Even after 10 years, In-N-Out Burger still resonates

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HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- College freshman year was when the collective words "In-N-Out Burger" first formed in my ears, in that order, in a sentence. The words "let's go" and "right now" also were involved, I believe.

Being an underfed and overly persuadable student, I took up any food offer that wasn't served on a university-issued plastic tray. My roommates packed into a car one night, drove seven miles west of campus to find out why everyone at our dorm was clamoring for In-N-Out.

The answer came in the first bite. It was the moment life separated into before and after.

I won't soon forget that evening, when I downed two double-doubles, fries served "animal-style" (more on these terms later) with an iced tea chaser.

Ten years have passed. I've since moved from the West Coast, where all 240 restaurants are located. Tucson, Ariz., is as far east as it goes. Still, the fire that burns between In-N-Out and me remains the brightest star in the sky.

I was yammering about this one night to my girlfriend, who may or may not have been annoyed that I was more effusive about a burger than I was about her.

"Yeah, but have you ever tried one?" I said.

"Actually, I haven't," she said.

Next thing we knew, we were on a plane to Los Angeles, an In-N-Out in our cross hairs.

The In-N-Out on Sunset Boulevard sits across the street from famed Hollywood High School, and we, geniuses, picked lunch period to visit. It was like a "Twilight" convention in there.

In-N-Out began 62 years ago in Baldwin Park, a suburb 20 minutes east of downtown Los Angeles. Founders Harry and Esther Snyder set forth an ideal of serving fresh, made-to-order food -- french fries hand-cut in store, milkshakes spun from ice cream, beef patties that have never been frozen. This continues today. The company boasts of not owning a single microwave or freezer.

The restaurant evokes a Southern California from a bygone era: checkerboard design, palm tree tiles, a 1950s muscle car drive-in motif. Its employees wear matching short-sleeve shirts, red aprons and paper hats. It feels perpetually sunny inside.

Our order number was called, finally. I went first. One bite and it transported me back to freshman year: toasted buns crisp around the circumference, lettuce that crunched, and a thick, creamy spread with a pickle tang. Melted American cheese acted like binding for the grilled onions and griddled meats, coalescing into a sweet, salty, beefy amalgam. I inhaled the darn thing, fearing someone might take it away.

Then it was my girlfriend's turn. I waited for her reaction.

She spoke: "It's good," registering a 6.5 on a zero-to-10 excitement scale. "I mean, I like it, but I've had better."

In a way, I was glad her reaction was tepid, because it made me re-evaluate my stance. There must be certain synapses in your brain that connect taste to memory. Now I know my taste buds aren't lying to me. But part of my awe and borderline-irrational enthusiasm for In-N-Out was that it reminded me of something -- a moment, a place. It's the same reason your mom's chicken pot pie tastes better than any other version you'll ever try.

I love In-N-Out, but love can be broken down: 75 percent because of the double-double and 25 percent because I could eat it only once every two years. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Such is the case with this burger.

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