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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

        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?

        1. re: murray
          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?

          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.

                  2. I've not had In-n-Out in over a year. Your post made me relive every wonderful bite of my experience. Loved the *glop* reference. It's an integral part of the experience.

                    Now I have to make a trip west and indulge again.


                    1. You have done all 'hounds proud. I have never had the nerve to order anything more than a 3x3. I am starting a fund to erect a plaque to be installed at the Lincoln Boulevard In-N-Out to honor your 'houndly feat. I will be the sole contributor to the fund. The way it will work is that each time I order a burger from In-N-Out I will throw fifty cents in to the Joe H. Honors Fund kitty. Since the plaque will be diamond studded and gold plated, I am going to have to eat a hell of a lot of double-doubles and 3x3's.

                      The next time you have to make a trip to L.A., let us know in advance on the L.A. board, we will need to coordinate an In-N-Out rendevous (sp?) with our esteemed brother from the east.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Chino Wayne

                        Thank you, sir for the nice words. Also thanks to the others who understand my "priorities."

                      2. Great tale. Sounds like you have crossed over from Chowhound to Chowpound.

                        1. Damn fine story and thank you for sharing it with us!

                          1. I'm finally visiting a good friend (an ex) who's living in LA now - I know the first thing we're doing when he picks me up at LAX....great story.

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: mark

                              For contrast, wait a day or 2 after your In N Out urge is satisfied and go to Thai American Express Cafe, 2903 Rowena Ave, Los Angeles, CA and order the hamburger platter medium rare. You will be happy and full.

                              1. re: mc michael

                                My thoughts exactly, except I would have gone to Thai American that evening. Joe, you should have taken the opportunity to stay at least one night in LA to enjoy one of the other burger pleasures in town. Regardless, you got me feeling homesick for some of those good 'ol LA burgers. After reading your post, I got my fill today for lunch at the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridian Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

                                1. re: Eric Eto

                                  I spend about 15 days or so a year in L. A. If for no other reason I now have to go back for fries "animal style." I also need to talk to people on the L. A. board about "Mariscos" which is a Mexican shack with long lines on Lincoln between Venice and Santa Monica.

                                  1. re: Joe H.

                                    Think shrimp, etc.

                                    1. re: Chino Wayne

                                      But I've driven by these shack for years and every time, off hours, in the rain, etc. there is always a line. On Friday at 12:30 in the afternoon there were about 25 to 30 people lined up at it. Several minutes later I went by Tommy's on Lincoln and there were about 10 or 12 there. I use Tommy's as a reference point for this shack's popularity. My next trip I stop there regardless!

                                      1. re: Joe H.

                                        Sounds promising, if I get a chance I will check it out, but I get over there probably less often than you, and I'm just 50 miles away.

                                2. re: mc michael

                                  Another vote for Thai-American as maybe the best burger I've had in L.A. BTW - Rowena is in Silverlake.

                                  And while I like In N Out better than any of the chains, it still doesn't come close to Thai-American (or anyplace that makes nice thick burgers).

                              2. What a great story, Joe. You made my Friday!

                                R, former Los Angeleno

                                1. FYI, if you want grilled onions, extra spread, pickles, lettuce and tomato, order your burger animal style and this all will be added to your burger. Below is a link to the "secret menu" at In n Out.

                                  Link: http://www.zenlemur.com/innout.shtml

                                  9 Replies
                                  1. re: Eric

                                    Sorry, East Coaster here...

                                    .can anyone describe "spread" for me so I can more fully relish in the sensation?

                                    1. re: Pappy

                                      It is similiar to a 1000 island spread.

                                    2. re: Eric
                                      Jennie Sheeks

                                      My new favorite secret menu item isn't listed in the link you posted. It's an order of fries, animal style. Which translates to grilled onions, cheese and lots of sauce on top of hot fries. Mmmm.

                                      1. re: Jennie Sheeks

                                        Has anyone ever determined why these fries or the burger order with the grilledo onions, mustard, etc, is called "animal style"? I don't understand the reference, since all the beef burgers are made from an animal, right? Is it a reference to how messy it is?

                                        1. re: Mrs. Smith

                                          Yes, the mess is reminiscent of Bluto (John Belushi) in Animal House.

                                          1. re: Joe H.
                                            quiz wrangler

                                            My family moved to Baldwin Park, home of the original I&O in 1970, and remember ordering "animal burgers" circa '75. Always assumed it referred to the mess, but I could be wrong.

                                        2. re: Jennie Sheeks

                                          Sounds like another trip.

                                          1. re: Jennie Sheeks

                                            I had animal style fries several weeks ago on a trip to L. A. Unbelievable. Thanks for sharing. Worth every calorie.

                                          2. re: Eric

                                            Animal style adds mustard to the burger while it cooks on the grill. I prefer it without mustard.

                                          3. Next time you are near LAX and the Marina, try the Party of 5 at 26 Beach Restaurant, 5 Patties, 5 slices of cheese and all the fixins, includes fries. If you finish, they give you a freen entree of your choice next time. I saw a guy do it about a month and a half ago when I was there having my favorite, the Ole Burger.

                                            26 Beach Restaurant
                                            3100 Washington Blvd just west of Lincoln

                                            1. n
                                              Natalie in Los Angeles

                                              I know what I'm having for lunch...

                                              Great story! Thanks for sharing.

                                              1. Thanks for the story Joe, well told. Hate to shift the subject, but I've been to In N' Out a number of times and I definitely like it but I don't really love it. I've literally never heard of anyone not liking In N' Out. Anyone out there just not like the place?

                                                4 Replies
                                                1. re: Hunter

                                                  Below is a link to a thread from the Los Angeles board about several people who do not like In n Out. I also enjoy Tommys in Los Angeles (best chili burgers around.)

                                                  Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                                                  1. re: Eric

                                                    I have never, not had a really bad stomach ache after eating a Tommy burger. Sure, it may taste OK at 3 o'clock in the morning after a hard night of drinking, but would you go there any other time?

                                                    1. re: Eric

                                                      My wedding meal was at Tommy's on Lincoln. Seriously. Later we went to Chinois.

                                                    2. re: Hunter

                                                      I like them better than any other major chains. But for a hamburger that's not where I'll go.

                                                    3. To cap this story, the 70 year old woman would have to say to the counter person, after hearing you moan, "I'll have what he is having!"

                                                      1. j
                                                        Joe H.'s better half

                                                        Hello all. Can you imagine my dismay when Joe called to say he was coming home the SAME day, and then he shows up WITHOUT a 4x4 for me, let alone a double-double. Oh well.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: Joe H.'s better half

                                                          Oh, but are you sure he did not bring one back on the plane for you and then lost all control at 40,000 feet?

                                                        2. Thank god I've got a 5 hour layover in LA on my way back from Australia in April!!!!!!!1 And THANK YOU!!!

                                                          1. First off I agree with you that IN AND OUT BURGER IS GREAT!!! But, sometime can be hard on the intestinal tract. Since you call it the 5,000 mile burger, fly o n down to New Orleans and have the best burger in the world at Port of Call in the French Quarter. Rivaled only by my own which I pain stakingly copied.

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: JT

                                                              First off let me say I love Port O Call but I have read that many NO people like another burger joint more. Do you have any idea which that might be?

                                                            2. You have described the same sensation I get when I first bite into either an Arthur Bryant's beef sandwich (with hot sauce) or a double cheese at White Castle...simply incomparable.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: John

                                                                I've had both but, honestly, believe the first bite of a 4 X 4 with extra spread and grilled onions to be better.

                                                              2. in and out is the only only fast food i eat and the best and they are a very generous company to schools