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.
     "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. 


  1. I think In-N-Out is overrated. Their service is slow and their fries mediocre. I agree that the relative scarcity gives it an appeal that its goods don't merit. Kind of like how Coors used to be.

    1. The service inside is slow, because they take care of the drive through customers first. Almost all the other fast food chains do the same. I've learned that with In-N-Out, order through the drive through & then go inside to eat.
      But what has always been the difference with In-N-Out & McDonald's has been that McDonald's used frozen beef & In-N-Out uses fresh beef. Now McDonald's has gone to fresh beef for the Quarter Pounders which should improve those.
      I'd say Five Guys has the best burgers overall, but they're way overpriced & the fries really suck, as they're fried in greasy peanut oil.

    2. I agree, Coey. I was no more impressed with In-N-Out than I was with Coors. The best food in the country is right here in the Midwest. If we don't have it here, there's a good reason.

      The best place for a fast-food burger is Culver's. Damn good fries, too.

  2. Seems to me that White Castle has changed radically in the last year or two. Added a lot of what to me are exotic items to the menu and dropped at least one thing (regular donuts) that kept me coming back on a daily basis. The store at 63rd & Cicero was the first to give me a senior discount some 20 years ago, which was quite disconcerting at the time: I had just ridden 5 miles on my bike and stopped for my coffee and donut on the way to work. I swaggered into the place feeling like a well conditioned athlete, but shuffled out, a defeated old man (of 55 or so).


  3. I'm sorry but I've never understood the appeal of White Castle. I find their burgers just disgusting. As I understand it, they put the meat on top of chopped onions so that they will be cooked by steam instead of direct contact with the grill.


    Meat, especially ground beef, is not supposed to be steamed. It just isn't. No wonder on the two or so occasions I've eaten there, I've found the burgers mushy, mealy and bland.

    And tate, I hear you about the senior discount. I got my first one for a haircut at Great Clips a couple of months ago, and I wasn't even entitled to it (four years short). Made me feel ancient. (I kept the two bucks, though.)

    1. I got my first senior discount at Frank's Nursery, when I was in my mid 40s. The cashier was maybe 17.
      But I wasn't offended, as I saved 10%!

    2. There's no accounting for taste, but they're SUPPOSED to be disgusting, these pre-digested cubes of sebaceous meat and gelid bread. You can practically suck them through your clenched teeth. That's part of their glory. It's hard to explain. I would say half my affection is their white porcelain heritage—I hate seeing modern White Castle ads, they always seem wrong. There's a decadence to White Castle. They're like heroin--disgusting is part of their appeal.

  4. Trivia:

    That "vaguely sexual overtone" of the In-N-Out burger name was also famously remarked upon by Steve Buscemi in the movie "Fargo". He was talking with his "escort date" about how long he was going to be in town, and he said something like "oh not long, just in and out", then added "you know, in and out" while giving her his goofy-looking, leering smile.


    1. I am willing to bet "Fargo" was quoting Malcolm McDowell's character in "A Clockwork Orange". Check out :54.

  5. I've never had In and Out. I hope I will try it one day. White Castle's still does a great job and I usually get to the one at 79th and Stoney Island every couple of months.
    The burger franchise that really stands out for me is Culver's.

  6. Chicagoans are still fortunate to have White Castle at all. The New York area has far fewer than they had a few years ago, and the Cleveland-Akron area lost all its White Castles (about ten total) when the franchise pulled the plug a few Christmas Eves ago. Apparently, what used to be the late-night spot for Boomer drinkers was no longer the go-to eatery (strictly a newspaper word) for Millennials, who prefer Chipotle and burrito joints and faux-Asian fare. So they bit the dust, and were boarded up, and now all we have left are the frozen six-packs from the supermarket. Better than nothing, but never the same. The real deal is now two hours away, in Columbus, where White Castle began, almost a century ago.

    Mickey D's will always be tops with me. My first wife and I both grew up near the first two Arches to be built in the Midwest, which were also the first two outside of California. Store No. 1 in Des Plaines for her, and Store No. 2 at Dempster and Skokie Blvd. for me. For years, the Dempster franchise sent local kids a birthday card...post cards that could be redeemed for a free fifteen-cent hamburger. They'd send one to me, and then to my kid sister, and finally to my other sister, Lucy, whose name was actually Lucky. He was our dog.

  7. We had In and Out just once. They were just ok. I have certainly had better hamburgers in bars. I have also had 5 guys a couple of times and they are just ok. I thought the fries were ok. I do agree that Culvers is pretty good. The fries just so so but the shakes are goo. As for White Castle, I don't know how any one can eat those. When I lived in Chicago we lived at 79th and Essex and there was a White Castle there. The one at Stony Island must be relatively new.

  8. Culvers and Wendy's isn't bad now and then.

  9. In-N-Out is totally over-rated! I've been to one in Palm Desert CA many times. The fries are lousy! And the burgers are nothing special AT ALL.

    If you like In-N-Out burgers, you can get a MUCH better example of that style of burger at Red Hot Ranch on Ashland Ave, just south of Belmont. RHR's fries are WAYYYYYY better as well.

    I even agree that Culver's and Wendy's beats In-N-Out!

  10. See, until I interviewed out here, I thought In N Out was a joke. Chevy Chase makes a leering reference to it in _Fletch_. One of my classmates had a bumper sticker on his car cut to read

    IN N OUT

    (GBN staff tolerated that humor in those days.) That wasn't a REAL place, right? It's a gag in the same vein as the "Big Johnson ____" shirts that were popular in the late 80s? Nope, it's real.

    What Neil leaves out is the shocking simplicity of the menu. Burgers. Shakes. Fries. Drinks. No chicken, no fish, no salads, no fancy coffee, no breakfast. Open at 10:30, close at 1 or 1:30am. H0T COW D3TH, as someone once put it, take it or leave it.

    I'll take it.


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