The first time I went to In-N-Out Burger, it lived up to its name. It was IN and it was OUT. Both my travel companion and I were in the bathroom at our hotel within 30 minutes of stopping at In-N-Out upon our arrival in Los Angeles. This was not a good first experience at the famed fast-food chain.
Even though that first experience wasn’t great, I chalked up my sensitive stomach to a long travel day. On a recent trip back to California I was willing to give In-N-Out Burger another shot. After all, everyone says it is THE BEST burger. And, being a longtime devotee of Seattle’s own homegrown burger chain, Dick’s Drive-In, I wanted to pit the two against each other. Who has the better burger: In-N-Out Burger or Dick’s Drive-In?
There are some similarities between Dick’s and In-N-Out. Both chains started in the 1950s (Dick’s in 1952, In-N-Out in 1948); both use fresh (not frozen) meat; and both companies have progressive personnel programs in comparison with other fast-food chains. But this my friends, is where the similarities end.
In-N-Out Burger started with one location in a suburb of L.A. in 1948. Today there are around 250 locations in California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Compared with other fast-food burger chains, this is pretty small. But still – 5 states, 250 locations. The list of In-N-Out Burger devotees is long and esteemed. Celebrities, athletes, reputable chefs – Thomas Keller among them – love In-N-Out Burger. Their reputation for fresh, quality ingredients is well-known.
Driving south on the I-80 near San Francisco, we easily found an In-N-Out Burger to pull into. It was located – like all fast-food chains of its size – next to a shopping mall. The gleaming white building and iconic red & yellow sign welcomed us as we walked into the restaurant.
The menu at In-N-Out is pretty simple. A couple of burger options, fries, shakes, and sodas. What many people love to tout about In-N-Out Burger though is the “secret menu.” Well, a simple search online quickly reveals that nothing is “secret” about the secret menu. It basically just offers options for making your burger bigger. You can make your burger 3×3 or 4×4 – tripling or quadrupling the patties and cheese. The one interesting option on the secret menu is “animal-style.” This puts mustard on your patty before it is cooked and adds caramelized onions. Grrr. Me likes the sound of THAT!
We ordered a regular cheeseburger and an “animal-style” cheeseburger, some fries, a drink and grabbed a table. Surveying the scene around us, we were disappointed to discover that the interior of In-N-Out Burger looks like most other fast-food burger joints. Crummy tile floors, fluorescent lighting and plastic tables with the chairs attached.
When our burgers arrived, they looked promising. Nestled into paper wrappers, our burgers peeked out at us. Crisp lettuce, red tomatoes, melting cheese, and – in the case of the animal-style burger – caramel-colored onions. The first bite was good. Warm bun, flavorful meat, tangy pickles, and the crunch of the lettuce. The tomato was mealy and flavorless. But otherwise the fresh toppings were tasty. The animal-style cheeseburger offered the bonus tanginess of the mustard-coated patty.
After a few more bites, the flaw of the In-N-Out burger revealed itself. Remember those old McDonald’s commercials for the McDLT? “Hot side hot, cool side cool.” Well, cold toppings on a burger will ultimately cool a burger too quickly. Especially a fast-food burger that has too thin a patty to retain heat for any length of time.
Still, In-N-Out makes a good burger. But what was all the fuss about? It’s a fast-food burger in a non-descript, sterile building. I’d rather eat at Sonic. And Burger King, in my opinion, makes a more flavorful burger.
Two other big marks against In-N-Out: First, the fries were AWFUL. Deep-fried packing peanuts would probably taste better. Second, Christian propaganda. In-N-Out prints discreet references to Bible verses on the paper wrapping, cups, etc. Not the actual text of the passage, just the book, chapter and number of the verse. Still. I’d prefer a side of heartburn with my burger to a side of morality any day.
With just 5 locations in the Seattle area, Dick’s Drive-In is truly a “local” chain. They are adding a 6th location (the first new location in 36 years) in the suburbs north of the city by 2012.
While Dick’s is a “drive-in,” it is more of a “walk-up” burger joint. With the exception of the dine-in restaurant at the location on Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, they all have a similar design. 50’s retro buildings with large windows allow you to see the behind-the-scenes action and the menu. Long lines form at the four or five windows, and customers – during every kind of weather – stand and wait for their turn to order. A long, but narrow stainless steel bar extends along the front of the building, where people can eat their burger. Many however just return to eat either inside or outside of their cars.
The menu is simple and, with the exception of prices, has hardly changed since Dick’s first opened. For a fair comparison to In-N-Out we ordered a Dick’s Deluxe (which includes chopped lettuce & pickles, plus cheese and mayo), a cheeseburger and French fries. If you like ketchup, be sure to order that too, since it costs 5 cents extra.
While there is no “secret menu” at Dick’s, locals know that there are some tricks to ordering at Dick’s. Even though there are no substitutions, local food writer Leslie Kelly discovered, you CAN order a Deluxe without cheese. The only other “secret” is that, under no circumstances, should you order the French fries unless you have actually seen them dumped from the fryer to the salting/packaging area (what is that area called anyways?). Through the large glass windows, you will see piles of freshly scrubbed and chopped potatoes waiting in baths of water until it is their turn for a hot oil bath. Despite, or perhaps because of, the freshness of the potatoes, the fries at Dick’s are notoriously perishable. That is, within a few minutes of being cooked, they get soggy. Which is great if you are stoned. Or drunk. But not so much if you are stone sober.
Turn around is pretty quick at Dick’s. While you fish money out of your pockets, your cashier preps your order. Sometimes you are asked to step aside while they finish up your burgers, but usually you order, pay and walk away with your order within a couple of minutes. At all hours of the day however, you will encounter lines at Dick’s. They are open daily from 11am -2am and generally have a crowd no matter the hour.
With our bag of burgers and fries in hand, we returned to the car to devour our meal. The burgers at Dick’s are tightly packaged in paper or foil wrappers. When you unwrap your burger at Dick’s it is HOT. The hot, fresh patty combined with the heat-chamber of the wrapper wilts the lettuce (in the case of the Deluxe). But, it also creates a lot of steam within the wrapper, softening the bun so it melts in your mouth.
The bun is much sweeter than most fast-food buns. The meat is also quite salty. The steam effect of the wrapper makes the burgers at Dick’s quite soft and reminds me more of Chinese humbow than of other fast-food burgers. We were fortunate to get a fresh order of French fries on this visit (since we saw them dumped from the fryer). They were crisp on the outside and perfectly fluffy on the inside. And, they tasted like real potatoes.
When we finished our meal, I took the empty bags and wrappers back to the front of the building where the refuse bins are separated into compost, trash and recyclables. I took a look at the long lines that had not gotten any smaller since we arrived 20 minutes prior. There were families, kids in sports uniforms, guys in suits, other guys in coveralls, and emo kids. Even though a lot of things have changed around Seattle since the 1950’s, Dick’s has remained virtually the same. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’ll admit that I am biased. I have been going to Dick’s Drive-In my entire life. Heck, maybe even while I was still in utero. That being said, I expected fireworks at In-N-Out Burger. What I got was a cookie cutter fast-food chain. And not even a cool cookie cutter like a dinosaur or a rocket ship. It was a plain chain with little character. The burger tasted fresh and I loved the tang of the mustard on the animal-style version. The fries were inexcusable though and the subtle yet still-present propaganda on the packaging left a bad taste in my mouth. Dick’s has its flaws – it is a little sweet for some people’s taste, and the French fries require some advance knowledge before ordering. Still, the atmosphere at Dick’s is retro-cool and the crowd offers great people-watching and the perfect cross-section of Seattle. These reasons are why Dick’s Drive-In is my favorite fast-food cheeseburger.