Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Epicures are odd people.
My older son likes fancy restaurants, and he is all Michelin stars this, and coq au vin that. The swank place we dined at Sunday night to celebrate his graduation was picked, in part, for its steak tartar, which I think of as "raw ground meat."
Then Monday, heading for LAX and, we have a little extra time, and it's pushing noon, and he suggests, "Hey, why don't we stop at the In-N-Out Burger by the airport?"
I've spent months in Los Angeles, but can't say In-N-Out Burger is on my radar. But it seems to be a cult of some sort, stoked by rarity—the chain only operates in six states: Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and the mothership, California.
Sure, I say, it's your graduation.
What should I get, I ask my son.
Burger with animal sauce.
"A mayonnaise-based sauce," he says.
Sounds a bit Big Mac-ish. But OK. When in Rome ... (Actually, "Animal Style" means extra sauce, mustard-grilled patties and extra pickles. "Mustard-grilling" is when they slather the patty with mustard before flipping it. Who knew?)
We get in line for the drive-thru—no spaces, no time. We order four burgers—$12.81. Enthusiastic workers hand us a squarish bag. When my wife looks inside the bag, she explains, "The burgers are unwrapped; they just put them in the bag!"
Immediately I think it has to be some strange Californian law to cut down on waste. But rather, upon closer exploration, it turns out the burgers are combat wrapped for a car culture—only half covered, so you can grab the paper-wrapped half and immediately mash the burger into your face, which is what I do as I steer toward the car rental return, only a few blocks away.
It is a distinctive burger—fresh bun with a thick round bottom half. Lots of lettuce and fresh tomato. The rest ... well, it was okay, but then I ate it with one hand while driving toward the Avis drop off. Whatever excellence mustard-grilling imparts is lost on me.
Avis, incidentally, wraps its corporate arms around us as we arrive. Alex—I didn't catch his last name—but he is just, well, extra-friendly. He tries harder, as the slogan goes, and it is appreciated. I don't have much car rental loyalty—I think of them as all the same. But Avis now stands out, because it has Alex greeting customers as they bring their cars back at LAX.
The In-N-Out burger chain is older than McDonald's. Founded in 1948 (their 70th birthday is this Oct. 22) while the McDonald's Corporation started in 1955, and originated the drive-thru, being the first burger joint to use speakers to take orders from motorists in cars.
Oddly, given the vaguely sexual overtone of the name, "In-N-Out," the owners are fundamentalist Christians who cite Biblical verses on the burger packaging. For some reason, this doesn't bother me—it's their company—since they don't seem to harass their workers or try to undermine the rights of their customers.
No great epiphany here—we got into Chicago late to find monsoon season upon the city— except that value has to do with scarcity. In-N-Out are certainly beloved, but if they were on every street corner, like McDonald's, that ardor would no doubt fade: familiarity breeds contempt. I don't think my experience Monday will knock White Castle out of its preeminence in my heart among quirky hamburger chains. But it did help redeem the state's reputation, fast-food wise, which had been so tarnished by a few bad experiences at Bob's Big Boy and Denny's. Anyway, it's good to be home, college graduate in tow. He hasn't slept under our roof for five months.