Shake Shack v. In-N-Out: The Time Traveler’s Guide

When flying from Japan to California recently, we did what some experts said was impossible: dined at Shake Shack and then traveled back in time to eat at In-N-Out on the same night. Others have compared these two fine burger establishments, but none have been scientifically reliable, carefully controlling important variables. No one else has eaten at both on empty stomaches for the same meal. That’s right, we harnessed the powers of time travel for the greatest possible good–an epic burger throw-down.

Joking aside, as self-proclaimed In-N-Out enthusiasts (you might recall our Consummate Carnivore’s Guide to In-N-Out Burger, a 3,000+ word article about a fast food chain with a limited menu) we are often asked how we think Shake Shack and other restaurants stack up to In-N-Out Burger. It’s a good question, but this is a surprisingly complicated issue.

This article is equal parts answer to that question and goofily braggadocious “burger report” on eating at both restaurants on the same night, in two different countries. Let’s start with the play-by-play on just how we accomplished this incredibly impressive feat of strength, and finish with the results of our highly scientific experiment. The results will shock and awe you. Or perhaps not.

Our decision to eat at Shake Shack was impulsive. We are not normally “those people” who eat at American restaurants while traveling internationally, but when you’ve been on the road for a while, sometimes you just crave the familiar and comfortable. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve broken down and gone into McDonald’s in Kyoto after midnight because I really needed my burger fix. This exact scenario has played out on several occasions.

This time, we had been on a veritable ramen bender in Tokyo, and the siren song of Shake Shack as we walked through the tony Roppongi district was impossible to resist. We were far from the only Westerners in line, so I can only assume that Shake Shack has “smellitizers” positioned in the area to release the intoxicating aromas of beef and lure in unsuspecting patrons.

Not that we mind. We were en route to another highly regarded ramen spot near Roppongi Hills when we saw a green oasis in the towering concrete jungle. The Shake Shack marquee stopped us in our tracks, and beckoned us inside.

Prior to this, we had some incredible, Michelin-star and Bib Gourmand ramen meals during our time in Tokyo, but too much of a good thing can tire the palate. After eating nothing but ramen, sushi, curry, and okonomiyaki for weeks on end, we were ready for a change.

Shake Shack was just what we needed, and even though we struck out ordering one of the Tokyo-exclusive desserts, the burgers did not disappoint. Japan’s approach to burgers is usually quite different from America’s (with the patties often being akin to meatloaf), but Tokyo’s Steak Shack retained its signature beef blend and the taste was indistinguishable from the chain’s U.S. locations. It was glorious, and the perfect way to cap a great trip to Japan.

After finishing our meals at Shake Shack, we hopped on the train to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, and boarded our Monday night flight to LAX. Upon arriving in Los Angeles mid-afternoon on Monday, we drove to Anaheim, spent the evening in Disneyland, and then headed to In-N-Out after Disney California Adventure closed. Our day culminated with us biting into Double Doubles just before the clock struck midnight on Monday, Pacific Standard Time. It was truly a modern-day Cinderella story.

You might say our incredible burger journey was over-zealous or even fraught with peril; too dangerous of a proposition solely to taste-test fast food burgers. You might also say we could’ve had both Shake Shack and In-N-Out within 10 minutes of one another in Los Angeles (there’s now a Shake Shack in LAX, and In-N-Out is within walking distance of the airport). However, we know that burger research is very serious business and we had to do this experiment with the scientific rigor it deserved.

Plus, we had to fly back from Japan one way or another, and this whole ‘incredible burger journey’ was merely coincidental and not pre-planned. But that’s beside the point.

As for the burger comparison–the actual “meat” of the article, so to speak–it depends. This is a total cop out, but anyone who has asked us this question in the past probably knew that’s the answer they’d get. As much as reviewers and patrons alike might want to compare In-N-Out and Shake Shack and vociferously declare an ultimate fighting champion, they’re fundamentally different restaurants.

In-N-Out is fast food, full stop. Shake Shack is part of the burgeoning fast casual segment. As with its cohorts like Five Guys, a comparable double cheeseburger at Shake Shack is at least twice the cost of In-N-Out’s Double Double. The location we visited in one of Tokyo’s high rent areas was closer to triple the cost. Price-wise, In-N-Out’s competition is the Big Mac or Whopper, which are no competition at all.

Shake Shack sets a high bar with its burgers. Starting with the buttery potato roll, ShackSauce, and continuing right down to the perfectly-melted American cheese. Most importantly, their house angus beef blend is cooked to perfect exterior crispness with a medium center. This patty is delicious, surpassing every single other burger chain, including In-N-Out.

It may come as a surprise, but we do not view In-N-Out as the end-all, be-all of burgers. To the contrary, we’ve had countless objectively-better burgers in our lives, from other chains and table service restaurants alike. However, we’ve never had a better double cheeseburger for under $4.

The price point is one key to the success of In-N-Out. Another key is the excellent flavor profile of the burger. “Flavor profile” is probably a bit hoity, as there’s absolutely no pretense to In-N-Out. It’s an egalitarian fast food joint, and the burgers reflect that. They aspire to be exactly what they are: cheap but high-quality fare, but there’s something more.

That “something more” is this almost inarticulable quality to In-N-Out’s burgers; this distinct, addictively-good taste. It’s a taste that I can imagine as I sit here writing this, and a taste that has me salivating. I actively crave In-N-Out Burger on a regular basis, and I enjoy everything about the experience. From walking into the restaurant and being greeted by a cheerful employee who is paid a fair wage to eating outside under the crossed palms and California sun, In-N-Out Burger brings me a simple joy.

If we were to be objective and critical, I couldn’t claim In-N-Out serves one of the top 10 burger patties I’ve ever had–or even better than the likes of Shake Shack or Five Guys. However, there is no burger place in the world at which I’d rather dine. If I could only eat at one restaurant for the rest of my life, I would choose In-N-Out in an instant with no second thoughts.

Ultimately, even though Guinness has yet to return our calls about this miraculous endeavor of eating Shake Shack and In-N-Out on two different continents in the same night, it was a valuable learning experience. For instance, we learned that both chains serve delicious burgers and that we absolutely love burgers. Scratch that, we knew both of those things. As for which is better? Well, that remains unresolved, and really is an “it depends” situation, no matter what more empathetic reviewers might claim. In a way, you could say this experiment raises more questions than it answers. I guess that’s science for ya.

Your Thoughts

Which of these burger joints do you think is superior, or are we correct in saying this is an “it depends” situation that should factor in pricing, distinct/addictive flavor, atmosphere, and other variables? Does this article make you more or less optimistic about the potential of harnessing time travel to better humanity? Any other thoughts or questions? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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9 replies
  1. Grace
    Grace says:

    We live on the east coast so we have shake shack and five guys but no in-and-outs! We love going to in-and-out when we visit LA and Vegas. and I will eat at shake shack at home when I have a craving for in-and-out! I feel they are comparable. With a family of 4, shake shack is about $50-60 with $8 burgers, $4 fries and $7 milkshakes. I don’t recall exactly but I remember it being about $15-20 for all 4 of us at in-and-out. Sort of a no brainer for us!

    Reply
  2. Brandie
    Brandie says:

    I prefer In-N-Out, for sure! The Double-Double has the perfect amount of beef, cheese, and veggies. And the veggies are never soggy! Unfortunately, the nearest In-N-Out is four hours away from me :-(. I do like the flavor of Shake Shack’s burgers, but I prefer my beef well-done, and there’s always pink in their patties, even when I’ve asked them to cook my burger well-done. After a few tries, I gave up on them.

    Reply
  3. Susan
    Susan says:

    Five Guys hands down. I do not like In-n-Out. No local Shake Shack although I have eaten there in London and Washington DC.

    Reply
  4. Lisa C.
    Lisa C. says:

    This comment has absolutely nothing to do with burgers! I have a question about a traveling lifestyle. I have really enjoyed reading about how you deal with some of the logistics of longer-term travel, such as managing technology for use overseas, using Air B and B, etc. You have mentioned working while on your trips, and I am wondering about how difficult this is do to when working remotely for a company you are employed with vs. doing your own thing. I remember from several years ago (yes, I have been reading your blog that long!) that you were an attorney and Sarah was a nurse. Are both of you working full-time on the blogs now, or do you still work physically and remotely employed in those fields? I can see that it would be much easier to work around the world if you are solely working on your own projects (like a blog). Again, I realize that this has nothing to do with this particular post. What are your thoughts on this?

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      It’s going to vary so much person to person and job to job that I’m not sure how helpful our experiences will be. As an attorney, my sole role was research and writing–basically, drafting motions and lengthy briefs. I was not a courtroom attorney (contrary to movies/film, most attorneys spend little to no time in court). Almost all of my core work responsibilities could be accomplished remotely and is work with no sense of urgency (often, I’ll know when a brief is due 30-90 days in advance). Getting out of the office actually increased my productivity to the extent that I didn’t have people dropping by to chat or solicit non-billable feedback on other matters.

      In some ways, moving to California was tougher than being in Japan or elsewhere on the road. In California, I still got some ‘quick questions’ via email, and I was also expected to be up at 5 a.m. most mornings because start of business EST is when urgent work occurs, to the extent there is any. In Japan, 8 a.m. EST is 9 p.m., so I just stayed up until 11 p.m. or so and handled that before bed.

      One experience that I think is universal is the decrease in email. If colleagues know you’re traveling, they are less inclined to send ‘quick questions’ to you. Email has become too convenient and accessible, with answers expected instantaneously. If people know there’s going to be a ~12 hour delay in your response, they are far less likely to send questions they could answer quickly on their own if they just did the legwork.

      Reply
      • Kevin
        Kevin says:

        FWIW, I usually love working with my colleagues in China and even Europe because of the time delay. If you need a face-to-face meeting it’s tough, but for routine questions I like knowing that I can just wait until the end of my day to get an email completed and they will have it on their desk first thing in the morning. Similarly, they can reply at their leisure and I’ll have my answer first thing in my morning.

        Reply
  5. Cliff
    Cliff says:

    So tell me more about the Tokyo-exclusive desserts! What was the flavor?

    And even though an In-n-Out is within walking distance, Steak-n-Shake is better overall. There, gauntlet thrown!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      It was matcha powder with shortcake cubes on vanilla ice cream, with something else, but I don’t recall what, exactly. The menu description was only in Japanese, and I thought the name said “Matcha Milkshake” (on second glance–after I ordered–it most certainly did not).

      Not terrible by any means, but not worth the $7 we paid.

      Reply
  6. Brian
    Brian says:

    We ate at the Shake Shack in Shinjuku for the same reason you did! Plus we had friends from Tokyo who had never been!!

    Reply

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