Freshman year in college was when the collective words "In-N-Out Burger" first formed in my ears, in that order, in a sentence. The words "let's go" and "right now" also were involved, I believe.
Being an underfed and overly persuadable student, I took up any food offer that wasn't served on a university-issued plastic tray. My roommates packed into a car one night and drove seven miles west of campus to find out why everyone at our dorm was clamoring for In-N-Out.
The answer came in the first bite. It was the moment life separated into before and after.
I won't soon forget that evening, when I downed two double-doubles, fries served "animal-style" (more on these terms later) with an iced tea chaser.
Ten years have passed. I've since moved from the West Coast, where all 240 restaurants are located. Tucson, Ariz., is as far east as it goes. Still, the fire that burns between In-N-Out and me remains the brightest star in the sky.
I was yammering about this one night to my girlfriend, who may or may not have been annoyed that I was more effusive about a burger than I was about her.
"Yeah, but have you ever tried one?" I asked.
"Actually, I haven't," she said.
Next thing we knew, we were on a plane to Los Angeles, an In-N-Out in our cross hairs.
The In-N-Out on Sunset Boulevard sits across the street from famed Hollywood High School, and we, geniuses, picked lunch period to visit. It was like a "Twilight" convention in there.
The lines moved quickly, but the wait for food took 10 minutes. Fast food it isn't, but the chain never set out to be.
In-N-Out began 62 years ago in Baldwin Park, a suburb 20 minutes east of downtown Los Angeles. Founders Harry and Esther Snyder set forth an ideal of serving fresh, made-to-order food - french fries hand-cut in store, milkshakes spun from ice cream, beef patties that have never been frozen. This continues today. The company boasts of not owning a single microwave or freezer.
Given how many fast-food chains today opt for efficiency, there's a certain nostalgia with their style of cooking, harking back to a time before heat lamps existed and waiting for a burger was the norm. But the restaurant offers another kind of nostalgia, one that evokes a Southern California from a bygone era: checkerboard design, palm tree tiles, a 1950s muscle car drive-in motif. Its employees wear matching short-sleeve shirts, red aprons and paper hats. It feels perpetually sunny inside.
"I prefer quirkier local stands when I'm getting burgers, but I don't try to plea bargain when my kids clamor for In-N-Out," said Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic for L.A. Weekly. "None of the national chains remotely comes close."
Our order number was called, finally. My lady got a double-double: a cheeseburger with two thin patties cooked on a grill top, topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a sauce similar to Thousand Island dressing. The buns were toasted. Mine arrived with grilled onions and the patties fried in mustard. This is known as "animal-style," an offering not found on the menu. Therein lies another charm of In-N-Out: the existence of a secret menu, which as Gold told me, "lets adepts feel like a member of the club." Examples? Customers who order a "4-by-4" get four each of patties and cheese. "Protein-style" has lettuce in place of buns.
I went first. One bite and it transported me back to freshman year: toasted buns crisp around the circumference, lettuce that crunched, and a thick, creamy spread with a pickle tang. Melted American cheese acted like binding for the grilled onions and griddled meats, coalescing into a sweet, salty, beefy amalgam. I inhaled the darn thing, fearing someone might take it away.
Then it was my girlfriend's turn. I waited for her reaction.
She spoke: "It's good," registering a 6.5 on a zero-to-10 excitement scale.
Anything less than the violent shakes was a disappointment in my book. How could someone with functioning taste buds not find this manna from heaven?
In a way, I was glad her reaction was tepid, because it made me re-evaluate my stance. There must be certain synapses in your brain that connect taste to memory. Now I know my taste buds aren't lying to me. But part of my awe and borderline-irrational enthusiasm for In-N-Out was that it reminded me of something - a moment, a place. It's the same reason your mom's chicken pot pie tastes better than any other version you'll ever try.
Let's not forget the exclusivity: We want what we can't get. If McDonald's had 26 locations instead of 13,000, you can bet we'd be praising their french fries to high heaven. In-N-Out is a privately owned chain with no plans of franchising. For the foreseeable future, you'll be able to try one only in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.
I love In-N-Out, but love can be broken down: 75 percent because of the double-double and 25 percent because I could eat it only once every two years. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Such is the case with this burger. But you really ought to try one!