Few rivalries are as polarizing as that of the In-N-Outvs. Shake Shackdebate. The two chains have made loyal customers of their respective coasts, spurring videos, articles, and many an argument between friends. Which burger is better? Who has the better fries? Which one has the most bang for the buck? And with at least one of the two existing exclusively on the west coast, it’s difficult for an east coaster such as myself to truly compare the two, with only a memory of an In-N-Out experience of years past. So it would have been remiss of me not to make my way to one and try it again for myself to compare to my 3.5 years of NYC Shake Shack consumption.
Unfortunately, because of the nature of LA, there was not an In-N-Out within walking distance. So it was a good couple of weeks before Nick and I were able to find the time to take a Lyft to the nearest one a few miles away from us. The Lyft could only bring us to the corner of the block because the street was lined with cars waiting to enter the drive-through of the In-N-Out, a sight I had seen a few times driving past them on our way to various destinations. As we walked up to the line outside, as this location was exclusively outdoor, we could see that there was demand on foot as well. We took our place in the back of the line and contemplated the menu.
The most striking thing about the menu was the price. I had to do a double-take when I saw the price of the burger was $3. A shake for only $2.50. Same for the fries. Those are simply not prices you get in NYC. But when it came to the content of the menu, it was much more simple, at least outwardly. There are burgers, fries, shakes, soft drinks, an outlier addition of hot cocoa, and that’s it. That simplicity along with the prices on the menu combined with the vintage look of In-N-Out’s brand made me feel like I was thrown back into 50’s Americana grabbin’ a cheap bite with my pal. There’s a nostalgia factor the experience that definitely cannot be bought.
I knew that I was getting a cheeseburger and animal style fries (hand-cut fries topped with their house sauce, cheese, and grilled onions), and a shake to keep the experience classic. But while I usually go for a chocolate shake, something in the LA air had me itching to try something new. The sun was shining, and sky was blue, and I was craving the brighter strawberry shake. I don’t think I have ever ordered a strawberry shake for myself, so not only was I going to be seeing what In-N-Out had to offer shake wise, but I was testing the nature of the strawberry shake itself.
After a bit of a wait, we took our trays and brought them to sit under the overhang and enjoy. The burger was wrapped tightly in paper and bursting with iceberg lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, spread, and beef patty and cheese all between a typical burger bun. And while it all came together for a bulky bite filled with a lot of textures, the patty itself wasn’t wowing me on the flavor. Just like the aesthetic vibe, it was a classic taste, very typical burger, but not anything that would make me crave going to In-N-Out specifically. Some bites even had me getting lettuce over anything else, which is not exactly what I’m looking for when I get a burger.
I had heard a lot of hype about animal style fries and was interested to see how the monstrosity before me would actually come together as a food experience. They definitely were not fries that could be eaten by hand, caked together with cheese and covered in sticky sauce and onions. But even trying to pull a bite out with a fork proved to be a challenge, with a solid glob of cheese having gotten its grip on every fry and unwilling to let one go. I was ultimately able to construct a bite with a fry, and a bit of everything. And while straight cut fries are definitely my preferred shape, these were not cooked particularly well. The fry was rather light, white, and limp rather than golden brown and crispy, and had a potato-y taste that I like to be gone from the starch once it’s cut and fried in oil. And while the animal style of it all sort of covered up the disappointing fry, the mild cheese, sauce, and onions just felt like excess that didn’t entice me any. If the fry itself is bad, no amount of cover up can make it better. And when the cheese also isn’t anything special, you’ve got a losing battle.
The biggest success was definitely the strawberry shake. The shake quality was perfectly fine, what one should expect from a basic shake. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the strawberry flavor. While it wasn’t as strong as I think it could have been, it was nice to have a fruity addition to the flavor game alongside the greasy beef and starch. I wasn’t craving a chocolate or caramel in its stead at all. I see you fruit-flavored ice creams. You have a new fan.
While it was altogether adequate, and a lot of food for the price, I was heartily disappointed with In-N-Out. Where was the debate? While the quantity of the meal was great and I was certainly satisfied in that way, my taste buds were left wanting. I simply did not see what made people so staunchly pro-In-N-Out. We walked the long way home with visions of Shake Shack in our heads.
Luckily, while In-N-Out is only on the west coast, Shake Shack knows its value, and has a couple of locations out in SoCal as well as being an NYC staple. So to mend our spirits from one disappointing burger experience a couple days later, the whole house made our way to a Shake Shack in Burbank.
Where an In-N-Out is all about nostalgia, Shake Shack is sleek and modern. From the clean wood and metal in the design, to the ordering system at this location which was completely electronic. I did my typical ShackBurger with pickles, fries, and since it was Shake Shack, I veered into their special shakes section and got the cookie butter flavor. My dedication to this order is often tested when at a Shake Shack however, because the menu there is far more extensive. With hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, and a mushroom burger filled with cheese that receives profuse praise consistently, there are options for any kind of mood. Even breakfast sandwiches if you need some Shake Shack in the morning.
One of the most notable things about a ShackBurger is their use of the Martin’s potato bun. Soft, pillow-y, sweet, and much smaller than the typical burger bun used at In-N-Out, it steps the bun game up just an extra, noticeable notch. And cradled inside is a crispy smash burger seasoned to perfection. This is the biggest factor that puts Shake Shack at the top. There is so much flavor in their patty that I don’t get from any other burger. It is distinct and what makes me crave a Shack burger over any old burger when I’m looking for one. And while I go either way on the single slice of butter lettuce, the ratios of veggies on this is overall more balanced in my view. And Shack Sauce? Any day. While most special burger sauces are some mixture of ketchup and mayo, the addition of some spices and a little bit of pickle brine is truly special stuff. Thatis a fast food burger worth raving about.
And while I am not a particular fan of crinkle cut, the fries are lightyears ahead of In-N-Out. The smell alone is rich and enticing. Visually they are the warm, idyllic image of a fry. And the taste is just so. Crispy on the outside, smooth and fluffy on the inside. I am not thinking of the potato from which they came, but of the masterpiece of a creation they are unto themselves. They don’t need to be hidden by anything. A simple dip in ketchup will do and I’m a happy guy.
And of course the titular shake of the shack. It’s thick, smooth, and always exactly the flavor it says it is. There’s nothing weak about it. The spices of cookie butter came through loud and clear and sweet. When I get a salted caramel it is the salty and sweet concoction I’m craving. Their chocolate is dense and rich. A Shake Shack shake is indulgence and the perfect sweet and creamy pairing to an exceptionally flavorful and texturally exceptional meal.
Where Shake Shack does take a hit is pricing. At around $6 a shack burger, the same for a shake and about $3 for fries all before tax, it definitely adds up more than an In-N-Out order. But for the vastly better quality? I can understand. Would I take a price decrease of a couple bucks? Certainly. But I’ll pay the extra few dollars for a better product in the meantime.
So, as you might expect by now, I am firmly and unshakablyShake Shack. With a variety of quality products for the meat eater and the vegetarian, In-N-Out simply can’t compete in my book. Now they just need to continue their expansion out of NYC so I can get it back home in NH!