I can’t explain it.
Los Angelenos love In-N-Out more than they love Kardashian sightings. They love it more than they hate the Celtics. They love it more than Kabbalah. Botox. Bieber. And I have no idea why.
I’ll surely get filleted for saying this, but here goes: In-N-Out sucks. It’s a chain with basic burgers, unsatisfying French fries, few menu items, and, honestly, some pretty gross sauce that makes the popular restaurant’s name gastronomically appropriate. It’s cheap food with long lines and (often) drunk and otherwise sketchy customers who loiter in the booths.
But In-N-Out gets a huge free pass in Los Angeles. Always has. You can’t whisper “In-N-Out” in L.A. without people fawning over days gone by. Without someone reminiscing about the time he piled into a stoner pal’s IROC-Z and ditched school. To so many, it represents their teenage years—in all of their trying-to-get-laid-after-the-homecoming-game glory. Or, even younger, Daddy used to take them out for dinner on Saturday nights, and then they stayed up late to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. They equate this only so-so spot with youthful innocence and happier times. In-N-Out is the way it’s supposed to be—whatever the hell that means.
So, as a marketing triumph, good for them. But stop telling me it’s the best hamburger on the planet. Stop telling me it’s a food mecca. Stop putting it on Best-of-L.A. lists. It’s embarrassing. Because when it comes to the actual product, there are so many places in L.A. that do it better. So many places have great burgers, giant burgers, fat burgers (really, the Fatburger chain is a much better experience).
But for some strange reason, everyone in Southern California makes love to their past when In-N-Out is mentioned. They go nuts.
And they’ll claim it’s because it’s so damn tasty. They’ll claim it’s because of that tangy pickleish “spread” they rub on the buns (which is pretty much just Thousand Island dressing). They’ll claim it’s because of the classic American cheese that—according to supposed aficionados—binds the burger better than at any other joint. They’ll claim it’s all about the milkshakes made from real ice cream. They’ll claim it’s because of the simple menu with only four food items on it (hamburger, cheeseburger, Double-Double, and French fries). They all think they’re so damn smart because they know about the “secret menu,” which isn’t so secret anymore now that it’s on the chain’s website.
Oh, people want me to love it. People have gotten mad at me. People have screamed at me and threatened my children’s health, said that if I don’t declare In-N-Out the best burger place of all time, there’s something wrong with me. That I don’t deserve a job in Hollywood. That I don’t deserve to be married. That I don’t deserve myself.
But In-N-Out is just, merely, ordinary. Nothing special. My kids love it, but show me a kid who doesn’t like going to any restaurant. I could tell them we’re going to a vegan soup restaurant, and they’d be happy. My wife loves it because the whole bill for four people comes to, like, $12.
Look—I apologize for not having grown up in Los Angeles, which is apparently the common denominator with everyone who loves In-N-Out. I am simply being objective. In-N-Out is just another fast-food chain that serves just another burger.
Now, if only a Kardashian would eat one with me.
Michael Speier is a Dallas native who moved to Los Angeles in 1995. He misses Snuffer’s.