The Yellow Arrow: In Defense of the In-N-Out Burger
In late August of 2013, I left paradise.
It was a bittersweet 5.5-hour flight from Los Angeles to New York City, simultaneously enthralled at the prospect of my college career in the Big Apple and still saddened to leave home.
Before heading to the airport, however, my mother and I first visited the closest In-N-Out to our house, the one on Inglewood Ave sitting literally underneath the infamous I-405 freeway. This was ritual for our family: before any flight out of Los Angeles, our last meal had to be In-N-Out. It was an act of farewell, as though having the famous West coast hamburger in our bodies would retain the spirit of Los Angeles…until, that is, the next trip to the restroom.
When I arrived in New York City, I was immediately introduced to a completely different kind of street food culture; $1 pizza and halal carts ruled the city-on-a-grid as opposed to the drive-thrus and taco trucks I was used to. Even if the food items themselves were of the same category, they were stylistically prepared differently, or called something else entirely (for instance, boba is called bubble tea).
The most shocking culinary experience of all was Shake Shack. A staple of the Big Apple, Shake Shack is an iconic hamburger chain so popular that, in its marquee Madison Square Park location, the line often extends out into the street. Its reputation as a producer of high-quality burgers as well as a carrier of milkshakes and booze have catapulted the 13-year-old fast casual restaurant into the company of burger giants such as In-N-Out and Chik-fil-A (despite its lack of hyphens!). And of course, because New York and LA are the two largest urban areas in the United States, Shake Shack is often compared to In-N-Out.
Whenever the topic comes up, New Yorkers in their signature cocky arrogance will inevitably say something to the effect of: “yeah I’ve visited Cali and had In-N-Out, but Shake Shack is definitely better”.
I usually have a twofold response to this:
1) It’s California, not Cali; please don’t butcher the name of my beloved state.
2) You are so very, very wrong.
Before I begin my formal defense of the In-N-Out burger, this is the perfect time to pause and outline the biases of the writer, editor, and publisher of this editorial–that is me, myself, and I:
- I sleep underneath a California flag.
- I have my computer’s desktop as a photo of Manhattan Beach pier.
- I own two LA Clippers hats, an LA Dodgers cap (that I carry around in my backpack at all times), an LA Kings t-shirt (from the very first hockey game I attended), two Clippers t-shirts, a Clippers pendant (yes, a pendant), contemplated purchasing an LA Rams varsity jacket (criminally overpriced at $650), and plan on getting at least four tattoos dedicated to Los Angeles.
- I cried more than once watching the music video for “City Of Angels” by Thirty Seconds To Mars.
- I, according to my friends, never shut up about the city of my origin.
And I fully admit to my homerism; otherwise I would not have any motivation to write this piece.
But to claim that the burger of the Yellow Arrow only seems delicious due to sentimentality and nostalgia is a blatant oversimplification and an unfounded conclusion.
You may have heard it said that the main virtue of the In-N-Out burger is its freshness. I will not contest this, but rather corroborate it: the freshness of the In-N-Out burger is not only its main virtue, but also its most potent one.
The reason why In-N-Out is so good is that when you take a bite into the burger, it had thoughts and feelings less than 48 hours ago.
The patty is cut from freshly slaughtered cows (In-N-Out has a policy that prohibits freezing meat) that had consciences just a few days before the consumer orders from In-N-Out’s characteristic simple menu. When you pass by the multitude of cow ranches lining the road on the drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas — something I have done several times — you very well might eat those same cows for lunch the next day.
Perhaps this appalls some non-meat eating people. Good; it should. As a die-hard carnivore, I subscribe to the opinion that, the more a food repels vegans and vegetarians, the more delicious it really is.
In all seriousness, the freshness of the patty is only one piece of the scrumptious puzzle that is the In-N-Out burger. With one glance over the counter of any location, you can see the kitchen bustling with activity: workers preparing the ingredients to be merged and served. In-N-Out is famous for the fact that employees cut and slice various vegetables just moments before they get enraptured between two warmly-toasted buns (by the way, they are only toasted on the inner side, making the bun soft on the outside and crunchy on the inside).
This is just the burger, by the way; the potatoes that constitute their french fries are also cut on the spot and subsequently fried mere moments before being embraced by a perfectly-sized tray as accompaniment for the burger. All of this creates a crucial separation in taste not unlike the contrast between a just-out-of-the-oven slice of pizza versus one that is heated in a microwave a day later.
The defense rests.
Despite the overwhelmingly potent argument I have just laid out, opponents of the Yellow Arrow have been keen to point out that, while the freshness of the burger is indisputable, the actual product itself is rather bland.
It is undeniable that the customization options of In-N-Out are subtle details at most. For the majority of In-N-Out orders, the taste is generally uniform (excluding the hideous protein style which excludes the buns, making the burger no longer a burger but instead a sad concoction of vegetables incarcerating a lone, morose patty).
This invariability of taste is true since, as a rule, the bun is always toasted and the patty is always cooked medium-well. And because the bun and patty make up around 75% of the burger en masse plus over/under 82.5% of the total perceived taste, whatever flexibility the menu and the secret menu gives to consumers is a mirage: an illusion of choice.
And it is not like this homogeneity of products is uniquely brilliant. I will readily admit that everything on the menu is quite generic. The burger is a regular hamburger with only very specific aspects of it separating it from the construction of any other fast food restaurant, the french fries are nothing special, the milkshakes are run-of-the-mill.
Sure, all of these points are true. But the fact remains that what makes these products good are not the genius of extraordinary recipes but rather the exceptional elements that the recipe incorporates. And doesn’t the lack of variety highlight the simple deliciousness of the one burger (to rule them all) that they make so very well?
Besides, while the majority of the burger is consistently the same, it still allows for just enough of customization to suit individual taste.
For instance, here is my personal go-to order:
- Double-Double with whole-grilled onions
- Animal-style French Fries
- Neapolitan Shake
- Free water cup
This order, while not totally unique, is just personalized enough that I can thoroughly enjoy it without losing the essence of the burger. The whole-grilled onions provide the delicious taste of grilled onions (which I like) without compromising the structural integrity of the onion slice (which I also like). The animal-style dressing, In-N-Out’s signature concoction fusing caramelized onions with a variety of condiments and gooey cheese, adds much-needed flavor to the otherwise bland french fries. The Neapolitan shake, a glorious merger of the three fundamental dairy-dessert flavors–vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry–is a perfect sugary companion to counteract the savory burger-fries combo. And of course, there is the water cup; the shake, while heavenly, is not the most hydrating beverage in the world. Hence the free water cup to wash it all down.
The point is, the subtle details of a custom order will change the extraneous and auxiliary tastes of the In-N-Out burger without hindering its core culinary foundations; it is a balancing act, a moderation of variety.
At the end of the day, what makes In-N-Out special is its lack of specialty. It is indeed generic but it is the best that generic could ever be.
But perhaps this entire debate is misguided.
Although it is easy to say “In-N-Out is the west coast burger and Shake Shack is the east coast burger”, a closer look will prove that the two brands are genetically different.
In-N-Out is privately owned and operated. Shake Shack is a publicly traded company.
In-N-Out is specific to the west coast, with locations in only six states. Shake Shack is not only nationwide–including four locations in southern California–but moreover international, including places like Seoul, South Korea (last summer, I spent a month in Seoul visiting family; imagine my shock when I spotted a familiar brand–one I have only ever associated with New York City–casually lined up on Gangnam Avenue).
In-N-Out is owned by a 34-year-old devout Christian woman. Shake Shack is owned by a 59-year-old reformed Jewish man.
This polarization might mean that the two are diametrically opposed, not competitively similar. Maybe the comparison is actually a contrast: apples to oranges, in which case there is no objective winner, only personal preference.