This winter I traveled to California for the very first time and was fortunate enough to spend a solid week in Los Angeles. In the spirit of experiencing all things West Coast (and because our red-eye flight landed at the asscrack of dawn), we made a beeline to In-N-Out as soon as we arrived so I could sample their fare for the very first time.
I was told this beef burger legend would convert me to the west coast side of the great Shake Shack v. In-N-Out debacle. As luck would have it, I was traveling directly to NYC from LA on this trip – poised in perfect position to try both burgers back-to-back from coast-to-coast.
Disclaimer: I’m from Chicago. The most heated food debates we encounter are when some ill-advised soul believes deep dish is not the greatest thing since sliced bread (it is). That, or when someone tries to tell us there is a superior fast-food establishment to Portillo’s.
But when I heard the coasts’ burger battles can get almost as intense, I decided to turn my trip into a tour de burger, tasting both for myself to crown one as the almighty beef king. As a third party observer, I hereby grant myself license to decide/compile a detailed pro and con list for the purposes of comparison.
I’ll admit it: I’ve never been one for simplicity, especially when it comes to ordering. I, like the rest of my complicated-AF coffee order generation, am used to tailoring my order to exactly what I want.
That’s not the vibe at In-N-Out. This west coast pride and joy has built a burger empire on a menu that’s more straightforward than my father’s Dunkin’ order (black, no cream, no sugar).
Honestly, this turned me off at first… until I discovered not-so-secret menu options.
In-N-Out’s not-so-secret menu included options to forgo the bun and wrap the burger in lettuce for “Protein Style;” add extra Thousand-island-like signature spread, grilled onions and have the patty slathered in mustard before grilling for “Animal Style;” double, triple or quadruple the patty; or make it a grilled cheese.
All those options aside, I decided to curb my tendency toward substitutions and go for the classic cheeseburger and fries. (It was 10:30 am, the mustard-cooked patty just sounded too abrasive.)
It was delicious. No surprise there. What did surprise me was In-N-Out’s insane dedication to sourcing their own ingredients. They make their own slow-rising sponge dough, have their own patty-making facilities in California and Texas, cut their straight-from-the-farm fries fresh and cook them in vegetable oil (making them less greasy).
Quality is top priority when so few options grace the old-school backlit menu board, and the laid-back vibe works for them.
The burger was more charred and stood alone under a healthy melted stack of American cheese slices. The bun was less flavorful but played the perfect foil to a heaping dollop of special sauce slathered over the bottom.
The. Fries. Were. Bomb. I’m usually one to go for crunchy over potato-taste, but these were noticeably less greasy and, therefore, win my vote. My friends and I liked the sauce so much that we used it in lieu of ketchup for fry dipping. It was a zingy pickle-meets creamy ranch and ketchup flavor I’ll be recreating when grilling season comes back around.
But that onion. No gum or Tic Tac in the world could get the taste of raw onion out of my mouth for a full 24 hours. It lingered like the unmistakable stench of your favorite college bar’s “eau de sticky floor” smell that clings to your shoes and clothing for weeks.
- Uses mostly their own ingredients
- Flavorful, less greasy French fries
- Not-so-secret menu options, but still remains classic and simple
- Sauce so good it will replace your ketchup addiction
- Bun melted more easily into the sandwich making it slightly messier
- Forgoing specials as options
- Dat. Onion.
I spent summer 2015 in New York City where I had my first encounter with the Shack. I went for a peanut butter shake and the Shake Stack: a cheeseburger topped with melty muenster AND a cheddar-stuffed fried mushroom and ShackSauce.
Let it be known that my mind was blown.
The beef was well-seasoned, piping hot and smothered in cheese. Not to be overshadowed, the mushroom burger was about double the thickness of the patty with a crunchy crust and a cheesy middle for smooth, melt-in-your-mouth bites. I don’t think my dining companion and I spoke a single syllable to one another until we devoured our entire meals.
It was easy to see why the East Coasters rave about this former food truck. That’s right, Shake Shack started back in 2001 as a tiny hot dog stand in Madison Square Park. By 2004, they had secured a permanent booth and have since expanded to various locations like the corner hotspot in DUMBO, Brooklyn where I first tried it.
It was a hectic atmosphere, conversations blazing overhead, crowds filling the aisles between tables, complicated orders flying from the front counter as soon as their numbers were called. Biting into that burger was like a literal taste of serenity in a room full of chaos.
- Gourmet feel to “fast food”
- Variety of choices, featuring vegetarian options, chicken, welcome substitutions, etc.
- Perfectly buttered potato bun featuring signature toasted consistency and doughy top bun
- Custard shakes also featured, also damn delicious
- BACON is an option – All caps necessary
- Sells beer and wine #classy
- Specials only offered at select locations
- Crinkle-cut fries more greasy potato crinkle than crunch
- Lines so long your chances of entering the #hangry red zone will increase roughly 150 percent
Obviously, cheese is the star at Shake Shack primarily because of what I ordered. The burger itself errs on the side of soft and melty, as opposed to In-N-Out’s beefy char.
The bun held its own a little better and had a slightly more doughy texture that I loved. Shake Shack’s fries left something to be desired, even though I did eat every last crinkle.
The secret sauce is the zingy star at In-N-Out, and with good reason. I slathered it on everything and regretted not a single bite.
When it comes to choosing the almighty beef king, I’ll go with Shake Shack forgiving the fries in light of that gourmet mushroom burger and other changing specialty options. But when I revisit the West Coast for couch surf round two, you can bet I’ll make another trip to In-N-Out.
These burgers really are a taste of coast-to-coast personality: the West a lot more relaxed and fresh-ingredient focused, the East much more frantic and specialized to individual orders.