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The 5,000 Mile Hamburger

  • j

Thursday morning I flew from Washington Dulles airport to Los Angeles to meet several friends and clients for three days of site inspections in Southern California related to my business. After landing I had several hours to kill while waiting for their plane, also from the east, to land. Hungry, I drove my rental car to an In 'n Out Burger just north of the Los Angeles airport.
Living near Washington, D. C. In 'n Out is only a part time indulgence for me. Not having had one for at least four months the first bite of a double double with grilled onions only reinforced my belief that this bite was equal to the first bite of any other taste or food that I could have. The French Laundry, Robuchon, Ducasse-none of them at their sublime best can exceed the pure pleasure of the first gloriously greasy bite of long grilled onions, melting cheese, ripe tomatoes and "spread" all coming together with real freshly ground hamburger slowly cooked on a seasoned grill.
After leaving In 'n Out my cell phone rang and it was one of the group that I was meeting. They were "trapped" in their airplane, sitting on the tarmac at Hopkins airport while waiting for an ice storm to end. They were going to be late.
To kill time I drove a few miles north to Marina Del Rey and browsed through a wine shop, then a Ralph's supermarket and eventually parked my car and started walking along the beach towards Venice. My cell phone rang again. They were still stuck on the tarmac, now waiting to be de-iced. And there was a long line for this. There was no indication of how long this was going to take so they'd call as soon as it looked like they were able to leave.
I walked on up the boardwalk, stopping to look at forty year female body builders, henna tattoo artists, rollerbladers in thongs and a few senior citizens longingly watch them speed by. After a while my phone rang again. It was now 4:00PM in Cleveland and they had been literally caged in the airplane since 9:00. One of them was experiencing claustrophobia and they were going to have to find a way off the plane-immediately. I understood, hung up and walked on up the boardwalk.
At some point my phone rang again. They'd made the decision to rent a car and drive 300 miles back to where their original flight started. Meanwhile the plane had moved-back to the gate to let them off. Of course there was no indication of when it might leave for L. A. so their decision really seemed like the only one available.
All of this meant that I no longer had a reason to remain in Los Angeles. I hustled back to my rental car while calling United on the phone to change my return from next Monday to, literally, the next flight back.
At some point I found myself driving on Lincoln Avenue approaching the airport and about to pass the In 'n Out Burger I had been at only a few hours before. I couldn't help myself. I stopped and went in.
Twelve years ago I had my first double double. It was ten years ago that I discovered their grilled onions. Only once in all of my semi annual trips to In 'n Out had I ever seen anyone order a four by four. There was almost a mystical aura about this seven inch tall hamburger that since that time I'd always swore that one day I would eat one.
That one day was today. I ordered a four by four with grilled onions, extra pickle and extra spread. Of course four slices of cheese, four hamburger patties, lettuce and tomato were included as well. When I took it back to the table I knew that people were looking at me. A seventy year old woman appeared to think I was crazy. Two teenage girls were smiling and a 12 year old boy seemed to look at both me and the hamburger with genuine awe.
I squeezed it and opened my mouth as wide as I could. I still couldn't wrap my lips around it. But I did take a huge bite. God, what a mess! There was spread, grilled onions and cheese just sort of "glop" everywhere. Oh, was it good! I swear I moaned. Certainly I must have done something because a California Highway Patrol officer sitting nearby looked at me and said, "Damn!"
Without question the absolute best thing I have ever eaten in my life. Certainly among the most satisfying as well as without question the messiest.
After wiping my whole body off with about a dozen napkins or so I walked out to my rental car and finished the short drive to the airport.
I write this on the plane coming home. According to my atlas I have travelled slightly more than 5,000 miles roundtrip to eat two hamburgers. Business aside this seems to have become the real purpose of the trip. Of course these weren't any hamburgers. One of them was the legendary four by four from In 'n Out. With extra spread.
Of course the trip was worth it. I only wished that I had picked up one to eat on the plane.

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  1. Joe, thank you for your wonderful essay! Along with this morning's report from the Julie/Julia project, that was a terrific way to start my day.

    Link: http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/

    6 Replies
    1. re: Deenso

      Yes, Joe...thanks for that wonderful paeon to In 'N' Out. *Sigh* Made my morning oatmeal taste like...well, like oatmeal.

      And Deenso, thanks to YOU for Julie/Julia. I look forward to reading the archives and spending time every day watching her progress.

      1. re: Cristina

        Joe,
        Thanks for the wonderful report. The first thing I do when I get to California and Nevada is search out an In N Out. IMO its by far the best burger experience anywhere. I have the burger animal style; the fries well done and have a neopolitan shake as my beverage. All, off the menu quirks that enhance the already great In N Out experience.
        Its none of my business, but why would you be conducting a business meeting in LA, when you are coming from DC and the others from Cleveland? Could it be the In N Out opportunity?
        Murray

        1. re: murray
          r
          Richard Chang

          Though INO is a great burger. The best one I've had in LA is Fatburger with cheese. When I'm feeling extravagant (and bulletproof) I'll go for the Fat with cheese and fried egg. And skinny fries. Delish. That's an experience

        2. re: Cristina

          For some reason my previous post didn't get up. I'll try it again.
          Joe, thanks for your wonderful In N Out report. Its always my first stop when going to California or Nevada. I always have my burger animal style and my fries well done. I add a neopolitan shake to drink. All of them off the menu items or variations, but I've never had a problem getting them.
          Joe, its none of my business but why were you meeting in LA? You came from DC, the others were coming from Cleveland. Could it be that there are no In N Out's in either city?
          Murray

          1. re: Murray

            California, Nevada, Arizona. Thass all.

            1. re: Murray

              I sell amusement park rides. I have quite a few rides (i.e. roller coasters, water rides along with complete water parks) in southern California at parks like Six Flags, Knott's, etc.

        3. Being a confirmed NYer I' ve never had an In-N-Out burger. Thanks for the vicarious thrill. It iis almost enough reason to get me to finally visit L.A.

          1. Being an East Coastie, I've never had an In 'n Out either. But I've heard about their legendary status - and I'm visiting my brother in L.A. in a few weeks. Looks like I'll have to try one.

            Thanks for the great story, Joe! Do the burgers get to go on the expense report along with the flight? :-)

            3 Replies
            1. re: Linda W.

              Unfortunately I pay my own expenses. I thought about titling this the $1,000 hamburger but somehow that seeemed like a cheap price for such a sublime meal. Distance ended up as the priority. Thanks for the nice words.

              1. re: Linda W.

                and I'm wondering why, after my bro&sis both have lived in s.cal for about 40 yrs and after numerous visits out there I haven't been privileged to experience this innout miracle...next time...

                1. re: betsydiver

                  Perhaps incredibly I even wrote a "companion" piece to this: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/2986...

              2. t
                torta basilica

                Gotta admit after hearing your story, a 4 X 4 In N' Out (not that I've ever gotten past a double double) in one of the ugliest areas of Los Angeles beats dinner hands down at the Blue Water Grill in Newport Beach, on the water, with sailboats cruising by & beautiful people surrounding you on a glorious day (actually yesterday wasn't, but the day before was), smelling in the fresh ocean air, blah, blah blah. Please tell me your fries were well done too. I will never take an In N Out for granted - ever again - you have raised my appreciation of my own back yard - guess what I'm having for lunch? Luckily, I don't have to drive/fly to Inglewood.

                1 Reply
                1. re: torta basilica

                  One of the "most fun" afternoons that I've had is watching the boats parade through Newport Beach on July 4th. I should mention that my wife and I have celebrated July 4th 9 out of the last 11 years docked on a boat in Marina Del Rey. Good friends of ours, every year, say that we're going to celebrate the 4th at Catalina. Nine times we've started drinking wine around 4:00 in the afternoon. Nine times we haven't left the harbor.
                  I should also note that despite my living in the east I was married at a former "hippie temple" (i.e. the 1st Methodist Church of Malibu) in sight of the Pacific Ocean. I honestly believe that Timothy Leary was an alumnist of this church. But this is a story for another time. Along with a celebratory wedding meal at Tommy's on Lincoln Avenue.

                2. Joe--next time you are ambling along on the boardwalk in Venice, be sure to stop and get a sausage sandwich at Jody Moroni's -- I know your time and calorie allotment are always limited, but Jody's sausages are something very special. Bruce Aidell can't hold a candle to them and there's nothing in DC to compare with JM's flavor varieties.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: zora

                    I've had Jody's in Venice and at LAX (sans the boardwalk ambience.) It's great!!! In fact he's real close to where the 40 year old female body builders were working out.