Walter Sobchak: He lives in North Hollywood on Radford, near the In-N-Out Burger…
The Dude: The In-N-Out Burger is on Camrose.
Walter Sobchak: Near the In-N-Out Burger…
Donny: Those are good burgers, Walter.
Walter Sobchak: Shut the fuck up, Donny.
—The Big Lebowski
Los Angeles is one of the great city-states of the world–a metropolis that could be its own country. Cities like this are impossible to conquer in a single weekend. Like New York and London, LA is a place that will re-invent itself in every visit. For my first trip to LA, I had a bit of a traveler’s crisis. Do I attempt the 405, sitting in traffic between my base in Orange County, to see Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard? Do I make the sojourn down to the ultramodern Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall? Should I take in the sunset at Griffith Observatory? And what about MacArthur Park and Long Beach? I would try for all of those things–and experience the legendary traffic of the LA rush hour.
But for cuisine, my mind was set. I would take my pointers from “The Big Lebowski”–the 90’s era cult classic celebrating idleness, Southern California, and the writing style of Raymond Chandler (as conceived by the Coen Brothers). If I was going to spend hours in my rental car, how could I not take up the Dude’s friend Donny’s recommendation, and test whether the In N Out Burger in fact has good burgers. For better or worse, In N Out was going to be my ambrosia and nectar.
And why not take advice from a cult classic? While many movies have been called a “cult classic,” in my mind the only true measure of such a claim is whether or not fans have developed a culture around the original film. Trekkies have their conventions that have produced millions in revenue not only for Gene Roddenberry’s estate, but the second market of Star Trek ephemera and bric-a-brac collectors, bedecked fanboys and sci-fi geeks. Because of their efforts, Klingon is more widely spoken than Navajo. The Rocky Horror Picture Show devotees indoctrinate each generation anew to the antics of Dr. Frankenfurter, at midnight showings that allow the straightest of men to dabble in the Doctor’s signature drag. And The Big Lebowski? Cities around America have Lebowskifests—where the cultists emulate ‘The Dude” in dress and drink—even believing that the Dude’s observations (“The Dude Abides”) are like Zen koans. The Dude is the Slacker Buddha of Los Angeles.
Before my LA trip, I asked one of my native Californian co-workers what the story was at In N Out.
“You know about the secret menu?” she said
“No, of course not. If it is secret, how would I know if it is a secret.”
“You don’t have to order off of the menu. You can order a burger however you want….4×4 for a four patty, four cheese burger.”
“So, I have to do algebra to order a burger–whereby meat x cheese gets me a 4×4?”
Miss California looked at me, dismissing my lame joke, and continued.
“Then there are the styles.”
“Animal Style, Protein style…”
How Californian, I thought. The secret menu sounded more like a surfer’s moves on the waves, or a skateboarding maneuver, or some other horizontal pastime. Ordering “Animal Style” sounds like using the Kama Sutra for a menu. However, it is nothing more than pickles, extra sauce, grilled onions, and mustard fried onto each meat patty. As for protein style? Low-carb. And to my surprise, there is a “Flying Dutchman”–which is just meat and cheese. Paleolithic. And a mess.
So, what is the allure of yet another burger joint in America? The allure is in its heritage. In N Out was born during those post WWII glory years. With war was over, GIs came home to build the American Century and they were hungry. Relatively unscathed in the war, America was the remaining producer of everything for the globe. The middle class achieved enough pocket change to splurge on a quick meal. This was the era of the drive-in, cheap gas, sock-hops and the birth of rock and roll. And in Southern California, the fast food concept was born and franchised. Consider that McDonalds, Carl’s Jr., and In N Out were all founded in California in the late 1940’s. Copycats in Florida (Burger King) and Ohio (Wendy’s) would follow. While McDonalds would become a multinational juggernaut and would sacrifice taste for capitalization, smaller chains have stayed fairly regional—and In N Out is one of them. For the east coaster—In N Out seems adventure-worthy. But to the SoCal denizen, is it not just another burger joint?
I arrived at my first In N Out a block or so south of Hollywood High School, in walking distance from Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Disneyfication of Tinseltown. On this first encounter, I skipped the “Animal Style” and stuck with the script. Screenwriters must hate when the talent improvises with the lines. In N Out maintains their simple menu and the appearance of the bygone era of drive-ins and sock hops. The staff behind the counter wear their paper hats. The menu is kept simple.
The burger itself is set aside from the McWendyKing variety. Elements are distinct. Crisp lettuce, short-order cooked patties off a griddle, goopy cheese. Fresh cut fries. New east coast chains—like Elevation Burger and Five Guys—are trying for the same formula of shakes, hand cut fries and crisp burgers, but they do not quite match the original. The In N Out has the basics down. Not as flavorful as the Whataburger of Texas, but In N Out is about as close to what you could do at home with the same ingredients at your disposal. American Cheese, buns by the dozen, ketchup. Admittedly, the grilled-in mustard between the patties seems superfluous.
Satiated, I decided not to change up a good thing, thinking that this might be my last trip to LA for a bit. I set myself on an all In N Out burger diet for the remainder of my trip. As I would be spending much of my time in the car, and LA’s notorious traffic, In N Out made for excellent road food.
On my last evening in LA, I did take up some of those sites. Driving up the winding canyon road like James Dean (except older, less cool and in a sedan) to the Griffith Observatory, overlooking the valley toward the Pacific, the iconic Hollywood sign a pink hue from a summer sunset, and an Animal Style in hand, I cranked up the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the radio and took in Southern California in one final fast-food gulp.