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.
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!