In-N-Out Burger / Krispy Kreme

Endless reproduction, infinite replenishment

We know all about fast food. We know what hamburger chains do to our bodies, to animals, to mom-’n’-pop restaurateurs. We know what they’ve done to our society—how drive-through convenience has turned us into a nation of isolated commuters for whom eating, the very center of communal life, now takes place in solitude, one hand on the steering wheel, the other gripping a cheeseburger.

But, y’know, having eight reasons not to eat something isn’t always enough. The real reason not to eat fast food, it took me far too long to realize, is this: It never tastes as good as you think it’s going to.

Take it from Andy Puzder. “Fast food has been lying to the public for 15 years,” says Puzder, who should know: he’s the chief executive of CKE Restaurants, which owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. “We’ve been telling them we have these delicious-looking burgers that you get in these beautiful restaurants ... and then you go in and you get a microwaved burger that’s mashed down in paper.” (The quote is from the New York Times.)

And we’ve bought the hype. We fantasize about the Big Mac in the commercials, tall and hot and sweet, the Platonic ideal of a Big Mac. We know its taste well; we’ve eaten it a thousand times in our dreams. The idea that such a burger not only exists but exists on every highway and every urban street is so powerfully appealing that we ignore the evidence and go back to be disappointed again and again.

What we need, then, is a real-world fast-food burger that doesn’t let us down. A burger that’s both delicious and infinitely reproducible, that doesn’t tell us we have to abandon our fantasies of fulfillment to make our peace with the facts of life. An endlessly renewable source of joy and sustenance to prove that the pleasure principle and the reality principle aren’t always and everywhere incompatible. 

That’s what’s behind the relief and wonder people feel the first time they try an In-N-Out Burger.

In-N-Out has roadside stores in California, Nevada, and Arizona. It’s probably the single best thing about the west coast. It offers three burgers—a hamburger, a cheeseburger, and a double-double (two patties, two slices of cheese). There’s no mystery to those burgers’ superiority, no secret sauces. The ingredients aren’t frozen, the fries are cut and the beef is ground on the premises, and the burgers are cooked to order. I’m a fan of the double-double, and not just for quantity’s sake: the fresh lettuce, tomato, and onion on the burgers are not the tasteless space-fillers you find on a Whopper, and they want another slab of meaty meat to balance their crisp tang.

The thing to order, weirdly, isn’t even on the menu. If you tell an In-N-Out counterperson that you’d like your burger “animal style”—a term that appears nowhere in the chain’s official literature or signage—your burger is cooked in mustard for more flavor and comes with pickles, grilled onions, and extra Thousand Island-type sauce. Without the extra sauce, the burger is maybe a tiny bit dry. With it, it’s as close to perfect as fast food gets.

“Animal style” is part of the so-called secret menu, a litany of items passed along among In-N-Out customers by word of mouth. It’s a gimmick, of course: some marketing consultant probably invented it to encourage “a deeper customer relationship with the brand” or something. But as business strategies go, it’s more likable, more subtle, more beautiful (if the word can be applied to a marketing ploy) than the alternative (compensate for crummy burgers with mendacious advertising and leviathan portions of fries).

In-N-Out is a true chain, not a franchise—all the stores are owned by the founders, the Snyder family, who so far refuse to expand nationwide despite what must be some very lucrative offers, and who print little Bible-verse citations on the cups and wrappers. They’re clearly big on quality control. One of my culinary heuristics is “Trust any taqueria with ‘#2’ or ‘#3’ in the title”: those numbers connote family-owned restaurants that are good enough to have expanded but not so big that no one involved gives a fuck anymore. In-N-Out has close to 150 stores, but so far someone still gives a fuck.

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The only In-N-Out Burger in San Francisco is in Fisherman’s Wharf, which isn’t really in San Francisco at all. But there’s another in Daly City, just off 280, near the DMV, across (and this is key) across the parking lot from a Krispy Kreme.

Krispy Kreme is the other big example of the Good Chain; like In-N-Out, it turns almost everyone who tries one into a near-fanatical partisan. Krispy Kreme fans typically have a conversion narrative: wandering in the wilderness (“I don’t particularly like donuts”); meeting an apostle (“Trust me—these are unlike any donuts you’ve had before”); revelation (“You’re right, they transcend the category of donuts: they’re softer, moister, the warm, pillowy body melting into sweet aromatic goo, the thick sugar glaze dissolving like cotton candy, the torus in my hand subliming in my mouth into a substance that’s more a warm syrup than a mere variant of cake”).

Here the product to buy is front and center: the original glazed. I incline toward the chocolate option in almost any circumstance, but trust me on this: you want the original glazed. It’s worth waiting around for a batch of hot ones. Krispy Kreme stores have the mass-production equivalent of an open kitchen: you get to watch the rings of batter be mechanically dunked in oil and flipped out again, then glazed and dried and cooled. It’s fun to watch, in the way that industrial processes involving a conveyor belt always are: endless reproduction; infinite replenishment; all these identical objects being born, new and perfect.