So, one of the fringe benefits of my job as a DJ is having my days relatively free. I obviously still have Stuff To Do, but the deadlines are often quite nebulous and regularly have to be self-imposed. As such, when I heard earlier this week that legendary LA Burger chain In-N-Out Burger were coming to London for a 4-hour pop-up, I was pretty sure that I would be there to check it out.
In classic style I managed to accidentally get a little drunk at the gig I had the night before, but mercifully, the texts I sent to various friends looking for the next pitstop got negative responses, and no further drinking, dancing or debauchery took place. Although I did get my ass handed to me by my flatmate when I tried to play him on the new FIFA 17 demo before bed.
The plus side of this poor planning was that I was goddamned starving on Wednesday morning. Coffee was purchased from my favourite spot (Pavilion Cafe, by the lake in Victoria Park), and then my burger buddy for the day arrived (the wonderful Ben Gomori of Turned On Podcast, who’s made an appearance in my Mixtape Monday series). Off we trotted, heading westwards to Swiss Cottage, where the pop-up was taking place.
When we popped back above ground and wandered down towards the venue, we were met with a substantial, but not intimidating, queue. We took our place at the back of the line after stocking up on the essentials for a potentially long wait, and settled in. Arrival time was 10.15am or thereabouts, and the pop-up was scheduled for 11am-3pm. The venue itself seemed to be fairly large inside from what we could see, although strangely little effort had been made to transform the front-end, just one banner in the window, and various In-N-Out staff members in their distinctive uniform milling about, and then a counter inside that looked like some effort had gone on making it pretty close to how they presumably are stateside.
The queue grew steadily as we waited patiently. Various baffled passers-by took photos and asked questions, numerous reporters and journalists came by to ask questions or livestream the thronging crowd of knobheads waiting hours in line for “fast” food.
I made my first appearance within Vice and marked it with a truly awful pun. Getty interviewed me on video, I have no idea if that was used, and frankly I hope I never find out [Edit – thanks to u/RichardJohn over on Reddit for finding this, turns out they not only used me, but I was the only interviewee used! http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/license/609839490].
Wristbands were handed out, enabling people to chip off and come back at their allotted hourly slot – I was given gold, the 12-1 slot. The burger tab on these wristbands made it pretty obvious that we could only order one burger each, a mortifying realisation after having skipped breakfast.
So far, I’ve said an awful lot without getting to the point. Well, here we go. After 2 or so hours of waiting, we approached the front of the line, and were greeted warmly by Eric, a genuine American fella. He was fantastic, and superbly dealt with the multiple late-comers who tried to blag their way in to get a shirt without waiting in line like the rest of us losers.
In we went, and order we did. Disappointingly, the only side available was crisps. I want to thank my friends on Facebook for asking me why a mere 91838172581 times. Apparently it was something to do with not being able to ship the fries over or get them right in the UK or something, but whatever it was, it was very disappointing to have ready salted crisps as the accompaniment to a burger you’ve queued several hours to sample. The prices were cheap as chips, ironically enough, £3 for a double double (two beef patties, two slices of cheese) which I had “animal style” (basically with a quite sweet sauce with grilled onions), a diet coke, and those bloody crisps. I was given a key-ring and a sticker, and decided to fork out £3 for one of their t-shirts, so the whole lot clocked in at a very reasonable £8! So clearly, this wasn’t an exercise in making money…
So down we sat with our drinks and goodies, and waited for the food to come to our table. One thing I was struck by was just how many empty seats there were given how slow the queue had been moving. They were clearly managing the numbers very closely to avoid any snafus with the service I guess. The food took maybe 5 minutes or so to arrive, with Ben’s being the first to land.
I have to say, the burgers looked excellent when they arrived at the table.
And now we get to the important stuff. The burger – yes, it was good. If I had to try and describe it in a very simple way – it’s like the best possible Big Mac you could make. Does it get a place in my top 10. Nope. Was it worth waiting 2-3 hours for? Not really, if I’m brutally honest.
But it was very good. I would happily eat these on the go at the right price, the sauce, the beefburgers, the cheese and the bun were all lovely and complemented each other well. The salad – well, the lettuce was fine, but the tomato was almost ice cold. It wasn’t a huge issue, but it definitely detracted from the burger in the final judgement. The animal sauce was really enjoyable – I may well have a crack at making something like that at home, having discovered various websites who think they have the recipe worked out.
I’m glad I made the decision to check it out, as I’ve never previously really “got” this type of burger – I prefer thicker patties with them nicely pink in the middle. These thinner patties make for a totally different mouth-feel than the “gourmet” style big burgers that dominate London’s burger restaurants – often they are overdone to the point of being unpalatable meat-biscuits, but as you can see in the photo above, these are done to perfection, allowing them to remain moist and juicy, something which the melted American cheese and Animal Sauce only serves to amplify. Even as I write this out now, I’m starting to crave another one, so maybe they did make more of an impression on me than I realised – or maybe its just because I skipped breakfast again. The crisps/fries debacle… the less said the better, I don’t really understand how they can go to all the effort of this and not be able to put a proper side on the menu. And thank you to my friends for hammering that point home, relentlessly.
In truth, it’s a little unfair of me to compare In-N-Out to the top-end London “gourmet” burger places – its niche is as a really good, but really cheap, burger. A kick-ass McDonald’s. Five Guys occupies this niche in the USA too, yet is inexplicably (and totally unjustifiably) priced as a premium burger in the UK. £3 for a Double Double, animal style… now that’s phenomenal value. If they opened up over here permanently, with prices in that ballpark, they would absolutely clean up, and rightly so. If they were a tenner… just don’t bother, please. But seeing as the last pop-up was in 2012 (4 year cycle, this year in a Brazilian restaurant… I’m guessing that in 2020 they will take over a sushi restaurant…), its reasonable to guess that they are in no rush to head over to the UK – after all, they are still limited to relatively few states in the USA, which in itself probably plays its part in creating the aura that creates such daft queues as the one I was part of yesterday.