Thursday, June 30, 2011
Restaurant review: In-N-Out Burger in Dallas
Arugula lover forced to consume fast-food burger.
DALLAS Ordinarily, it wouldn't be fair to evaluate the food at a restaurant on the weekend it opens. At least, not at the kind of place I like to visit. You know the kind of place: arugula on the menu, maybe some goat cheese. Usually you give those kinds of places a coupla weeks to hit their stride.
But the assignment at hand was In-N-Out Burger, a fast-food place -- less a restaurant than a well-oiled machine that spits out a burger every 30 seconds. A place where things are ready-to-roll on Day One. With a branch now open in Dallas, we hit it on its first Saturday night.
At 8 p.m., about 50 cars waited in line. An employee said it would take 45 minutes to get through (she also said they expected that the lines would die down after the first weekend). The stench of gasoline from idling cars was a bit sickening. Planning to sit down and eat, we headed for the parking lot in back of the restaurant. Another line of cars. Bypassing that, we drove around the block and found some empty spots in an alley, then hoofed it, passing by Chick Fil-A, IHOP, and Taco Bueno, next-door to In-N-Out, which was deader than a morgue.
Inside, the restaurant felt chaotic. There were three cashiers, with two dozen people waiting in line to order. Another dozen stood in a semi-circle, staring at the three employees who were handing out complete orders. The dining room was full. Would there be an open table by the time we got our food?
We ordered a single burger Animal style, an order of fries, and a vanilla shake. Hoping to test In-N-Out's notorious responsiveness, I asked for my shake to have no lid and no straw, which they carefully typed into the register. We placed our order at 8:12 p.m.
While My Dining Companion Marc loitered at the registers, I moved to the dining room to keep an eye out for a table. Within five minutes, two stools at a counter opened up and no one fought with me to claim them, causing me to speculate re: the likelihood that this whole operation was logistically slotted so that by the time one person finishes eating, the next diner's order emerges.
We got our order at 8:27, in 15 minutes. The burger came in a little paper bag that kept it looking neat and perky. Each individual component was in good shape, with a visible green curl of iceberg lettuce, tomato slice, dark burger edge, and toasted rim of the bun.
A word about the bun
Most fast-food burgers come on buns that have been squooshed. This is a big point of differentiation for In-N-Out, and it receives lots of attention. In-N-Out
makes has its own buns made, the body stay fluffy, the edges are toasted, on and on. Everyone's right about this, In-N-Out's are better than most fast-food burger buns. But hello: It's a freaking fast-food bun. All you would have to do to make an In-N-Out bun look and taste almost exactly like everyone else's is to flatten it with your hand. How can anyone get all proud about an airy, flimsy white-flour pouf?
The best part of the burger, the toppings included a substantial slab of iceberg lettuce and a slice of tomato about 5/8-inch thick. People like the tomato at In-N-Out because it makes them feel like they're healthy, eating all those "vegetables." It's a sham. Iceberg lettuce, while wonderfully hydrating, has little nutritional value, and if you like tomatoes so much, why are you settling for a single slice when you could eat a bowl of lovely tomato wedges, perhaps sprinkled with a little sea salt?
If you're a cool hipster who's privy to the world of secret menus and such, then you already know you must order your In-N-Out burger "Animal style," with drizzled mustard, sliced pickles, Thousand-Island-style spread, and grilled onions. It was good. It had, how do you say, gestalt. Truthfully, I didn't get much mustard-grilling flavor, and the spread was subtle; but the pickles had vinegary tang and crunch, and the grilled onions were great. They were diced small, giving it a softened caramelized thing that mellowed the flavor and texture; it was more like onion jam. Melted American cheese was like the drummer in the rock band: It held it all together.
It was a thin patty with a browned edge and no tangible bits of gristle. Ta-da. But since the flavor came primarily from the toppings, the meat seemed pointless. There was maybe a hint of "grilled," but next time, I might just get my burger without the burger.
You hear a fair amount of grousing about In-N-Out's fries, apparently because they're not sufficiently crispy? "You have to get them double-fried," people say. I thought the fries were very good. I don't mind a little softening in the middle, and I appreciated how much they tasted like actual potatoes. They weren't greasy at all. High marks for the fries.
First, it came with no lid and no straw. High five In-N-Out, for your ability to respond to requests. Usually, if you ask a fast-food worker for No Lid (and I do), you have to remind them the entire time they're making your shake, "Now don't forget, I don't need a lid." And then when they finish mixing your shake and automatically reach for the lid, you have to repeat it again, "OH! I don't need a lid, remember?" Fast-food employees love people like me.
Cup-wise, love-love-love that In-N-Out uses waxed cups, not styrofoam or plastic. (Boo to Whataburger.) We got vanilla so that we could more carefully focus on the texture. The flavor was mild, but appealing. They say they make them from real ice cream, and the consistency was reminiscent of Jack In The Box, and definitely better than McD's-Whata-etc. potato-starch-enhanced shakes. The center of the shake stayed firm and cold but some of it melted and pooled into a liquid around the circumference of the cup. When your shake melts, it's the real deal.
To our right sat three jaded gals who were either lookalike friends or sisters; they all had serious applique action on their extra-long fingernails and they weren't all that impressed. One of them didn't like the way her burger was done and asked for it to be re-cooked. "Five Guys is better than this," she snipped. I liked the family who clearly came in from waaay out of town. They looked pure country. The daughter had spiky hair that maybe wasn't actually meant to be spiky, her mom was a very large lady, her brother wore a non-ironic trucker cap, and her overalls-clad dad had only a couple of front teeth.
Keeping in mind that this is a fast-food place, it easily beats its peers, even without the arugula. As my Dining Companion said, it's the best $2 burger he's had.
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