The Secret Menu of in n out Fast Food Restaurants

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The Secret Menu of in n out Fast Food Restaurants

Pasadena is my favorite burger town. My favorite burger isn’t necessarily in Pasadena, but I’m sure you understand the difference.

Pasadena has two great burgers in its midst, Pie N’ Burger and Russell’s. It used to have a third, Paris’s Grandburger, which sadly went out of business just a couple of years ago. In addition, in Pasadena you also have Burger Continental, Wolfe Burger, Top’s, Houston’s, and a few other places where you can get a good burger. In all of Southern California, only Santa Monica gives Pasadena a run for its burger money.

So it was with more than a passing interest that I checked out the Pasadena Weekly, and their annual feature on The Best of Pasadena. And who have the residents of Pasadena, year after year, chosen as their favorite burger joint?

In-N-Out.

In-N-Out also gets the highest food rating for a burger in the Zagat guide, a lofty 24. (It’s also rated #1 in the Bang-for-the-Buck category.) In comparison, The Apple Pan gets a 22, Russell’s gets a 20, and Cassell’s gets an only slightly-above-average food score of 19. In other words, In-N-Out, according to the Zagat guide, has food on the same level as the Arroyo Chop House, Michael’s, The Ritz-Carlton Huntington, Asia de Cuba, A Thousand Cranes, Rockenwagner, and Wolfgang Puck’s Malibu restaurant, Granita. In fact, In-N-Out scores only one point below that grand old dame of LA restaurants, L’Orangerie. That’s some pretty impressive company.

Southern Californians do love In-N-Out. Their fervor surpasses that of the fans of such places as Tommy’s, Pink’s, and even McDonald’s, for that matter. In fact, I once mistakenly heard that In-N-Out had 2000 restaurants in Southern California, which seemed surprising, but not impossible, considering how ubiquitous they are in these parts. I thought, if that figure’s right, then it won’t be long before they take over McDonald’s as the most popular fast food restaurant in America. McDonald’s has five or six thousand restaurants all over the world, by comparison.)

I was chagrined, after blurting that figure out to more than a couple of people, that the real figure is really around two hundred. That almost seems a little low. But that does underline one of the problems of In-N-Out, that they’re way too busy for their own good. Every In-N-Out I see has a huge line of cars waiting at the drive-thru. Often those lines spill out into the street and cause traffic problems. It’s readily apparent that In-N-Out could double, or even triple the amount of their locations, and still make money at every single one of them. People seem to truly adore this burger like no other.

So why am I one of its detractors? It’s really not that simple. I do have to say that if things were perfect, In-N-Out would be the McDonald’s of our world. In-N-Outs would open up all over the world, influencing other cultures immeasurably. People from other lands would come to think of the U.S. as a place of high standards and excellent products, instead of a culture based upon endless marketing, mediocrity, and corporate squalor. Add to this the fact that In-N-Out is still privately owned by a Christian family who still prints John 3:16 on the bottom of every drink cup, and you have the recipe for a new image of American business abroad, except maybe in the world of Islam.

I guess if I wanted to level specific criticisms toward the burger itself, I would start with the patty. Like Tommy’s, it’s way too small. It’s McDonald’s-regular-hamburger small. And the problem with using small, thin patties, like I’ve said before, is that it tastes less of beef because almost all of the meat comes in contact with the cooking surface. It’s hard to tell that the patties used at In-N-Out are fresh, unfrozen beef, even though they are.

I’ve had people tell me to alleviate this problem by going to the Secret Menu and order a 3 by 3 or a 4 by 4 instead of the Double-Double. That’s three and four patties with three and four slices of cheese, respectively. That’s missing the point, because one quarter-pound patty will always taste a lot better than two eighth-pound patties. What In-N-Out needs in order to compete with the very best is a larger patty. I’ll even go as far to say that the current burgers suffer, to a lesser degree, the same flaw as my least favorite burger, the Big Mac. I know that’s harsh, but hear me out. When I eat a Double-Double, I don’t necessarily notice the meat at all. I notice the nicely toasted bun, the copious amounts of American cheese, the Thousand Island dressing, the huge shank of lettuce, the grilled onionsand the meat is buried down into the mix somewhat. It isn’t as salient as it should be. And that’s why it simply isn’t the best, in my opinion.

I did just mention the Secret Menu, didn’t I? Well, when I first tried writing this book a few years, I thought that was going to be a major selling point; that I was going to break the news of the Secret Menu for all to see. Well, a little thing called the Internet came along, and now everyone knows about In-N-Out’s Secret Menu. I remember going recently, and actually standing at the take-out window, as opposed to the drive-thru. I was the fourth or fifth person in line, and every single person ahead of me ordered off the Secret Menu. I thought, well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag.

For those of you still in the dark, the Secret Menu is a brilliant marketing strategy designed to make more customers feel like regulars, or, even better, insiders. The Menu is little more than a variety of ways to special order various items, with cute little names. The most common item on the Secret Menu is ordering a burger “animal style.” Ordering a burger “animal style” means you’ll get a well-done burger with mustard grilled into the meat (In-N-Out usually doesn’t offer mustard on any of their burgers), grilled onions, extra pickles (again, something that usually doesn’t come on the burgers), and extra dressing. It’s not really my thing, but a lot of people dig having their Double-Doubles made this way. You can also get your fries done “animal style,” which means they cover them with the dressing, grilled onions, and cheese. It’s pretty disgusting, and also popular.

Then there are the 3 by 3s and the 4 by 4s, and the 2 by 4s (a Double-Double with four slices of cheese). I actually ordered a 4 by 4 once out of curiosity, and it was way too much burger for me. I felt sick afterward. You’ll also hear stories of the 500 by 500, which was supposedly made for a frat party, although I’ve also heard of hardcore In-N-Out fans having their weddings catered (“It’s where we metisn’t it romantic?”).

Then there’s “protein style,” without the bun, with lettuce wrapped around the whole thing, keeping it together. This is for the Atkins followers, and nowadays it doesn’t seem so revolutionary, because most other burger joints do it now. But In-N-Out, I believe, was the first. There’s also “veggie style,” without the meat, and a “Flying Dutchman,” a burger after my own heart, which comes with just meat, cheese, and the bun. There are a few other items, and I’m sure they’ll come up with new variations, new ways to keep the Secret Menu fresh, exciting, and, well, secret.

I do think that the In-N-Out burgers are stunning achievements. I like how In-N-Out, as opposed to Wendy’s, for example, did not let the quality go down when they expanded almost exponentially in the last few years, a financial and operational feat matched by no one in recent years except perhaps for Krispy Kreme Donuts. I’ve never, ever had an order messed up at In-N-Out, and I do order my burger a special way (no tomatoes, grilled onionsI call it “Marc style”). And I really do like their burgers and enjoy them on a semi-regular business. I do, however, dislike going into the hustle and bustle of their restaurants, and waiting forever for my food. In-N-Out makes their burgers to order, which means that they don’t put that patty on the grill until you’ve paid the person at the register. You’d think that with a steady stream of customers moving through your restaurant at all hours of the day, they would wise up and throw a couple of dozen patties on the grill in advance. But, amazingly, they don’t.

When it comes down to it, I think that they deserve their success. They are head-and-shoulders above all other fast food entities. But what I object to is the general public opinion that these are the best hamburgers in the world. I think there’s a whole other level above In-N-Out, the Apple Pans and the Cassells and the Russells and the Tylers of the world. Put a Hickory Burger from The Apple Pan side by side with a Double-Double, and I think there’s no contest. That’s why I come down harder on In-N-Out than I really should, because it’s an educational thing, something that goes back to the very reason I write about burgers.

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