Everybody loves In-N-Out. Anthony Bourdain called it the best restaurant in Los Angeles. Walter Sobchak is addicted to its toasty buns (they ease his temperament). It draws people in from highways like moths to a cheese-covered flame and has achieved near-mythical status among folks who haven't even gotten down Animal Style.
I'm one of those moths. Every damn time I visit California -- which is often -- you can find me in line, frantically going through the "secret" menu on my phone, just so I can sound cool when speaking to a teenager in a paper hat. And every time, I have the same profound, life-changing reaction: meh.
Because face it: In-N-Out is the most overrated burger in America.
A wrapper full of mediocrity
In-N-Out burgers are fine, really. Getting one gives me comfort. So does a $1 cheeseburger from McDonald's, or occasionally listening to Cat Stevens while rocking gently back and forth in the dark. But that doesn't make either of those things great.
Eating In-N-Out is kind of like hooking up with a long-lost ex. You think about it from time to time, remembering all the good things. The warm, euphoric feeling when it hits your mouth. The soft caress of that grilled bun, and the way the toasted ends scrape your lip ever so slightly as you pull it away. The flavor. The smells. All familiar and pleasant.
Then, just when you think you're over it, you're driving down the highway, and BAM, there it is, like a 3am "how are you?" text. So you get in that always-long line of cars. You order. And when that sexy thing with the slightly see-through wrapper arrives, you embrace it. Then, seconds later, you realize why you strayed from it in the first place. And then it's gone, and you kind of feel gross for going after it in the first place.
Unlike a bad ex, though, In-N-Out is beloved by your friends, who encourage you to go for a quickie whenever you can. On my first taste, excitement slowly turned into crippling disappointment. It couldn't be that this legendary burger wasn't great. It must have been a fluke. So I went back and had the same experience the next day. Then a few months later. Then every single goddamned time I visited California thereafter. "Maybe this time, it'll be better," I'd think. But it's not. The only constant is the constant disappointment.
Here's the worst part: on paper, I effing LOVE -- L-O-V-E -- In-N-Out. American cheese is a burger's best friend. Thick burgers are overrated. By all accounts, the owners are wonderful people. The service is great. At no point has a Double-Double made an uninvited Animal Style advance on me late at night. If I drew a picture of the perfect burger for me, it'd look exactly like a Double-Double.
But yet, it's all amiss to me. Every single item. Let's take a closer look:
This is your basic, salty, flat-grilled burger that you can get absolutely anywhere. If somebody gave me a blind taste-test between this and most other fast-food burgers, I might be able to distinguish In-N-Out, but it's not guaranteed. It's highly generic, as if culled together from a series of stock photos: bun, burger, watery lettuce, and a slice of tomato. Sure, you can get it Animal Style, but be honest: Animal Style sauce tastes like Whole Foods' version of Big Mac sauce, except not as good.
These things are understandably divisive. Mainly because they taste about as flavorful as one of those stupid paper hats. The fact that you have to order them extra crispy to make them firm is asinine. These things are as limp as Hugh Hefner when his Viagra wears off. Yes, that was tasteless. Just like In-N-Out's fries.
You're all drinking the Animal Style Kool-Aid
Yeah, it's freshly made and hits a certain spot. And man, is that super-long secret menu great… except that it's simply hip-speak masking the fact that you're asking them to burn, undercook, or douse your food in sauce to mask its general blandness.
The secret menu is a pitcher full of Animal Style Kool-Aid, and you're all drinking it. Basically, In-N-Out is a simple burger bar with its own inorganic slang. The "secret menu"? It's listed on the website. If somebody opened a place in Brooklyn and forced people to say crap like "Flying Dutchman" just to ditch a bun, they'd be labeled (correctly) as insufferable hipsters compensating for bland food. Do it in California in a cheery throwback drive-in and you've got the most cultishly beloved fast food in the States. Am I blaming In-N-Out for hipsters? Yeah, maybe I am.
Here's the rub: I will always go to an In-N-Out when I'm near one -- braving the lines full of svelte Californians and fat Midwesterners on pilgrimages -- just to see if maybe I've come around. I took my toddler there a couple months ago. She seemed to like the grilled cheese thingy. Like me at that age, she's also into boogers. Babies have shitty taste, so I don't trust her. But everybody else in Palm Springs seemed happy eating their burgers. So maybe there really is something wrong with me.
Or, you know what?! Maybe there's something wrong with all of you. Maybe you're easily duped by stupid hats. Maybe Steve Buscemi hypnotized you one night. Maybe you like talking in dumbass codes. Or maybe you're so in love with the allure and the cult of this place that you're blind to its shortcomings. I'm not one to judge. But I'm also not buying it.
If you need me, I'll be at Five Guys, which I only this year discovered is not overrated. Unless there's an In-N-Out next door. Maybe this time I'll love it.
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