Thursday, February 23, 2012

A California Culinary Cult: ‘In-N-Out’ burgers expanding to Texas

During my high school days in Azusa, California, my favorite hamburger came from “In-N-Out,” not from the nearby McDonalds. It was the FIRST In-N-Out location. Someday, the building should be enshrined as a place to visit the birth of the best hamburger in the state.

Back in those days, a cheeseburger and fries from In-N-Out cost a tiny bit more than McDonalds, so most of the kids I knew went to Mickie’s D’s for financial reasons. I went to Mickie D’s most of the time for the same reason. But, when I wanted a treat, it was off to the In-N-Out on Azusa Ave. My future brother-in-law lived in a little green house right next to it. Whenever my friends and I visited him he’d buy us those wonderful burgers and fries.

In-N-Out has always had a mystique based on quality, scarcity (fewer than 250 locations), and apocryphal tales of secret menus and lavish, six-figure pay for employees. It's a quintessential southern California attraction— the first stop for savvy out-of-towners on the way out of LAX. The rare restaurant opening has been known to alter a city's traffic patterns and bring hours-long lines and news helicopters buzzing overhead.

In-N-Out is welcomed where other fast food outlets are not. Love for the double-double burger is publicly professed by chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Thomas Keller and influential food writers like Gourmet's Ruth Reichl and Jonathan Gold. Even Fast Food Nation's muckraking Eric Schlosser gives it a thumbs-up.

 There are no freezers, microwaves, or heat lamps at an In-N-Out. Nothing is ever frozen—even the hamburger beef is butchered at their own SoCal site, which has kept outlets within a day's drive of that location. No meal is prepared until the customer orders it, the fries are cut by hand in the store, the shakes are real ice cream, and burger prices hover around $3. Except for the addition of 7-Up and Dr. Pepper, the menu has barely changed in its 60 year history.

Now the big news is that In-N-Out is planning for expansion. The company is opening a regional office and second distribution center in Dallas, making it possible to open new outlets within driving range of the fresh hamburger patties it produces in Texas. Three new locations will be up and running this spring. Maybe by April 1st. And that's no joke.

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