As a born and bred California lady, I feel it’s my obligation to align with #TeamInNOut. The franchise has yet to hit the East Coast, and frankly, I hope it never does. I cherish its status as a West Coast novelty and enjoy seizing any social media opportunity to tout this to my East Coast friends. After all East Coasters like to sing the praise of their own nostalgic burger chain, Five Guys, so it’s really my birthright to fiercely fly my red and yellow flag. However, Five Guys has now come to the West, and I recently got the chance to compare the two.
In-N-Out: My history with In-N-Out is fraught and personal. I tasted it first in late elementary school and became quickly enamored. The cheeseburger patty was thin and crispy, balanced out texturally by crunchy lettuce and soft tomatoes. But really it was the “secret sauce” that won me over. Creamy and just a bit zesty, this sauce is what tips the scales from “well done classic” to “cult favorite.” (I read an article that described In-N-Out as if it were an indie film.) Unfortunately, in seventh grade I came down with a nasty stomach flu soon after consuming a burger and lost all taste for my former favorite. This experience nonetheless afforded me the unique opportunity to take a nearly ten-year In-N-Out hiatus and to come back with a fresh perspective once I was ready to stomach it again. I have consumed it a few times within the past couple years, and I must admit: I don’t love it! The cheeseburgers are still everything I remembered, but I guess I’ve just lost my fascination with them–I could live without them if necessary. Now let’s talk about the fries: they suck. Yes, they are fresh, and I admire the transparency of their preparation. (You can see the employees taking whole potatoes and turning them into fries.) However, they’re also somewhat bland and lack the crispy, greasy outer layer customary at most fast food chains. (Shout out to Burger King!) They taste about as healthy as they are. All in all, In-N-Out is good, but–in the words of a fellow instagrammer–“not worth the hype.”
Five Guys: I didn’t want to like Five Guys. But I did. I opted for the bacon burger (an option not offered at In-N-Out), pleased to see that it clocked in at less calories than the cheeseburger. The burger was crispy, the bacon was crunchy, and it tasted like a very close approximation to a real hamburger you’d find at a sit-down restaurant. However, most importantly, I wasn’t able to finish it! I got the normal hamburger instead of the “Little Hamburger,” not realizing that Five Guys classifies a double burger as the standard size. In-N-Out, on the other hand, calls their double burger the “Double-Double,” a name that aptly recollects the monstrosity it signifies. I’m not gonna lie: I was immensely flattered to discover that the “Little Hamburger” was enough for me. In the same way that I love when some artisanal ice cream places call double scoops “regular,” I love that Five Guys makes me feel like a dainty eater. My eating habits are not dainty by any stretch, but sometimes it feels good to succumb to marketing flattery. Now onto the fries: they were good. Thick but still crispy and overflowing from tall cups, they look as delightful as they taste. The fries, like the burgers, again create the illusion that you’re eating more than just your typical fast food fare. I am very sorry to admit this, but I prefer Five Guys!
However, I didn’t really write about this topic because I wanted to get into the minutiae of two similar fast food chains. I wrote about it because I am fascinated by the ways food is becoming so much more than sustenance. Why did I want to prefer In-N-Out? Why did I allot it two Instagram posts while relegating my experience at Five Guys to a cursory nod on my Snapchat story? I have encountered numerous blog posts and instagrams about both places, all by people eager to see if they lived up to the hype. We seldom consume these foods because they’re simply good; we consume them because the tell-tale palm tree on our soda cup means something. I don’t mean to paint food trends in a negative light; I just mean to underscore the ways in which they shape our relationships to eating and enable us to build narratives. I recently went to In-N-Out with full knowledge that I preferred Five Guys not because I wanted a good burger but because I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to feel closer to my friends from home (many of whom showed their support through texts, likes, comments, etc), to express my gratitude for my California roots, to be the envy of my social media followers, and eating a burger seemed to say all of that.
Post and Photos by Kirsten Martin.