When I moved to Los Angeles in 1971, there were only 17 In-N-Out Burgers in California. After tasting one of their hamburgers, I made a pilgrimage to Baldwin Hills, their home base and location of the first such outlet, in a vain attempt to interview founders Harry and Esther Snyder for an article. I had been told that Harry Snyder loved a movie called It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World for which I had been the Cinerama publicist, but he still would not sit for an interview with me, saying he didn't want any publicity. Over the years since, I have become a devoted fan of their fresh, delicious, fast-food burgers, and delighted to see them expand to some 268 outlets as of now. They are in several Western states and just opened in Dallas, Texas. Every outlet must be within one day's drive of their own distribution center so all ingredients can be made and delivered fresh daily. (There's one near LAX airport, which makes a stop there leaving or arriving in town a convenient, even necessary one.) Why am I such a fan? I guess it begins with their slogan, "Quality you can taste." For a change, it turns out to be true. Every single item on their menu is the freshest, best possible... nothing is ever thawed, zapped or kept warm. (There are no freezers, microwaves or heat lamps in any outlet; I have checked.) My intense research found that their hamburger meat is made from 100% American chuck, beef raised here in the West; it's pure, never frozen, with no additives, fillers or preservatives of any kind. (No fear of that 'pink slime' here!) Their orange, thick American cheese (the only kind I like on my burgers) is real, the crispy lettuce is hand-picked, and the onions and vine-ripened tomatoes are sliced by hand (I've watched them do it.) The buns are baked every day using an old-fashioned sponge dough, again without any preservatives. I have also watched them make their fries, using whole Kennebec Idaho potatoes sliced right in the stores. When I inquired about the oil used, I was told it is 100% trans-fat free, cholesterol-free vegetable oil. Their shakes, which I don't often drink, are made from real ice cream with no by-products.
I have a photo of the original 1948 drive-in location in Baldwin Hills, where Richard Snyder first introduced his intercom-speaker ordering system, and there are only four items on the menu: a hamburger for $.25, a cheeseburger for $.30, French fries for $.15 and cold drinks for $.10. Today the menu has expanded slightly, but not that much. Burgers are $2.10, a cheeseburger is $2.40, a Double-Double is $3.40, a 20 oz. fountain drink is $2.05. The Double-Double on the menu is a bun with two beef patties, lettuce, tomato, spread, two slices of cheese, with or without onions. All burgers come medium-well done by default.
But here is where the fun starts. In reply to those Huffington Post readers who have asked what I order -- here it is. When I go to my local In-N-Out Burger outlet on Gayley in Westwood, at least once a week, I either park and go inside to eat or speak (shriek) into the two-way intercom: "Ordering a 3x3, medium rare, well-toasted bun, animal style, cut in half, with a side order of peppers. And well-done fries." (Sometimes, if I am eating in the store, animal style fries, but not when I am taking them home, too messy 'cause I nibble on the fries in my car all the way home with one hand on the driving wheel and the other holding my burger.) Which leads to the information which every regular customer knows: there is a Secret Menu which is not very secret. But there are intricacies to this secret menu which may not be well-known even to regulars, so here are some of the exciting details. My 3x3 is three meat patties and three slices of cheese, though if I am really hungry I will occasionally order a 4x4. You can actually get a burger with the exact number of meat patties and cheese slices you want, up to the 4x4.
Until a few years ago, there were no restrictions on the number of patties and cheese you could order, but when some college kids in 2004 in Las Vegas ordered a 100 by 100 (and got it, I have the picture), the powers-that-be put on a restriction. Animal style is the most popular other secret offering, where the meat is cooked and fried with mustard and then pickles, with extra spread and grilled onions added. The animal style fries are potatoes with cheese, spread, grilled onions and pickles if you ask for them (I don't). The second-most popular secret menu offering is protein style, which means your burger or double-double is wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. All burgers are put in a suitable paper bag to hold it.
Then there are variations to the above, all of which will be happily accommodated by your server (or intercom connection) without question. Order a double meat and you will get a double-double without cheese. (A 3 by meat is three patties without cheese.) But when I eat in the store, I will always order an extra something... a Flying Dutchman medium rare ($2.00), which is two slices of cheese melted between two meat patties, no bun, nothing but the (greasy) paper on which it comes. For pure flavor of meat-and-cheese, this is the ultimate taste treat, especially if eaten with your fingers. A top-secret hint: if you order your Flying Dutchman animal style, they will add a scoop of diced onions to the cheese. I pressed my luck yesterday and asked for the spread and pickles also, and got them on the side. I suggest you always ask for your fries well done, a matter of personal taste. I have never ordered a grilled cheese and am horrified by the knowledge that they offer a veggie burger, whatever that entails. (Actually, it's a burger without the meat patty, with all the veggies you can want on the bun; some call it the wishburger. You can also order extra lettuce, tomato and onions in a separate bag. Even a separate package of spread!) You can ask for hot, chopped, pickled sport peppers pressed on the bottom of any burger, but if you would like a little bag of two extra-hot chilis, just ask and ye shall receive. While I don't usually order their famous shake, too sweet too soon, there is even a secret menu item for them: it's called a Neapolitan shake and is the chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors mixed together...quite good, actually. Yesterday I tried a root beer float, which was a half-glass of root beer with some soft vanilla swirled into it. The wonderfully friendly employees of In-N-Out Burger will take your secret menu order without question and you will be amused to find that the receipt will list each item just as you ordered it. For an added fillip, ask for a paper In-N-Out hat (worn by all the employees); it will come without question, and you can even ask for stickers for the kids. They used to offer bumper stickers, don't know if they still do.
My deep research has resulted in some super-secret options which even most regulars don't know about. For example, when ordering a regular burger, you can ask to have it mustard grilled. After they cook the first side, the 'chef' will squirt some mustard on it before flipping it over so it sizzles into the meat on the grill. If you haven't ordered animal style, you can still order grilled onions on any burger... but no one but me seems to know that you can also order a whole grilled sliced onion on any burger. By the way, the tangy animal style spread is similar to Thousand Island dressing. Here it is made with mayonnaise, ketchup and sweet pickle relish, although I suspect a touch of vinegar and sugar is also added. If you choose to go with ketchup or mustard instead, they will accommodate.. They will even serve your burger with un-melted cheese, but why would anyone want that? If you don't want plain or animal style fries, just get cheese fries, not as messy. Speaking of those fries, I am not a fan of them... because they only fry them once, not the double immersion which makes a great fry. (Ask McDonald's why theirs are so good.)
I would be negligent if I did not mention some other reasons why I am a huge fan of this product and company. Their employee policy is exemplary... they were paying their fast-food "associates" (not calling them help) much more than the minimum wage when no one else did so; now they start at around $10 an hour with some medical benefits. Most of their managers have risen through the ranks and it is a life-time occupation. Some years ago I developed a movie at Universal called Hamburger U (never made) which, quite frankly, was copied from their actual In-N-Out Burger University, where managers are trained and their formula for success is reinforced. The Snyders have been a caring, religious family... and you may be surprised to find Bible verses on the bottom of some soda cups and food wrappers. This month the In-N-Out Foundation will donate 3-for-1 up to $250,000 for the "Help Us Prevent Child Abuse" Campaign. I know a bit about their family history and some of the tragedies encountered, including a private plane crash at John Wayne Airport in '93 which took one son, Richard. Today the Snyder niece, Lynsi Martinez, is guiding their careful expansion from Irvine headquarters, and I am told they intend to remain a private company for awhile. (Every investment banker in the world would like to take them public.) They now have a party food truck operation (888-700-7774), which I discovered when I stopped by the Vanity Fair Oscar party and was served an In-N-Out burger from the truck. I would go to any party which I knew was serving them! My friend, Chef Thomas Keller, is such a fan that when he celebrated the 12th anniversary of his multi-star The French Laundry in Napa, he shipped in 300 burgers and a mountain of fries for the celebration. Julia Child's assistant once told me that Julia knew where every In-N-Out was between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, and when she was in the hospital she craved and got a bag of burgers. Chef Gordon Ramsey is the latest fan, as is Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain.
So, for a salty, sweet, savory, soft, crispy, massively popular signature treat, stop by the next yellow, red and white In-N-Out Burger you see and remember some of the secret treats I've told you about here. Have a Double-Double Animal Style with Well-Done Fries and a Neapolitan Shake and you will be forever in my debt.
To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at email@example.com.
Follow Jay Weston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaywestonsbcglo