The cult favorite burger chain from Southern California has no equal. Can we move on now?
There really was no getting around it—when Shake Shack began its westward expansion drive a few years back, they were eventually going to end up in In-N-Out Burger territory. Inevitably, this would invite comparison, and the incessant asking of the question: Which one is better? There had always been chatter, mostly among burger lovers familiar with both brands, but things really seemed to kick off back in 2015, when Shake Shack first arrived in Nevada and Texas, two states that had already grown to know and appreciate the relatively humble California institution.
This temptation to debate is understandable, don't get me wrong—both brands are immensely popular, both have their share of fierce defenders, not to mention detractors. It was going to come up. If you find New Yorkers to be fiercely, proudly provincial (I can say that, I'm from there), try hanging around Californians. (I can say that, I pay taxes there.). So, Shake Shack was never going to have a smooth ride, coming on to In-N-Out's patch—anyone who expected otherwise was dreaming. Back in 2016, when Shake Shack finally arrived in Los Angeles, the chatter came fast, furious, and never seemed to end. Once again, everyone wanted to know—who was better?
Pardon my candor, but it was a ridiculous question to ask then, and it's a ridiculous question to be asking now. Not that this is stopping anyone—after settling rather comfortably into In-N-Out's home market, Shake Shack has just announced its intentions to enter the Bay Area, which practically invented that brand of provincialism Californians can't get enough of. Once again, we're having the conversation, that conversation, whether we want to or not.
I'm not here to come down on either side of the question, because there's no answer. None. Shake Shack and In-N-Out (and Habit Burger, another California favorite, and Five Guys, and all the rest of the chains now working so hard at blanketing the field) are not equals, they never will be, and it starts with the price, and I'm not sure why that's so hard for people to grasp.
You walk into a Shake Shack and order a burger ($5.69, no cheese), fries ($2.99, frozen, crinkle-cut) and a shake ($5.29 for the basic model), you're walking out of there having spent a minimum of about $14, maybe $15, including tax. It's good, I have no problem spending that kind of money on fast food, occasionally, though I don't happen to think their shakes are worth the price—I am mostly content to upgrade my order to cheese fries ($3.99) and pocket the savings. Walking out of a Shake Shack having spent around $10 feels something like a moral victory. I don't need cheese on my burger, that's why it's on my fries; besides, what makes Shake Shack's high prices and often lengthy waits worth putting up with is the quality of their meat. It's just, well, it's great. I like to be able to taste it—a simple Shake Shack hamburger with pickles and onions is actually a thing of beauty; it's even better if you go for the double. (Just once, resist the urge to add condiments—you might be amazed.)
Try all the cheats you want, however—Shake Shack is still kind of a luxury item. Sure it's good quality, but at those prices, don't you think that should be a given? I sure do. The miracle of In-N-Out, to me, and to generations of Californians, long before I ever showed up to stake my claim, is the fact that it's not only decent quality, but also highly accessible. In-N-Out is perhaps one of the most democratic institutions ever to grace this great democracy.
Like everywhere, In-N-Out's prices have been creeping upward in recent years, but the fact remains that there are almost no barriers to enjoying a burger at In-N-Out—a perfectly cooked hamburger, piled high with fresh vegetables and slathered judiciously with tasty spread, still costs just $2.25. With cheese, it's $2.55. The house special, the Double Double, which is quite enough to feed a normal person for one meal, is $3.70. Fries, like them or don't like them, are hand-cut all day long and cost $1.70 for a generously-sized order; shakes are an exceedingly reasonable $2.30. Famously, that's about the extent of the menu.
If you ordered a basic burger, fries and a shake at In-N-Out, you're looking at spending (depending on the location—those prices are from the Los Angeles area) about $6.50. There are plenty of markets where a burger, medium fries and a shake at McDonald's can cost more than that, and let's not even get started on the difference in quality. This is what, maybe a little more than a third of the cost of a conservative (and comparable) Shake Shack order? That's right—you can eat at In-N-Out roughly three times, for the cost of one trip to Shake Shack. And yet, somehow, we're still having this discussion. Maybe let's stop now?