California Girls: Burger Showdown

Bacon cheeseburger @ Five Napkin, NYC

I set aside my aspirations of being a vegetarian for an In-N-Out burger whenever I am in California.  Even before I arrived in Los Angeles I googled the nearest In-N-Out from our hotel and thought about whether I would make that my first stop in CA.  I admit, I like a big juicy burger or a steak every now and then.  There are plenty of good, I mean great hamburgers in New York.  In 13 years I lived in Manhattan I’ve tried the burger joint at the Parker Meridien, Five Napkin, Minetta Tavern, The Spotted Pig, Shake Shack, and so on.  When I’ve had the famous Black Angus burger from Minetta Tavern why should I want a burger from some chain restaurant?  Maybe it’s because you can’t find an In-N-Out in New York but it’s what I crave and look forward to when I think of going to California.

When I mentioned to my cousin that I needed to have at least a bite of the In-N-Out burger while I was in Los Angeles she told me that there was another place she liked even better than In-N-Out.  I didn’t believe her.  Unless it was from Father’s Office (the only other burger place I would have gone to in LA), I wasn’t interested.  My preference for In-N-Out was met with great debate by the rest of my family in California so there was nothing to be done but to have a serious side-by-side burger comparison.  So one evening two cars were sent out to pick up cheeseburgers from In-N-Out and from Habit, my cousin’s new favorite burger place.

On one side was my favorite In-N-Out, a family owned and operated hamburger restaurants that started in 1948.  Because they are a privately held company they don’t franchise and there aren’t any In-N-Out’s on the east coast.  I remember when it wasn’t even readily available in California; I used to visit my brother in Cupertino years ago and had to drive quite a while to find the nearest In-N-Out.  It seems they’ve expanded significantly in the past few years but they are still almost exclusively in California only.  They are known to treat their employees fairly and with generous benefits.  They emphasize the quality of their products and it’s common to see the workers cutting mountains of potatoes for French fries onsite.  They cook to order and I love that everything is fresh.  But what’s fun about In-N-Out is their “secret menu.”  All they sell are burgers, fries, and shakes, but there are ways to customize your burger order even if it isn’t on the official menu.  This has been an open secret for many years and a topic of fun conversation for their customers.  For example, you can order your burger “animal style” where the bun is omitted.  You can order 3×3 or 4×4- triple meat & cheese or quadruple meat & cheese.  I’ve always loved the quirkiness about In-N-Out but the actual burger itself is top notch.  In fact, I could really go for one right now…

For the other side, my cousins presented Habit.  I had never heard of this chain but when we were in Santa Barbara, I saw a line of people waiting in front of The Habit Burger Grill.  Later when I looked it up, it said that the original store was in fact in Santa Barbara and they’ve been making hamburgers since 1969.  They are mostly in California like In-N-Out but they also have three locations in Arizona.  Their menu has non-burger items (sandwiches, salads, etc) and their burgers are charbroiled on an open flame and therefore called “charburgers.”  I was really curious to see why my cousins were so sure I’d like Habit better than In-N-Out.

In-N-Out vs. Habit

We gathered around the kitchen table to example and conduct our taste test.  Since we did take-away and it took some time (the queues at both In-N-Out and Habit were excruciatingly long) we decided not to judge the fries; they were cold and soggy.  As for the burgers it was a hard call.  We each had half of In-N-Out and half of Habit for our burger showdown.  The In-N-Out burger was juicy and had my taste buds working overtime, an outstanding burger all around.  Then came the Habit burger.  I was a bit biased since I was so set on my preference for In-N-Out but I have to say that Habit was great.  The burger was at its purist form with fresh ingredients, nice crunchy bites from the pickles, and the buns were nicely grilled.  I wondered if the use of what In-N-Out calls the “spread” (a bit like McDonald’s special sauce) detracts and hides the true taste of their burgers.

We all had our differing opinions and in the end, our household taste test was divided almost evenly with a slight edge going to the Habit burger.  For my first (and maybe the only) burger of the year, I couldn’t have done better but I’m still not totally convinced of the winner.  I think there will be a re-match sometime in the future.  I’m looking at my calendar to see when I can swing by California again.

In-N-Out: various locations in California

Habit Burger Grill: various locations in California

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