Restaurant Review: The In-N-Out Burger

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Fancy-schmancy French restaurants might be fine for gorging like a Republican fat cat, but how does one dine like a Democrat? The correct answer, of course, is go to a fancy-schmancy French restaurant — just because Democrats are singing paeans to the blue-collar class doesn't mean they actually want to eat with them. (Here the McDonald's-eating New Democrat Bill Clinton is a laudable exception.)

But when Al Gore and his traveling band of populists had finished partying like movie stars and left L.A. to find some working-class people who had the good sense to live in a battleground state, I decided to do some California mingling for them — at the In-N-Out Burger on Gayley, off Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood.

Walking through the trapezoidal yellow doorway, I found myself charmed by the décor and clean, well-squeegeed feel of the place. Luxuriant red tile framed the self-serve soda-machine area, sliced through by a row of white squares with the swaying-palm logo that serves as a visual counterpoint to the chain's trademark yellow zigzag. Above the order counter, in yellow neon script, were the words "Quality you can taste." Framed posters dotted the walls; off to the right, a series of renderings of In-N-Out outlets from bygone eras in the colorful-blur style of that great populist artist, Leroy Neiman. On the way to the bathroom, a display case of souvenir merchandise — not sold here, please order by phone or fax. (No web site; how wonderfully retro!). I picked up a catalog.

Taking my turn at the counter, I ordered most of the spartan menu: one double-double (double meat, double cheese), one cheeseburger, one french fries, a large Coke and a vanilla shake. The young order-taker, in his paper hat, was unenthusiastic but perfectly polite. "You want onions on your burgers?" he asked. I readily assented, and he shuffled off.

The place was quiet inside, but the drive-through was bustling, and service was a tad slow. I busied myself preparing my Coke and was impressed by the expansive diameter of the straws — excellent for quenching a powerful thirst like the one had I built up in a hectic, bleary morning. After five or 10 minutes, my number, 99, was called. I was supplied generously with all the ketchup I needed for my fries, and took my red plastic tray over to an out-of-the-way-table.

Mmm. The burgers at In-N-Out come standing on end in little bags — the chain has "wrapped its products in paper since 1948" — so the south end was a little soggy by the time I began to eat. But the taste was unaffected. There is a tang in the sauce (reminiscent of Big Mac sauce, except redder and more drippy), hard to describe but delightful. The buns were gently toasted, and the meat patties were thick for the genre. The large-cut lettuce —"hand-leafed every day" — was fresh, and the onions fresher. Maybe too much so; their flavor stood out a little too much. I preferred the double cheeseburger to the single, in which the meat-flavor quotient was a little low, but both were excellent. My one complaint was that the cheese, a cheddarlike substance, was a little thick and dominated the burger, especially the single.

The fries definitely had an internal zing; no salt was required. But the surface texture — possibly they were baked — was dry and shriveled-looking, and the interior was a tad mealy. McDonald's has nothing to worry about here.

The Coke was adequate, and the shake interesting. The vanilla tasted more like French vanilla — a hint of butterscotch? — and the texture was pillowy, as if it somehow wasn't frozen. It had little of that wonderful icy "crunch" sometimes to be found in other fast-food milk shakes. But it grew on me, and soon I pushed away the last bites of cheeseburger (and many uneaten fries) and lingered sipping my dessert.

One troubling aspect of the place: Everything, including the shake cup, felt covered in a thin layer of grease, as if it had been misted on. The napkins, included by the counter employee in the cardboard serving box, had been nestled between the burgers and were nearly useless for any serious post-meal cleanup. I made two trips to the bathroom for hand-washes and paper towels.

I'm not sure if I agree with In-N-Out's large and enthusiastic following, who consider it one of the de rigueur stops on any SoCal trip, but I was certainly not dissatisfied, with the possible exception of the fries. But an icon is an icon, and the place, as Al Gore might say, is definitely its own burger joint: On the way out, a table of six diners of indeterminate ethnicity (the place definitely looked like America, as Mr. Clinton would say) waved to me. Would I take their picture? "There are no In-N-Outs in England, one man said by way of explanation.

There aren't any in Washington, either. Maybe that's why the Democrats picked L.A. — so Mr. Clinton could put a little variety in his diet while he's still on the taxpayers' dime.