Welcome to my ‘Consummate Carnivore’s Guide to In-N-Out Burger’. I don’t want to hype it up too much, but this post could change your life. It was originally going to be an In-N-Out Burger review, but that didn’t seem appropriate. In-N-Out is a California institution standing alongside Disneyland, Space X, Steve Jobs, and Terminator, and the restaurant needs no food critic to validate the excellence of Animal Style Fries.
Everything about In-N-Out Burger is awesome–there’s your review. Since that would make for a pretty short post, and as I began writing this post I was including way more tips than I was actually reviewing anything, so I changed gears shortly after starting the post and decided to make it a mega-guide to In-N-Out Burger.
I will start by detailing why In-N-Out Burger is the best fast food chain on the planet, followed by a short review, then menu tips for double-doubling the awesomeness of In-N-Out Burger on your next pilgrimage to this fast food mecca, and concluding with location tips so you know which mecca to visit.
Let’s begin with why, exactly, In-N-Out Burger is such an enviable business, a beacon of light in an industry that is often viewed contemptuously…
Before we get to that, actually, let’s start with a brief, Wiki-esque history. All great fast food reviews start out with history, so let’s take a quick look at In-N-Out’s rise to the top. Harry and Esther Snyder founded In-N-Out Burger in 1948, opening their drive-thru hamburger restaurant in Baldwin Park, California. (One can only assume that Baldwin Park has an epic 3-month long burger festival each year with daily parades and fireworks to commemorate this defining moment in humanity.)
They prided themselves on fresh, high-quality ingredients, and as the family-owned business has snowballed in popularity, expanding from a few locations in California to restaurants along the West Coast (albeit no franchises), this has remained their philosophy. That’s the story in a nutshell, but there’s much more you can read on In-N-Out Burger’s Company History page. Clearly, In-N-Out Burger is proud of its legacy, and for good reason.
In-N-Out’s Awesomosity Begins Before the Food
Some of you might consider a review of a fast food restaurant superfluous. Those who snub their noses at fast food as being for the unwashed masses will never “get” why In-N-Out Burger is so awesome, no matter how compelling my argument. That’s fine, I’d rather the fragrant aroma of those fresh cut fries not by clouded by that pungent Chanel No. 5, anyway.
While I love fast food, I have to admit that not all fast food was not created equally, which is especially true in the world of burgers. While McDonald’s (a guilty pleasure of mine), Burger King, and others lose market share following a failed race to the bottom, gourmet burger places like Shake Shack, Five Guys, and Smashburger all captivate the taste buds of consumers.
And then there’s In-N-Out. It’s not really a budget burger but it’s not really a gourmet burger, either. With its deceptively simple menu and prices a fraction of the other aforementioned chains but quality well in excess of the mass market fast food restaurants, In-N-Out Burger occupies a relatively unique position by offering the best of each category: low prices and great quality.
For years, scientists have (probably) been studying In-N-Out Burger to figure out how they do it. How can prices stay so low while quality stays so high? This question is amplified by the significant consumer demand for In-N-Out Burger, with many locations needing traffic and crowd control during the lunch and dinner rush to deal with the chaos.
Self-identifying “staunch capitalists” would likely suggest that “it’s a business, their only objective is to profit, so they should decrease quality and raise prices,” (even though this is not an inherent characteristic of capitalism) but In-N-Out Burger persists at delivering an awesome product at low prices. So…really…how do they do it?
An understanding of our market economy operating in similar scenarios would suggest only one way: out-sourcing their product to be produced in third world country for wages akin to indentured servitude. Yet, this could not be further from what they do. In-N-Out Burger has been lauded time and time and time again for the treatment of their employees, and a big part of this is because In-N-Out Burger is the highest paying fast food chain in the United States. Another part is because they offer full and part-time employees benefits, such as 401(k).
Yet another reason is likely because of how In-N-Out treats its employees, with an excellent rating on GlassDoor with scant reports of discrimination or other concerns plaguing the fast food industry. In-N-Out also fosters employee growth and upward mobility, with restaurant manager salaries at In-N-Out averaging $120,000 per year, which is more than double the national fast food average of $48,000.
Even if you’re a self-centered egoist who couldn’t care less about the treatment of others, this is a good thing. It’s good because it means that In-N-Out has great employees who are friendly, take pride in their work, and feel like they have a vested interest in delivering a quality product.
For me, one of the worst things about going to fast food restaurants is the high likelihood that my order will be unintentionally or intentionally screwed up, employees working at the restaurant will be rude, and/or service will be somehow poor.
I eat at In-N-Out a lot (probably more than any human should), and I have never once had a single issue with the employees. They are always–and I mean always–friendly and helpful, and they get even my complex “secret menu” orders right.
Then there’s that supposed “quality” I’ve mentioned a few times in this post. Knowing that I am a strong advocate of foods that are awful for me, you might think I’m conflating “quality” food for “ridiculously unhealthy, but delicious” food. In-N-Out Burger, is deliciously unhealthy, no doubt, but it is also high quality. As with its employee treatment, it has been praised again and again for this.
Everything at In-N-Out is freshly prepared–no microwaves, heat lamps, or freezers exist at the chain. The meat is house-ground patties, regionally-sourced chuck, free of additives, fillers, and preservatives of any kind. The toppings are all fresh, with lettuce hand-leafed and the tomatoes and onions hand-selected. The fries are made in-store from potatoes shipped right from the farm, and are individually cut in the stores. Milk shakes are made with real ice cream. The food may still be (very) fattening, but at least it’s food, not food*. Even the notoriously anti-fast food Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) praised In-N-Out, calling it “food with integrity…the real deal,” in a New York Times article.
There’s no point in beating a dead horse: it’s fairly undeniable that In-N-Out is an exemplary fast food restaurant, doing things the right way by both its employees and patrons. You can read more about their business practices in the book, In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules. The next question…is the food any good?
In-N-Out Burger: The Food Verdict (Spoiler Alert: It’s Awesome.)
Of course the food is good. It’s amazing. Now, we could argue until the cows come home about whether In-N-Out Burger is better than Five Guys or those other gourmet burger joints. The fact is, I’m a burger addict and I think they’re all delicious.
Making me choose the definitive best would be like making me choose a favorite child (note: I would not eat my children and do not endorse cannibalism in any way, shape, or form). All else being equal, I’ll choose the delicious one (burger, not child) that offers the most bang for buck, and that’s unquestionably In-N-Out Burger.
Seriously, I’ve yet to have anything at In-N-Out Burger that is short of incredibly delicious, and given that I’ve had virtually everything on the regular and secret menu (besides the stupid burger that comes wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun), I think it’s safe to say In-N-Out Burger is a great meal. Describing In-N-Out Burger with nuance is a bit more tricky. While a lot of the gourmet/boutique burger places that have popped up recently either try to emulate a home cooked burger that you might cook on the grill or, alternatively, novel and inventive burgers that have never been done before (each new one a bit more envelope-pushing than the last), I would describe In-N-Out Burger as high-end fast food: an addictive guilty pleasure with a distinct taste that is unlike anything you can replicate at home.
In a way, In-N-Out is like a classier, high-quality version of the Big Mac. Not because the taste is the same as the Big Mac, but because the Big Mac has a unique flavor profile that’s not really comparable to anything else. Likewise, from the toasted buns to that mouth-watering spread to those Animal Style onions and melted cheese, In-N-Out burgers sport a distinctive taste that is instantly recognizable. They don’t have to offer a menu full of eye-catching and outlandish options to grab the attention of patrons. In-N-Out’s burgers are, in a word, iconic.
In-N-Out Burger Menu Tips
In-N-Out Burger’s menu is deceptively simple. The main menu has only 3 burgers: a hamburger, cheeseburger, and double-double. However, there are numerous options beyond those three choices available to those in the know via In-N-Out Burger’s Not-So-Secret Menu. The secret menu is a secret in the same way that Disney Vacation Club is Disney’s “Best Kept Secret,” meaning that virtually everyone knows about it.
Although you won’t find the (not-so) secret menu printed anywhere in the restaurants, if you hang out at an In-N-Out Burger and listen to orders, it’s easy to spot the grizzled veterans by the way they quickly string together combinations from the secret menu. To the uninitiated, it probably sounds like a foreign language (I know that’s how I feel whenever I overhear people placing orders at Starbucks), but I would say one of the marks of a true Californian is a quick-to-the-draw In-N-Out ordering protocol.
Here are my tips to help you order like a local, and not stick out like a tourist… 😉
First thing you need to know is that every In-N-Out order should contain the words “Animal Style.” (Well, unless you’re just getting a milkshake.) Animal Style means extra spread and grilled onions; it also means a mustard cooked beef patty in the case of burgers and cheese in the case of fries. Fact: all burgers and fries are better when prepared Animal Style. Regardless of how unappetizing it might appear in the photos here, I assure you with complete confidence that it is really, really awesome.
Next thing to know about is the 3 x 3 and 4 x 4. These are, respectively, a burger with 3 beef patties and 3 slices of cheese and (you guessed it) a burger with 4 beef patties and 4 slices of cheese.
Pictured above is a 3 x 3 bursting out of its Double-Double packaging. I’ve found that even a 3 x 3 is pushing it in terms of eating a burger without it totally falling apart. If you get a 4 x 4 Animal Style, you should fully expect to be eating it like Animal from the Muppets.
Above is a 4 x 4. I don’t normally order these anymore as they are difficult to eat, but I “took one for the team” and got one while conducting the rigorous research for this post.
Moving down the spectrum into burgers that are less awesome, we have the Grilled Cheese and the Protein Style burger. The Grilled Cheese is a Double-Double without the meat (it’s pictured above). I guess it’s for little kids and vegetarians. Why In-N-Out Burger would want to cater to vegetarians is beyond me, but when I ordered this, I made sure to do so away from my “home” In-N-Out location so I didn’t disappoint the regular associates there. The Grilled Cheese is actually pretty good for what it is, but it seems crazy to me to pass on the beef. Even though this is good, a Double-Double is approximately 3942349 times better. I’ve never had a Protein Style burger and refuse to order one on principle. This is a burger wrapped in lettuce instead of on a delicious bun. I assume it’s aimed at trendy California hipsters embarking on some fad diet. If you want a really no-frills burger, you can order a Flying Dutchman, which is simply two beef patties with two slices of cheese in between–no bun, nothing.
Here are the excellent Animal Style Fries. Don’t judge a book by its cover–these are amazing. In addition to the Animal Style Fries, you can also order simple Cheese Fries, and Well-Done or Light Fries (in terms of crispiness). Although freshly cut, In-N-Out fries are definitely the menu’s weakness, so I highly recommend getting them Animal Style as that makes them awesome.
Moving on to the drinks, there are a few options not listed on the menu. First, my favorite shake is the Neapolitan shake. This combines In-N-Out’s normal 3 shake flavors: chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, all mixed together. You can also order any shake in a large size, if you want.
There’s also a Root Beer Float (above), which is vanilla ice cream in root beer (as it is everywhere). It’s also awesome.
Although this is the bulk of the full secret menu, there are a few additional items you can find listed here.
If you’re visiting In-N-Out Burger for the first (few) times, you’re probably going to want to order a variety of things to find out what your go-to order will be. Personally, my normal order is a Double-Double Animal Style with Animal Style fries and a Root Beer Float. After finishing this meal, I’m in a zen-like state for a few hours…or maybe that’s a food coma!
In-N-Out Burger Location Tips
At present, In-N-Out Burger has restaurants in 5 states in the West: California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and Utah, with by far the most restaurants (221) in California, and a total of 80 restaurants in the other 4 states combined. You can find an In-N-Out Burger near you with their restaurant finder.
While I’m pretty committed to the In-N-Out cause, I cannot claim to have dined at every one of their restaurants. That’s certainly a noble life goal, but it’s something I haven’t yet managed to accomplished. The good news about In-N-Out Burger is that because it’s privately owned, not franchised, and has such exceptional employees, there is little variance from one location to the other in terms of quality. Whereas I think McDonald’s and Burger King have some cool locations and some sketchy locations to avoid, In-N-Out is just consistently good.
There actually is a downside to this, and it’s that there aren’t really any standout, unique, or flagship locations. While there are some crazy-awesome “destination” McDonald’s locations in terms of design, In-N-Out generally sticks with the tried and true. Nothing necessarily wrong with this, unless you’re In-N-Out obsessed like me, and want to seek out especially cool restaurants to visit.
There are a couple of exceptions to this, where there are Company Stores adjacent to the In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, CA and Las Vegas, NV.
Obviously, these are great locations to visit, as it’s essential that you stock up on In-N-Out swag so that you can show your allegiance to In-N-Out Burger via your wardrobe.
The Company Store sells everything from the yearly In-N-Out Burger shirts to coffee mugs to In-N-Out Uggs to bikinis and more. I personally enjoy the irony of wearing In-N-Out Burger shirts to the gym–if I were a woman I’d totally get the bikini.
The Baldwin Park, CA In-N-Out Burger is considered the flagship location, as not only is there a Company Store here, but also In-N-Out University (a managerial training facility that is not open to the public), and a replica of the original In-N-Out Burger.
This all makes it a cool place to visit, especially if you’re going to be near Baldwin Park.
The replica here is only open for limited hours Thursday through Sunday, but even if you can’t make it out during the middle of the day when the gates to the store or open, you can always walk by and view it from the road.
It’s a neat little tribute to the company’s roots, and shows just how much things have changed–and stayed the same.
On my recent visit, I even saw an elusive(?) In-N-Out Burger semi, so obviously I felt compelled to take an overly artsy shot of it. What…you don’t try to get some nice sun flare in your photos of semis?!
Since a lot of you reading this are probably Disney fans coming over from my Disney blog, you might be wondering where the closest In-N-Out Burger is to Disneyland. That would be the In-N-Out on State College Boulevard and Ball Road, about 2.6 miles from the Disneyland Esplanade. There’s another that is sort of near the Mickey & Friends Parking Structure (just off of Ball Road on on South Brookhurst Street), but it’s still about 1.5 miles away. This In-N-Out Burger isn’t in the greatest neighborhood, but the location is still good, with friendly staff and great service. If you’re doing other things when you visit Southern California besides Disneyland, my recommendation would be to find a different In-N-Out Burger.
Other In-N-Out Burger locations aren’t really as noteworthy. Another I really like is the San Juan Capistrano, CA restaurant. It has limited seating indoors, but a lot of covered tables outside, and has a nice intimate feel to it. Also near this location is the Laguna Hills Mall one, which has a huge interior.
Really, though, no matter where you choose to grab your Animal Style burger, you can’t go wrong. Like I said above, all of the restaurants I’ve visited have been great.
A 3,000 word “guide” to a fast food restaurant might seem a bit…unnecessary…but I hope you at least gained a bit from this post that either helps you “understand” In-N-Out Burger a little better and why it’s so beloved, or gives you some ideas for what you’ll order when you pop your In-N-Out Cherry. I think In-N-Out Burger is the greatest fast food chain on the planet, but maybe I’m a bit biased. I’m not much into cults, but if there’s a Cult of the International Animal Style Brethren? Sign me up.
These photos were all taken by me with my Nikon D750 and a variety of lenses. Just imagine the odd looks of taking photos of your fast food with pro-grade DSLR equipment. You get some odd looks!
To get some more SoCal photo ideas, check out my Southern California Photo Gallery.
Have you been to In-N-Out Burger? Do you get the hype or think it’s overrated? Have your own favorite In-N-Out Burger location? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!