Being an East Coast gal, I don’t know or claim to know too much about life on the Pacific Coast. I know they’re easy-going, I know they surf and smoke weed and I also know they generally care a lot (most, not all, of course…) about the quality of their food. Cliche it might be, but I look for three things during a trip to California: a decent fish taco, some Wente-strain Chardonnay and an In-And-Out Animal Burger with Animal Fries. I was fortunate enough to have checked these three off the list during my recent trip to San Diego. In fact, I ended up adding dishes to that list and checking those off shortly after, too.
I think the best place to start the tale of my food adventures around San Diego is at an In-And-Out Burger in Irvine, CA, where the company happens to be headquartered. In case you’re wondering – yes, it really is that great. I have had a good experience in every location of this fast-but-not-foul food joint I’ve been to. The stores and matching employee uniforms are consistently squeaky clean. The kitchen, right behind the counter, is open, with a wide space between prep areas, allowing employees to work comfortably, yet in plain sight of the customer. A friend of mine that worked there in high school told me that they pay their employees like $10/hr with benefits. which is ridiculous for a fast food chain. So it really is no wonder the cashier is so friendly… The menu is simple and not overburdened by crap like jalapeno poppers and mac n’ cheese balls (sorry Jack-in-the-Box…) Ingredients are of surprisingly good quality. Nutritional info is proudly listed next to each item, for customers to see. The food is as cheap as any other fast food chain, probably since they rely on endorsements (based on good quality) instead of on sheer volume of cheap and nasty ingredients sold. The sneaky little Bible verses printed on the packaging is a little weird but – hell! – who really minds being subconsciously brainwashed when chomping on something so delicious?? In-And-Out Burger has justifiably been applauded by Fast Food Nation as one of the only restaurant chains to have its sh** together. It’s a personal fave of Bourdain, Ramsay (not that I really care about his opinion…) and Julia Child. Keller chose In-And-Out to cater the anniversary party of The French Laundry…. So yeah, it’s a landmark for a reason, and definitely worth a trip, if for no other reason then to rekindle your, no doubt, dwindling hope in the future of good fast food in the U.S.
I mean, seriously. Look at this thing! It looks like a commercial ad or a Whopper in Budapest. The Animal Style Cheeseburger comes with lettuce, tomato, pickles, extra spread and grilled onions. The patty, though obviously thinner than that of a 15$ gourmet gastro-pub burger, is juicy and fluffy, meaning that it has not been processed or overworked. The char is nice and smokey and has a slight mustard heat to it. The beef is ground in-house at In-And-Out’s patty making facilities in Baldwin Park, California. I think the fact that these patties are the only meat item on the menu allows the restaurant to focus on the quality of the patties, making sure they are consistently good every time. A big slice of cheese is melted on, providing a comfy soft mouthfeel and some extra saltiness. The patty is topped with slightly sweet grilled onions, whose thin black char show off that they were grilled in-house and not taken from a package. Well, that and the fact that you can see the guys moving them around the grill right behind the counter. Leafy green lettuce (I think iceberg but in this case who the hell cares, as long as it’s fresh?) and one of the juiciest slices of vibrant red tomato I’ve ever had in anything that cost only $1.90. Some pickles and a Thousand Island dressing type sauce (relish, mayo, ketchup, vinegar, sugar, diced onion) add a nice acidic zing to offset the cheesy, smoky meat and onions. The buns are spongy, airy, with the inner side slightly grilled for an added crunch. It was also pretty obvious from the appearance that the burgers are arranged one-at-a-time instead of in the way it is done at McDonalds – slapped-together assembly-line style by some under-paid and consequently disgruntled baby-daddy who is apparently unaware of the fact that his magna opera are going into people’s mouths. Can’t really say enough good things about the In-And-Out Cheeseburger. It’s really just what a burger was meant to be.
Animal Style Fries are a great little side-kick to your burger. The french fries are, apparently, individually sliced in the store. I didn’t really enjoy the fries on their own, because they were a bit dry and chalky white on the inside. However, when mixed into the cheese, spread and generous portion of grilled O’s which top them, they were delightful.
I’m not saying In-And-Out is NOT fast food or that it’s particularly healthy. A burger is still around 500 calories with 30 grams of fat, about the same as McDonalds or Burger King (although an I+O burger is twice as large) and the fries are around 400 calories with 20 grams of fat, also similar. The cheese is just as fatty, the spread is just as mayo-based and the fries are deep-fried. The shakes contain a crazy amount of ice cream and thus they have close to 700 calories each. Eating three meals here every day is probably not a good idea either. The difference lies in the experience of eating an In-And-Out combo and the feeling one has right after. Instead of wolfing it down without really chewing (in order to avoid that flattened, garbage taste and fried smell that characterizes a Whopper or Big Mac), one masticates this burger with patience, enjoying the freshness of the veggies, the juicy, crumbly meat and the fluffy bun. Afterwards, one feels satisfied but light, full but ready to strut around the beach in a bikini. This is definitely not the sensation I get after eating at BK or McD’s, one of wanting to pass out on a couch, clutch my stomach and groan.