‘California burger’ means different things to different people

At In-N-Out burger, you can have it your way. / Photo at left courtesy Dael Norwitz. Photo at right via Wikicommons

At In-N-Out burger, you can have it your way. / Photo at left courtesy of Dael Norwitz. Photo at right via Wikicommons

Badoi Phan, of San Jose, Calif., recounts a typical high school day:

Hamburger_01.svg_-e1404335719901“I would walk to my car and wait for my usual gaggle of friends, and, once they arrived, we all headed out to the In-N-Out down the street,” says the 20-year-old college student. “Of course, it was a typical day in San Jose with a slight breeze and bright rays everywhere. As we pull up to the drive-through (perfectly timed to just barely miss the afternoon flood of customers) we were already counting out the dimes and dollars for three double-doubles, fries well done and a milkshake.”

California’s good weather and accessible beaches are not the only reasons people from other parts of the country are jealous of the Golden State. Californians also have In-N-Out burgers to enjoy on those sunny days.

While to many people, the words “California” and “burger” conjure up the image of this famous chain, the state actually has an eponymous burger.

A “California burger” can mean one of two things. In the earlier half of the 20th century, a California burger came topped with lettuce, onion and tomato. Today, these toppings are ubiquitous, but at a time when California was known for having access to the freshest produce year round, a burger garnished with fresh vegetables came to be associated with the Golden State.

A more recent trend, however, is for a California burger to come topped with avocado or guacamole, according to the menus of restaurants from Burger King to celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s Bobby’s Burger Palace, with their California Whopper and L.A. Burger respectively, or cookbooks such as “Weber’s Big Book of Burgers” by Jamie Purviance. Makes sense. About 90 percent of the U.S. avocado crop is grown in California, according to the California Avocado Commission.

Harry Snyder established California's first drive-through hamburger stand in 1948. / Photos from www.in-n-out.com

Harry Snyder established California’s first drive-through hamburger stand in 1948. / Photos from www.in-n-out.com

Like many chains, In-N-Out claims freshness as a selling point. The restaurant’s website boasts “we don’t even own a microwave, heat lamp, or freezer.” Buns are made using old-fashioned, slow-rising sponge dough, the site says, burgers are cooked to order.

The chain has a patty-making facility in Baldwin Park, the southern California town where In-N-Out was born in 1948, and another in Dallas, Texas. And the company remains a beloved regional chain leaving out-of-staters staring longingly at friends’ burger pictures on  Instagram and Facebook.

When In-N-Out began, company founder Harry Snyder cruised meat and produce markets himself to find the freshest ingredients. Until 1963, when the company’s first patty-making facility opened, the beef chuck was chosen and ground under Snyder’s supervision and hand formed into patties by his wife Esther.

Snyder also wanted his customers to be able to get their food without leaving their cars (did we mention they’re in California?). Snyder installed a two-way speaker box, the central feature of drive-through burger joints today.

The aura of being an insider is also important to In-N-Out customers. Californians talk about the “secret menu” at the hamburger stands. The company says it’s an open secret, however. A list of options not shown on the menu but prepared on request has developed over the years.

In 1961, due to customer appeals, “animal style” burgers (lettuce, mustard-grilled burgers, tomato, pickle, extra spread [like Thousand Island dressing], grilled onions) were born. The “3×3,” (three beef patties, lettuce, tomato, spread, three slices of American cheese, with or without onions) and “4×4” (four beef patties, lettuce, tomato, spread, four slices of American cheese, with or without onions) and “protein style” (burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun) followed.
After 66 years, the biggest change is that high school students have more options from which to choose just the right burger for a sunny California day.
What is YOUR state burger? Let us know.

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2 Responses to ‘California burger’ means different things to different people

  1. Janet July 28, 2014 at 8:37 pm #

    I’m a Californian, and have been for many years! For me, a California Burger means avocado, so I’m with Bobby Flay! Love this post!

  2. Kathy July 31, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    Another California burger that needs to be mentioned is made at The Habit Burger Grill. It started in 1969 in Goleta, CA, so also has some history. http://www.habitburger.com/about-us/
    Consumer Reports recently named In-N-Out and The Habit as the top two fast food burgers.

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