"Hamburgers! The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast!"
It was around 8 am on Dec. 12 when I joined the line outside the as yet unopened In-N-Out Burger in Keizer, Ore., on its first day in operation. The franchise's announced opening time was 10:30 am, but whispers among the 100 or so devotees already waiting in the cold, wet darkness suggested the busy managers might unlock the doors earlier. All I could think about as I stood shivering under the company's branded awnings was Samuel L. Jackson's line from Pulp Fiction as he busts in on poor Brett eating a Big Kahuna Burger first thing in the morning.
What was my excuse? Well, I've lived in Portland a long time, but I'm not from California—weird, I know. So when I heard I might have to drive for almost an hour, then stand in line for two more hours just to be one of the first souls to eat at the closest In-N-Out to us yet…well, it seemed kind of dumb. Is any fast food burger really that good?
But I needed to satisfy my own curiosity. I vacationed in Southern California six years ago and tried my first In-N-Out burger on the way to the airport. Thinking back on that perfectly sunny afternoon, I remember almost nothing about the meal. All I can recall thinking was, "What the hell's the big deal?"
So I forced myself up before dawn and drove the 40 miles down I-5 to find out for myself.
Turns out, I had traveled a relatively short distance compared to some of the burger fanatics around me. Amy Aferton and Brentano Rosselli drove from Spokane on "the spur of the moment," sleeping in the parking lot for several hours. Rosselli said the appeal of In-N-Out is "the classic simplicity behind it. There's something about it. It has the right crunch, the right texture, the freshness." Afteron said she doesn't crave anything like she craves an In-N-Out burger.
Rocky Perez, originally from Southern California, the franchise's home base, now lives in Keizer, the Salem suburb where the company decided to launch its third Oregon operation, following Medford and Grants Pass. "This is our deal," she said, referring to the many fellow Californians in the early morning line. While she lives within walking distance of the new location, she said she would absolutely drive 45 minutes to obtain a bag of burgers. This was her second Oregon In-N-Out opening—in 2015, she drove four hours to the Medford location's opening day.
The first customers were let in at 8:26 am, and I crossed the threshold about 20 minutes later. All the employees were smiling, looking sharp in their pressed, white shirts and pants, red aprons tied around their waists and crisp paper hats topping their uniforms—a nod to wholesome Americana as it existed in 1948, when the first In-N-Out opened in Baldwin Park, Calif.
I was guest No. 76. I ordered a No. 1 meal, which featured a Double-Double (double meat, double cheese), fries and a medium drink with "ISAIAH 9:6" printed on the bottom of the cup. (Bible verses adorn much of the packaging—and it's probably worth noting the company has contributed to the California Republican Party in the past.) To round out my taste test, I added a regular hamburger. All for just $10!
The patties were well seasoned, and the American cheese was melted in perfect food-porn style. The tomatoes were firm and not a bit mealy, the lettuce a touch crisp with a hint of crunch. It was a good bun with some tooth to it. The special sauce had a trace of relish that provided a sweet tang to every bite. But there wasn't much else to the Double-Double. It was tasty, but what was I missing? It was just a tasty burger! A tasty burger I had to drive 45 minutes and wait in the rain to get.
The fries, on the other hand, were fucking horrible. I've had some really bad fries in Portland, and I swear to In-N-Out's Christian God, theirs are the worst within an hour of the metro area. When I posted about it on Twitter, all sorts of replies told me I should have asked for double-fried, added an extra salt packet or got them "animal style." I have no idea what that means, but it doesn't seem right I should have to ask for my fries to be prepared in some secret manner just to make them edible.
I still couldn't wrap my head around it. Was it just a California thing? I mean, I curse the Lakers, but I still like to smoke a joint and listen to the Eagles on occasion.
I asked author, Portland transplant and fifth-generation Southern Californian Bill Lascher to fill me in. He described the sense of reminiscence many associate with the In-N-Out experience.
"I have this searing image of one friend who worked at In-N-Out always guiding us through the then much more secret hidden menu," he said. "I'm also nostalgic for summers home from college, grabbing burgers to take to the beach, and fending off seagulls as I eat." And for millions of diners, similar memories are invested in this white-and-red-wrapped repast of beef, cheese and bread. "It's straightforward," Lascher said. "It's not boring or plain, though."
I still don't get the hype, but I certainly understand nostalgia. And I do love a good burger, and In-N-Out is good and inexpensive. But Keizer is a long way to drive for a very early lunch.
EAT: In-N-Out, 6280 Keizer Station Blvd., in-n-out.com. 10:30 am-1 am Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 am-1:30 am Friday-Saturday.