I love hearing arguments between New Yorkers in LA about how much better Shake Shack is than In-N-Out Burger. I even asked Danny Meyer, the founder of Shake Shack, point-blank, what he thought about In-N-Out Burger. He grimaced and deflected the question. (I enjoy them both, and he does too.) To me, it’s not a fair fight for one big reason.
Anyone who grew up in Los Angeles knows the real reason why In-N-Out is the best burger: it’s everywhere, especially on road trips to almost every destination outside of the city. My first In-N-Out experiences weren’t even in Los Angeles — they were on road trips to San Francisco, Yosemite, Mammoth, and Palm Springs. As the food options get limited the farther one drives out from the city, In-N-Out is there, like a bright shining beacon of cleanliness and deliciousness.
Contrary to popular consciousness, there aren’t that many In-N-Outs in LA proper. There are exactly five outlets in the “main” section of LA, though there are dozens scattered across the suburbs. (Count ‘em: Westwood, Marina del Rey, Culver City, Sunset, and LAX). So In-N-Out is as much a road trip experience as it is an everyday meal for Angelenos. I didn’t personally eat In-N-Out on a regular basis until the one in Glendale opened during my early high school years.
In-N-Out was founded in the eastern suburb of Baldwin Park, and it’s really more of a suburban and even rural experience than something that goes into the denser parts of Los Angeles. It’s a much different strategy than Shake Shack, which tends to fill in metropolitan centers and places like airports and ballparks.
Growing up, I still recall the glorious toasted bun cradling the melty cheese and griddled patty, the crunch of the lettuce, and soggy (and mostly tasteless) tomato. When I was nine years old, a single cheeseburger was more than enough for me, and I ate it so slowly the thing fell apart before I could finish it. By the time I was a teenager, I could down a Double-Double and even another cheeseburger before tapping out. And there was always room for a milkshake, undrinkable for the first five minutes because of how thick it was. The fries sucked, and still kind of do unless you order them well-done, at which point they’re serviceable.
But think about what the other real road trip options are for most California highways: crappy Subways attached to shady gas stations, Wendy’s franchises that look like they gave up on life seventeen years ago, the ol’ Burger King or McDonald’s that nearly always give some kind of gastrointestinal pain afterwards. That’s because the drives between cities are lengthy and are so sparsely populated that they can’t really support too many real restaurants along the highway.
Consider the Barstow In-N-Out location, mapped out above. It’s the greatest encouragement for drivers going along the barren stretch between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Or perhaps the Cabazon outlet, en route from LA to Palm Springs. The Kettleman City In-N-Out is almost perfectly in the middle of the drive between SF and LA, which reminds one that a three hour drive remains going in either direction. Heck, anyone enduring the drive from San Diego to Yuma, Arizona has the El Centro In-N-Out to look forward to. Sadly, the Lancaster In-N-Out is the only spot on the lonely drive from LA to Mammoth, at least until smoky Copper Top BBQ is within reach in Big Pine.
That’s why In-N-Out is such a savior. It’s fresh and consistent. It’s super affordable. It’s usually pretty quick. And you don’t feel like falling asleep afterwards (something I realized was important when I started doing most of the driving for my family). In-N-Out is old faithful on the blank stretches of California’s deserts and valleys.
So when I continue to hear arguments from burger neophytes between Shake Shack and In-N-Out, I want to kindly remind them that Shake Shack is ultimately a city-slicker burger. In the meantime, In-N-Out beckons from a dusty roadside, miles and miles away from civilization, and it offers a little grilled slice of heaven on road trips.
Here’s my preferred order, because everyone has one: Double-Double, grilled onions. Well-done fries. Root beer.