These are the answers I gave my friend Jon when he asked me if I wanted to stop at In-N-Out Burger on my short vacation to Salk Lake City last weekend. You’d think I would have been a little less uncertain about wrapping up the three day trip with dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in the world*, but I had conflicted feelings about what would be my third visit to the iconic California hamburger institution.
Like a lot of thoughtful people, I have expectation issues. I used to call these food issues, but the more I’ve examined and admitted my faults in life, the more I’ve realized the anxious feelings which shadow my every move are more related to getting my hopes up and then let down than anything else. Like Pavlov’s dog I build these situations into my life where I look forward to material things only to find they aren’t sustaining or fulfilling, and like a Sunday morning after a Saturday of watching football alone, I often come to find that eating out someplace I’ve looked forward to eating out at too often leads to a feeling of “that’s it?” after all is said and done. For you economics people, think about it as an example of the law of diminishing returns.
The first time you do something – anything, really – it’s great. The second time, it’s good, but it’s not great. And after that? Never as good as that first time, with the memory of that first time always hanging back there in your mind to remind you your current experience doesn’t add up. And my first time at In-N-Out, complete with Animal style Double Double and fry amidst a packed house past midnight in 2009? Well, that was pretty damn special.
But I settled on a “yes” to Jon’s question, even though the cold Utah evening and splurge of a burger and fries on the first night of the trip really just left me wanting soup. I mean, the guy’s wife is a vegetarian, and given that the last time we had seen each other ended in a productive and memorable Double-Double experience, it just seemed logical. Besides, I had no idea when I’d get back out to Utah, and despite recently realizing that I’m quite smitten with a McDouble, I felt like I needed to remind myself what a really damn good cheeseburger tastes like. More than anything, I felt like a needed to recreate an experience before heading back to the life I slug through.
I like a lot of things about In-N-Out, from the prices to the ambiance and right on down to the Bible verses on the fry wrappers. I love the way the people who work their act and embrace the restaurant experience. The whole production is friendly and enthusiastic, with the employees showing a zest and exuberance for not only making hamburgers, but also making people happy. A lot like Chick-fil-A, yet in a some ways a lot more honest. There are no awkward “my pleasures” from the employee who really isn’t feeling it, and unlike other restaurants, those at In-N-Out will basically smile and get all your additions and tweaks correct, and they’ll do it without charging you a dime extra. This is important, because, after two previous trips of getting a carefully ordered Double Double Animal Style, I went with a more modest cheeseburger, with some modifications. Medium mustard-grilled with a grilled whole onion, as well as extra tomatoes and extra toasted bunage. The guy behind the counter even said they could even brew up a decaf coffee just for me, because a soda would have only frozen the life out of me after the previous night’s experience of Utah State’s debacle in Provo.
My burger wasn’t just good, it was great. Less beefy than the Double Double, it wasn’t the kind of thing to put me to sleep, and because of that, I think I enjoyed it more given the situation. This was the first time I really took some time to taste the bun. Its buttery – a taste I don’t experience much with a toast that keeps the whole construct together. The meat has a well seasoned, beefy-sweet flavor that’s only amplified by the fatty juices that remain after hitting the griddle. I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect medium, but the juicy patty still has enough give and release to stand above any fast burger its size. There’s just something about that beefy flavor which pairs well with the milky, salty goo of the cheese, which I swear has a subtle lactic flavor most dismiss as “just American.” The ketchup and mustard make the whole thing sing, but it’s the fresh veggies that give the entire bite the complete textural contrast every burger lover craves. Oh yea, the whole grilled onion has an awesome, developed sweetness. Like browned bits scraped from a hot pan, there’s a certain echo of ingredients cooked together than binds the burger as one cohesive entity.
It’s my favorite cheeseburger from a taste standpoint, no doubt. Break it down to the X’s and O’s of flavor science, and you get something that works on every molecular level. But any flavor combination can be overcome through repetition. Even what “makes sense” can be supplanted by boredom and situation. Only the ambiance of In-N-Out, and what it represents for me, makes the chain’s Cheeseburger the best I’ve ever had.
Turns out I was right to say “yes” to Jon.
I’ve eaten at In-N-Out three times, and each time has been a different, but wonderful, experience. From my first time eating in a packed house on a Saturday night after a Utah Jazz win, to a chance encounter with a mentor of mine while introducing my family to the chain on the day I moved away from Utah, the two previous experiences saw me enjoying that classic Double Double taste in the company of friends. Amidst a celebration, with something – everything – to be thankful for.
And this third time, even though coming with a more restrained order amidst a nearly empty restaurant, was still everything the previous times had been, if not more. I guess words can’t describe it. “You had to be there,” might not even do. To see my goofy self rattling through the order specifications – only to have the register dude recite them order perfectly – or to witness Jon and I huddling around his Smartphone watching college football on a 2-inch screen, you might have gotten a sense that we were just two old college buddies getting away from it all.
And you would have been right.
It struck me sitting there, slowly savoring my burger while staring at that phone and talking to Jon, that my “expectation” issues when it comes to food – when it comes to anything – are misplaced. They’re misplaced because I’m always trying to recreate something. I’ve come to realize this lingering but incomplete sense of nostalgia and sentimentalism – never, should I add, satiating – need not guide my every move in life. We, as humans, have the power to be optimists and to be opportunists. Yes, we often have “better days” behind us, but even though our current situation in life might not be exactly to our liking, it doesn’t mean we have to live trying to recreate past memories.
In-N-Out is special to me because each time I’ve been there I’ve created new memories, and I’ve created them with friends and people close to me in a different way. That’s a unique experience, and not one I’ve given myself the chance to take advantage of in many areas of my life – eating out included.
Before we left In-N-Out, I asked one of the young women working the counter if many people get burgers made to take back to the East coast. She told me they did, and they could get me a few if I’d like, provided I assembled the ingredients separately when I got back to Maryland. I thought about it, and nearly said yes. But then I thought to myself; is a great cheeseburger still a great cheeseburger if eaten alone in my office at work? Is it still a great cheeseburger if downed for the sole reason of making sure I ate enough calories at the end of a busy day?
Or is it a great cheeseburger only a great cheeseburger when the cheese and the burger matter less than the person and the place where you’re enjoying it?
I think I answered my own question when I told her, “I’ll just wait until I come back next time.”
*I mean this completely. Along with Jack’s Woodfired Pizza in Logan, Siena in Buffalo, and Ted’s hot dogs in Buffalo, New York, I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the world I’d rather eat. Ok, Chick-fil-A, but that’s another story for another day. And I think I’ve already told it, several times.