big Mac. Nope, just about the same size (I have never found a formal analysis of Burger Patty Comparisons Among Fast Food Chains, but based on reverse engineering some of the nutrition information, McD’s patties contribute about 90 calories each while I-N-O’s are about 100 – I am doing way too much research for this, and way too little of it is eating anything).

Having grown up near the birthplace of In-N-Out (but never eating its food until I got my own car, due to my father’s paranoid fear of places that put any condiments on burgers. Yep, he was the guy you stood in line behind at McDonalds, insisting on a plain burger, back in the old days when special orders did upset them. But I digress.), I followed the story of its steady non-meteoric growth. And it was clear that for many years, its biggest selling point was its promotional cluelessness. The chirpy “In-N-Out, In-N-Out, That’s what a hamburger’s all about” jingle ran on L.A.’s most Progressive Rock radio stations, and a disturbing number of the bumper stickers they were selling for one dollar were mutilated by their purchasers, cutting out the first and last letters in BURGER to read “IN-N-OUT URGE”, and yet the family-owned semi-publicly Christian (you know, the references to Bible verses on some of its packaging) company never was heard objecting. Because Horny Young Guys are a lucrative demographic for the Fast Food biz, one that Carls Jr./Hardees has specifically targeted with millions of dollars of oversexed ads, and NOT one that often makes choices based on food quality.

Now I can’t argue that In-n-Out’s hamburgers are generally good, and its intelligent ordering systems (and relatively intelligent ordering personnel) make it relatively easy to get a burger to fit your taste. So I set out to find a variation on the fries that I could find halfway-enjoyable. I tried the fries “Well Done” (intentionally overcooked and actually recommended by some people), and they were regrettably what I expected: closely resembling those “shoestring potatoes” in a canister that take up a tiny bit of shelf space in the supermarket potato chip aisle. There is an “Animal Style” option for fries, with cheese, grilled onion and ‘spread’ (for me, one plus with two potential minuses) that unlike the burger variation, did cost extra – more than double the price of regular fries – and was a simple disaster. The cheese never melted enough to really stick to the fries, the spread was even more fluorescent than I had imagined, and combined with the onions, provided a model for future gag manufacturers to make fake vomit. This is where I really cursed I-N-O’s resistance to adding anything to its menu – it should be within their power to formulate Chili cable of making an acceptable Chili Fries instead of this. (For the record, the regional Del Taco chain is the current fast food chili fries gold standard for me – and since my second closest In-N-Out is a few blocks from my second closest Del Taco, I do consider a two-drive-thru lunch a reasonable option) . Then, just recently while doing some non-eating research, I learned you could also order the fries “Light” (intentionally undercooked), so I gave them one more try. Much less ‘crust’, but still oddly dry and inevitably turning cold even faster, they were the most edible fries In-N-Out could make for me, if still not good enough to enjoy without ketchup.

I must also stipulate that, especially considering its serious pursuit of quality ingredients, In-N-Out’s pricing provides some decent values: the cheese-free Triple Meat burger (my burger of choice) is currently less expensive than a McDonalds Big Mac in my area. Still, when I look at its intentionally limited menu, I boggle at the thinking of some people who I’ve heard say they wished they worked next door to an In-N-Out so they could eat there EVERY DAY. Years ago, when the Western Bacon Burger at a Carls Jr close to my office was the only thing I really liked there, I lunched on it 3 days a week and burned out on it in a couple months. And so, even though Carls’, Del Taco’s and Jack in the Box’s constantly enlarging menus are really hit-and-miss, I’ve found at least three ‘hits’ from each of them that ensure they will all get much more of my ‘food I shouldn’t really be eating’ business than In-N-Out’s “Best in the Universe – Or At Least California” Burger.

And after writing over 1600 words on fast food (plus a sidebar at What I Had For Dinner Tonight.com), I have totally lost my appetite. I’ll have to wait until later to attempt to explain my Fried Zucchini fetish.

2 Comments (so far) about

"What’s It All About, Hamburger?"

  1. Shawno Says:

    I’ve only eaten at In-N-Out a couple times. I remember that I enjoyed it, and that I’d have it again. But I don’t think I’d want one to open up next door so I could eat there every day.

  2. Research for Dinner | What I Had For Dinner Tonight Says:

    […] have just finished a long, literally weeks in the making, rant on MY blog about why In-N-Out Burger is overrated (I know I’m probably violating the spirit of this blog with the outlinking, but you do not […]

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