Bang for your Burger Buck ~ the In-N-Out edition

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The question is not “should I go to In-N-Out, the question is, when I do go, what should I order? If you want to maximize the bang for your burger buck, Ali Khan is your man. The latest edition of BfyBB tackles what is perhaps SoCal’s greatest contribution to burgerdom…

Sometimes Capitalism gets it right.

In-N-Out: The burger institution of So Cal, bearer of prodigious accolades by legions of loyal fans, a chain that defies the very term. There are also the naysayers, the detractors, those who call it an overhyped, West Coast cult thang. I was once one of them. Coming from a Midwest stacked burger background that peaked with the chain diner Steak N Shake and dipped into the late night dregs with White Castle, my In N Out visits often ended with a false sense of burger fulfillment. Not as cheap as the sliders from the Castle and outclassed in the patty department by Steak N Shake, I wrote In N Out off as a decent but not special chain burger. Then I learned about the secret menu. And then I dined on a double double in a car halfway to San Francisco, in what would become the single greatest road trip meal I have ever had without stepping out of the vehicle. Gradually, my In N Out enlightenment began; by embracing two basic principles that are essential to this burger experience:

1: you must eat it right away

2: you should order it exactly the way you like by taking full advantage of the secret menu

Principle One is fairly obvious. Like McCauley says in Heat: do not hesitate, not for a second. Take that first bite as soon as possible. Why make burgers to order if the customer is gonna let it sit in a bag? If they ask if you will be eating in the car, respond with a hearty “Hell Yes“. If you are dining in house, stake your claim to that table as soon as you get your change. Some meals move like symphonies, In N Out is not one of them.

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Principle Two is where In N Out becomes a complex, mind numbing series of burger and topping combinations, some of which I didn’t even realize existed until my latest visit (light lettuce? who knew?). Thankfully, no matter which option you settle on, In N Out is damn cheap. The priciest version we’ll discuss here, the 4×1, rang up to $4.50 before tax. The real task was choosing which combination of beef, cheese and toppings would deliver a burger banging meal that needed no filler in the fries, soda and shake department; which interestingly enough is where a tab at In N Out can soar – $6.15 for a double double, fries and coke? You can get two double meats for that price . . .

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I settled on the 3×2 as my baseline after some Chowhound reports (kudos, A5Kobe) indicated that this was a solid contender for Bang for your Burger Buck. I knew one of these burgers needed to be served up “Animal Style”, which for the record means: lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, pickles, extra spread and most intriguing of all a beef patty cooked with mustard smeared on it, and the 3×2 was it. From there I deviated by upping the meat to cheese ratio with a 4×1, bringing in raw onion to compliment the heavy meat load, and, as I did with the 3×2, requested my bun to be extra toasted.

Lastly I went for a more minimal experience: a double meat with lettuce, tomato, grilled onion and spread. For each burger, the cooking was requested at Medium Rare; though the juicy results would turn out to be as complex as the topping decisions.

The Burger Breakdown:

2xMeat Lettuce, Tomato, Grilled Onion, Spread
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Coming in last out of the three, on paper the double meat was meant to emphasize the much touted quality of beef at In N Out, but in reality it lacked that zesty flavor characteristic we come to expect. The seasoning of the beef was more pronounced than the other two but really you impoverish your In N Out experience by cutting out the cheese. And at $.30 a slice, I can think of worse ways to spend your cheddar.

Where the burger takes a turn toward the great:
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The grilled onions expertly layered in between the two patties.

3×2 Animal Style
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Narrowly being edged out by the burlier 4×1, the 3×2 Animal style really is the quintessential In N Out Burger experience. Tantamount in importance, the grilled onions and mustard cooked patty are the heart and soul of Animal Style burger, and wholly unique to In N Out. My criticism has always been about wanting to taste the beef and frankly, even three patties gets lost in an excess of cheese and the acidic bite of pickles and relish in the double order of spread. While it is delicious, the 3×2 Animal style places the focus on the toppings rather than the burger itself.

Where the burger takes a turn toward the awesome:
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At the right angle the 3×2 pays a close resemblance to Jabba the Hutt licking his chops

4×1 Lettuce, Tomato, Raw Onion, Spread
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My first impression after finishing this bona fide whopper was being intoxicated with a savory beefiness. My second took note of the surprising balance in this burger combination. Hard to imagine balance when picturing a quadruple cheeseburger; images of Takeru Kobayashi in serious training seem more appropriate, but it is not nearly as gargantuan as it sounds. Size wise, I would guess you were looking at 5 ounces of beef, just stacked high vs one wide patty we are more accustomed to. I really was convinced before going in that grilled onions, an In N Out signature, would have beat raw. The truth was the raw onion may have been the deciding blow in the 4×1 defeating the 3×2 for the Bang for the Burger Buck championship. Grilled onions and extra cheese most likely contribute to the beef patties continuing to cook even after being pulled from the griddle. That first impression of beefiness was due to the medium rare cooking temp being delivered with steakhouse precision, and my guess is that the use of the raw onion created a “McDLT effect” where part of the burger remained cool enough to keep the patties from overcooking. The flavor combination of beef and raw onion is well known in the Middle Eastern and South Asian food world; this particular rendition reminded me of a great kibbeh, maybe the closest some will ever get to a Middle Eastern beef tartar. The salty punch of a single slice of cheese, the simultaneous touch of cream and vinegar in the standard dollop of spread, lettuce and tomato for texture, and the extra toasted bun for structure: this just wasn’t a balanced burger, it was a vessel that showcased high quality ingredients for an extremely reasonable price, Bang for your Burger Buck, plain and simple.

Where the burger takes a turn toward the sublime/em>:
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Pulling off a perfect medium rare that would make the cut at Cut, Mastro’s or Morton’s, for the Bang for your Burger Buck price of $4.50

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Is this particular 4×1 the only way to get Bang for your Burger Buck at In N Out? Of course not. With seemingly endless combinations and rock bottom prices, there is an In N Out burger that is lying in wait for you to stamp your name on. Some of you will finish this lengthy guide unwavering in your commitment to your double double animal style. But for those who order that ubiquitous burger and immediately cancel the grilled onions, mustard and spread, or those who think this burger doesn’t hold up to the hype, or fear you cannot well fill your belly without breaking a five spot, open your mind to the depths of the secret menu and build the hamburger of your dreams.

In N Out is the fast food burger chain that honestly does want you to “have it your way”. It is hard not to get political sometimes when talking about food, let alone fast food, but In N Out does it all the right way. Happy employees and tasty burgers speak volumes. While I usually look to post war America through a lens of sarcasm and even a dash of disdain, the story of an ex WWII vet and his wife pulling off the American dream and changing burgers as we know it doesn’t just keep my belly full, it puts a smile on my face and makes me want to stand up at the beginning of every baseball game I go to. And that my friends, is what a hamburger is all about.

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