[R&K's foodporn series features great dishes and storytelling from around America and beyond. Other dispatches in the series: technicolor tacos at Tito's in LA, In-and-Out's Double-Double Animal Style, or chicken liver in Louisville. Those and more on our Plates of the Union page.]
Short of dipping Giada De Laurentiis in a vat of tomato sauce, this is the lowest-hanging food-porn fruit of all, the In-N-Out Double-Double Animal Style, the wet dream of any properly-reared Californian.
My first memories of the Double-Double begin on that long, bleak stretch of California asphalt known as Highway 5, a strip of diabolical pavement whose eye-gouging monotony is interrupted just twice in the 400 miles between San Francisco and Los Angeles, first by the cow-fart factories surrounding Harris Ranch, and second by the Grapevine, the mountain gateway to Southern California, a muscular announcement that meant In-N-Out was near. My family measured the distance between the Bay Area and LA with our noses: first there was methane, later the funk of rendered beef fat. (Only later did I learn that Harris Ranch is in fact one of In-N-Out’s largest beef suppliers…the circle of life). With only boiled ham and a grandmother’s love waiting for me on the other end of the drive-thru, those cheeseburger pit-stops were my first moments of joy on the road.
There are many things that make this burger so special to so many: the potato bun, squishy on top, griddle-crisped around the edges underneath, the sweet-savory warmth of onions caramelized in beef fat, the ideal burger-to-condiment ratio carried out with produce that is way better than it needs to be (I mean, look at those tomatoes! Prostitutes the world over would kill to have lipstick that red.) The way the cheese melts into the wrapper and when you think no one is looking you start nibbling away at the grease-soaked paper and you’re loving every second of it until suddenly it dawns on you that this burger, this fucking burger, has driven you to eat paper.
Then there are the little things that imbue this chain with a sense of near-mythic stature: the fact that the burgers are slathered with mustard as they fry on the griddle, which commingles with the grease to create a deep, savory crust on the patty; the fact that you can order your fries the same way that you order a steak (“medium-well, with a deep brown crust and tender flesh inside”); the fact that the dude flipping those burgers makes three times as much as the paper-hat punks down the street and actually seems to be enjoying what he’s doing. And somehow, in the context of all this goodness, even those creepy Bible references (you know, the John 3:16 quote on the underside of the beverage cup), come off as more idiosyncratic than nefarious.
These days, with the burger boom reaching a feverish pitch, dudes with their names on restaurant doors ply their chefy skills looking for ways to make the perfect burger: they grind a dozen different cuts of dry-aged cow, enrich it with foie gras, layer it with truffles, stuff it in between butter-rich brioche encrusted with edible diamonds. The results may be delicious, but they’ll never touch a Double-Double.
That’s because while every other kid in the country was having their concept of burgers defined for them by a sketchy clown and a laundry list of depressing practices, if you grew up anywhere within sniffing distance of the Pacific, you were sinking your teeth into something real. For me, the Double-Double is that girlfriend you never quite shake, that sexpot who pops into your head at the most inopportune times, forever destined to play the role of measuring stick, doubt-caster, party-crasher. No, if you were reared on Double-Doubles, every other burger is fighting for second place.