What's cooler than knowing something that nobody else does?
Ordering and eating something that nobody else knows about, of course.
Supposedly there are restaurants across the USA that will regularly honor an item that doesn't necessarily appear on their menu. And these places aren't just whipping it together in the kitchen when the secret item is ordered. Rather, these secret treats have been ordered so many times that the restaurant dedicates valuable prep time, inventory management, and storage space to make sure they can serve the item. These secret items are based on loyal relationships between the restaurant and their regular customers. There's history here.
The most famous secret menu that I can think of is at In-N-Out Burger. In Stacy Perlman's chronicle of the still independently operated hamburger chain, In-N-Out Burger: A Behind the Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules, she points out that:
In-N-Out's bond with the public took on a life of its own, and the chain's desire to please its guests remained its primary goal...variations of the standard bill of fare turned into what regulars began calling the "secret menu". Customers ordered these variations with such frequency that a number of them were given names. Favorites included: the 4x4 (four beef patties and four slices of cheese); the Flying Dutchman (two beef patties and two slices of melted cheese - no bun, produce or condiments); Animal Style (mustard-cooked beef patty served on a bun with pickles, lettuce, extra spread and grilled onions); Protein Style (burger or cheeseburger wrapped in lettuce without a bun; and Grilled Cheese (no beef patty).
Personally, I love a late-night well-done Animal Style fries and a Neopolitan shake. See more here.
These modifications became so popular that in later decades In-N-Out filed trademarks on these names in the 80s and 90s after other restaurants began using them (In-n-Out has been operating since 1948, and claims usage of these names since the early 60s) and today they are listed on In-N-Out's website. But let's not forget that these items were never promoted by the company officially until much later in its life. This was a "grass-roots" secret menu effort that started with customers and restaurant staff working together to come up with something spectacular. And despite promotion, these secret items still do not appear on the physical menu board at in any In-N-Out location.
Using In-N-Out as the prototype of the evolution of a true secret menu, here's my opinion on the requirements for a secret menu item to truly be secret:
- The item must grow organically out of customers' requests and/or the item must grow organically out of restaurant staff getting experimental
- The item must never appear on any form of menu; online, printed, menu board, etc. (at least until it needs to be trademarked)
- The item's popularity grows among regular customers, furthered only by word of mouth. The restaurant and/or brand cannot promote the item. If the item is advertised in this fashion too early in its life, it is no longer secret
- The item becomes something that can be regularly ordered just like any other, rung into a cash register and sent to the kitchen with standard procedure, and occasionally accompanied by a wink and smile from the order taker to remind the customer that they are totally cool
- The item must be popular; it must sell; and must withstand the test of time (I'm talking at least a decade)
I'm bummed -- I've yet to discover a local restaurant in San Francisco that has perfected this. I've dined at restaurants where you can order a surprise "chef's menu," or something incredibly customized, but I haven't found any restaurants that truly honor off-menu items that meet these criteria (although I must acknowledge Hidden Menu for doing their best to spread the good word around town; respect).
However, I have encountered a few notable attempts:
The Buffalo Pizza Bomb: One of my favorite Ocean Beach hangouts is The Pizza Place on Noriega. Hot, satisfying, thin crust pies, ice-cold beer, crispy buffalo wings. One of the regulars there -- let's call him Gary America -- came up with his own custom pizza: "It's a big slice of pepperoni, with bleu cheese and hot-wing sauce baked into it." Hence the name. I ordered this slice a few times, and it was intense and delicious. Mostly intense though. It sort of combined the best parts of the local pizza joint experience, all in one pizza. I ordered it regularly, and the team at The Pizza Place always delivered perfectly. The slice became popular among my group of friends and a handful of other regulars, but never further, as far as I know.
Nopalito, the restaurant: It's hard to argue with Nopalito, one of the best, most authentic and most unique Mexican Kitchen concepts in the city. In a conversation with some of the folks that built and opened this eatery, I learned that Nopalito came about because some of the kitchen crew at big-sister restaurant, Nopa, prepared off-menu items for each other pre- and post- shifts. They were cooking authentic, traditional dishes commonplace at home in Mexico. Rather than offer these items as a secret menu, the culinary and management team at Nopa decided to build a whole restaurant around it. Good call. I'm glad Nopalito isn't a secret -- it's outstanding.
The Togosa: To truly disqualify this item, I'd have to add one more requirement to my secret menu criteria list: it has to be legal to serve the item. The Togosa is as fun to drink as it is to say: it's a mimosa in a to-go cup. It is illegal for restaurants to serve/allow alcohol to be taken off premises. It is also illegal for a customer to remove an alcoholic beverage from a restaurant. However, with orange juice as its camouflage, the Togosa is the perfect takeaway elixir -- mobile, nutritious, and spiked. I'm not sure who serves these in town. But if you ever are so lucky as to be served one, it means two things: 1) the people at the restaurant must really like you, and 2) you better not get caught drinking off the premises.
Even at my restaurant there are a handful of regular customers who order off-menu items that we gladly honor, yet they haven't exploded by word of mouth yet, despite some attempts. Just like In-N-Out burger, this could take decades. I'm up for the challenge!
Got any secret menu tips for some local joints? Send 'em my way. Else I'll just have to keep patronizing local restaurants and figure it out for myself... sigh. Because if I have to ask, I'll never know.