Shake Shack’s burgers taste like your favorite cookout memory, with sweet doughy buns that adhere to the meat and cheese; chase ’em down with some of the crispiest crinkle-cut fries you’ve ever had. Five Guys cheeseburgers will bury you in grease and beef and onions and cajun-spiced fries, lovingly topped with whatever you like on top of it.
But what I’ve realized after years and years of wrapper-side arguments is that there are some people who understand In-n-Out, and many others who might never get it no matter how many secret menu items they order. I didn’t discover In-n-Out until I was about sixteen or so — relatively late in life, for a Californian. Truth be told, my first time with In-n-Out wasn’t even that special — the boring, straight-off-the-menu Double Double didn’t excite me, nor did the too-dry fries. But when a friend told me about the secret menu, I felt like I was inducted into a secret sect of West Coast burger cultists, never to rest until the entire world knew the glory that was “Animal style double-double, animal style fries well done, and a chocolate shake, please.”
Now, not everyone loves In-n-Out. Some swear by their Five Guys order; others point to Shake Shack as the true king of burger chains. It’s true: Five Guys serves up delicious beautiful monstrous altars to burgerdom. Shake Shack feels like it was finely engineered by a team of modern food professionals to create the Perfect American Burger Experience. Compared to the former’s comfort-in-excess and the latter’s perfection, In-n-Out’s quaint flaws — like the fries that even most In-n-Out fans don’t really like unless they’re also blanketed in cheese, onions, and “spread”, or the same-y-ness of the shake flavors — would seem to sink it to an ignoble second or third place.
You see, when it comes to side-by-side comparisons, the only category In-n-Out wins uncontested is price — you can grab a double-double with fries and a drink for under ten bucks. The never-frozen ingredients and excellent craft mean that an In-n-Out Double-Double ($3.50) can hang with a pricier hamburger like Shake Shack’s Shackburger ($5.19) or Five Guys Cheeseburger ($6.79), but burger nerds on the Internet are often reluctant to include real-life mundanities like price to taint the conversation, and so In-n-Out is simply relegated to “Best Value” or some other thanks-for-playing trophy.
Californians know better. We know that when it comes to burgers, the price is part of the whole experience — and we know that to only talk about taste and flavor is to miss out on the entire range of emotions that go into a preferred hamburger.
In high school, In-n-Out was for treating ourselves to something finer than the nearby Burger King or Jack in the Box; compared to our normal Friday night dollar menu shenanigans, we needed a few extra bucks and a buddy willing to drive a bit further to Pinole. In college, the In-n-Out on Foothill was how we welcomed international students to California after a night of drinking, or the local apex of late-night stoner munchies. I celebrated the end of many late worknights with my wife in the In-n-Out drive-through off Hegenberger near the Oakland airport; on the night we decided to separate, my friend picked me up from LAX and took me straight to the one on Washington in Marina Del Rey. Irene ordered hers animal style the first time we went together, and we both knew she had passed a test.
This is, I think, the beauty of In-n-Out — and what its unenlightened naysayers miss. To dismiss the price advantage is to disregard how we, as human beings, have complicated relationships with both food and money, and how those both relate to how we care for each other as human beings. When you want to treat yourself and you’re broke, you get In-n-Out. When you want to thank your buddy, you cover his Double Double (and don’t bat an eye if he orders a shake). When you’re going crazy from your low-carb diet, two protein style Double Doubles (wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun) isn’t (technically) cheating. When you move to a new apartment, you make sure to find the closest In-n-Out. And everyone orders a paper hat, just once — just to see if you can.
In-n-Out is cheap, fast, and good in a world where we typically have to pick two. “Best Value” doesn’t quite capture it. And to the folks who don’t get In-n-Out the way we do: I hope there’s a food out there that makes you feel loved. Maybe it’s a great burrito, or your next door pizza place; it’s probably not the neo-nostalgia of Shake Shack or Five Guys’s corporate faux-greasy.
Because the rest of us have In-n-Out.
(P.S.: Ask for chopped chilis in the burger. It’s the best.)