The miserable weather was not letting up, but dinnertime was approaching and I thought, “I’m in Austin and I may never come back here again so I’LL BE DAMNED if I’m gonna let a little bit of rain get in the way of eating some world famous Austin food truck barbecued meats!” I didn’t care if I needed to eat it under an umbrella or stink up our rental car with the smell of smoked brisket, I wasn’t going home without trying it.
With the limited time we had in the city, Franklin was sadly never an option. As much as it broke my heart to forego what many consider to be the best barbecue in America (if not the world!) the four hour wait would have taken too big a chunk out of our precious little time in Austin and I had to make that sacrifice. It was a really tough call, but it was one I had to make.
Lucky for us, since Aaron Franklin sparked a barbecue revolution in Austin, the city has become known for restaurants and food trucks that take their meat very very seriously and have turned smoked protein into a refined art. A bunch of places have emerged that dare to challenge Franklin’s dominance and my research put two names at the top of the list: La Barbecue and Micklethwait Craft Meats.
They’re both located around downtown Austin, so we took the car to Micklethwait first, only to be . . .
DENIED. Closed. Only open Wednesday through Saturday. Okay, disappointing, but let’s try La Barbecue.
DENIED AGAIN. Turns out rain wasn’t even the issue, the problem was that we had lost all sense of date and time, as you do when you’re traveling, and failed to realise it was Monday and that most restaurants are closed on Mondays. This meant that even apart from food trucks there was no viable option for a barbecue dinner in Austin that night.
I did not have a non-barbecue Plan B and I could not live with the idea of wasting a meal in Austin at some crappy random restaurant that we chose just because it was open.
This is when Matt cheerily suggested, “Let’s go to In-N-Out!!”
With all the hype I had heard about In-N-Out, I would have been happy to go there for a late-night burger run after a Spurs game but I had not planned on spending a main meal there. Even if it was God’s gift to fast food, fast food is still fast food and I didn’t come to Texas to eat a slightly fancier version of McDonalds! But desperate times . . .
Matt was filled with utter glee at the thought of In-N-Out for dinner. He had tried it for the first time on his last trip to the States and it had been immortalised in his memory as the greatest fast food burger he’d ever tasted. He was like:
And I was sitting in the car like . . .
“This better be good.”
Every American I’ve met in Korea gets a big moist-eyed and drooly when they talk about In-N-Out. As someone who’s (surprisingly) not that into junky fast food burgers, my question is always, “How good can it be?” They can never quite specify exactly why they love In-N-Out as much as they do, but they all seem to be in agreement that there’s nothing on earth that quite equals the burgers at In-N-Out.
The first thing I noticed was that the menu is REALLY basic. Three burgers, fries, and drinks. And the burgers are all just variations of the same hamburger. While most fast food restaurants these days have 100-item menus that are constantly changing with seasons and trends, the In-N-Out menu has stayed the same since it first opened in 1948.
I think people love the story of In-N-Out as much as they love the burgers. It’s a family-run business that, despite its cult-status and popularity, has only 300 locations in the USA (compare that to McDonalds’ 15,000 locations) and has refused to franchise or go public. It’s recently branched out to Texas (WIN for us) but is still pretty much exclusive to the state of California. They care about quality in a way that is really rare in the fast food business, and they only use fresh ingredients – freezers are not even allowed in any of the restaurants.
Our server was super cheery – in fact all the staff seemed genuinely happy and friendly. A nice change from Maccas servers who treat you like you’ve stolen their will to live. The friendliness is probably the fruit of the company’s strong Christian values and the fact that unlike almost every other fast food business, the workers get paid significantly more than minimum wage.
There’s only one In-N-Out in Austin and it’s relatively new so the place was packed out.
The kitchen is completely open so you can see the workers at the assembly station putting together the elements of each burger with tender loving care. Thanks to their dedication to hamburger excellence, you aren’t given sad, wilted burgers that make you want to take to the photo on the menu up to the counter and complain “THIS IS ALL A LIE.” You end up with this beauty:
Let’s zoom out a bit now:
One Double-Double, one Cheeseburger, and two fries, ALL “Animal Style.” What is this crazy Animal Style, you ask? Well, as it turns out, while the menu may look deceptively simple on its face, behind it lies a universe of infinite permutations and customisations that In-N-Out aficionados refer to as the “secret menu.” There is an official “Not-So-Secret Menu” that In-N-Out has on their website, and this includes Animal Style (burger with extra Thousand Island spread, grilled onions instead of fresh and mustard-grilled beef patty; fries topped with melted cheese, grilled onions, and spread), but there is SO MUCH MORE that I didn’t know about and am KICKING myself for not studying earlier.
In particular, I would have liked to try:
- Patty cooked medium-rare (pink in the middle and super juicy!)
- Burger w/ chopped chillies (sport peppers chopped and pressed into the bottom of the burger)
- Fries well-done (for extra crispiness – we found the fries a bit soggy and disappointing, but well-done would have cured this I’m sure)
- Whole grilled onion (for extra stinky breath goodness)
- 3×3 (3 patties, 3 cheese slices. Not for me, but Matt would have been game and it would have looked really sexy in a photo)
The 4×4 (4xPatty, 4xCheese) is actually listed on the official Not-So-Secret menu which I find INSANE. Not sure if even Matt could even stomach that. Wait, I just asked him if he could take it and he said “GLADLY” so I guess it’s not as crazy as I thought. And it doesn’t even stop there; you can go as high as you want. 100 x 100 anyone? Man, if I had known all this beforehand, this blog post would be a lot more fun. Oh well, I guess that’s just one more reason why I need to go back to Texas someday soon.
But what did we actually think of the burgers? Matt’s face says it all.
(The second photo is from when we went again in San Antonio. We asked the server to give us a paper hat. Pretty sure they’re only meant to hand that out to kids.)
It was just as good as he remembered. Like a beastly Manu monster dunk in a championship winning game, it’s rare, it’s like a dream, but when you get to experience it in real life it’s the absolute greatest thing in the world.
As for me, I liked it a lot. It’s the best fast food burger I’ve tasted and I really appreciated the attention to detail like the crisp toasted bun, melty melty cheese, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, and the patty that actually tasted like real beef. But a burger is still . . . a burger. It wasn’t something so revelatory that I wanted to scream or jump or cry or die. It was a solid, satisfying Danny Green triple-double fist pump.
That brings me to the next American fast food icon that I was even more intrigued to try. Chick-Fil-A was a name I wasn’t at all familiar with until I moved to Korea and made friends with people from the American South. When I asked them what I needed to eat in Texas, before the Tex Mex, before the barbecue, before any other restaurant, they told me: “CHICK. FIL. A.”
Chick-Fil-A specialises in chicken sandwiches and the classic sandwich is just a deep fried chicken fillet, with two pickle slices between two soft buns. That’s it. My expectations were set pretty darn high thanks to the overwhelming praise of my southern friends, but was also tempered by my “How good could it actually be? It’s just a chicken sandwich” skepticism.
That night (yes, the same day we had In-N-Out – we were on holiday and just rollin’ like fatties) after a really great bar-hop of Sixth Street’s live music bars, we went on a late night Chick-Fil-A run just as its doors were about to close.
The sandwich came in this sturdy foil-lined paper bag. It opened up to reveal this…
… and my heart just went:
The FATTEST chicken fillet I’d ever seen in my life. It was fatter than both those buns combined! And you can’t really tell from the grainy inside the car at midnight photo, but the batter was dark gold and looked so crispy. I ripped open a sachet of the signature Chick-Fil-A sauce (a combination of honey mustard, BBQ, and ranch) and squeezed it all over the that fat fillet and took a biiiig bite.
And my brain, my mouth, my everything just went,
I am not a good enough writer to adequately explain to you all how good this little sandwich tasted. So I’ll try to express it through the language of Spurs gif.
It was like, Obi Wan Ginobili half-court magic fireball pass good.
It was like, Tony Parker in the paint laying it up like nightcrawler good.
It was like, Timmy D buzzer-beating game-winning jumpshot good.
It was like, BoBo to Kawhi with the OOP good.
Do they use drugs? Do they use magic? Do they sing Beyonce’s hits to their chickens and raise them on a diet of foie gras and champagne? It’s a chicken BREAST fillet but there is no trace of the stringy, tough, dryness that is expected from white meat. My teeth just glided through that fillet like it was a chicken-flavoured marshmallow. There MUST be some deep, dark secret to how they get their sandwiches to taste so good because if it was anything less than sorcery, everyone would copy the recipe and our world would be filled with perfect tasting chicken sandwiches.
There are a few theories floating around. One of the most popular is that the chicken fillets are brined in pickle juice, and a lot of the copycat recipes recommend using this method when trying to replicate the sandwich at home. This makes a lot of sense because it explains both the explosion of salty salty goodness that cannot come from the chicken breast alone, and the super succulent, tender texture of the fillet. Others suggest that a more ordinary brine of salt and water will do the trick. I’ve been always been a brining skeptic (mainly because I’m lazy) but when I saw the physical transformation that brining achieves, I was almost convinced that this must have been the key. But I’d still prefer to believe that the secret involves some magic breed of a chicken that bathes in milk and has a personal masseuse.
I wouldn’t stop going on and on about how good the chicken was and how I needed to eat it at least one more time before leaving the States but Matt just brushed me off, saying that I only liked it so much because I had experienced something he calls “The Drunken Munchies.” Okay, yeah I had enjoyed a glass of wine and some Sangria cocktails that night. And yes, I may have fallen asleep in the car while he was out getting the sandwiches, but it was past my bedtime and I was just tired, okay? How dare he suggest that the integrity of my tastebuds was compromised by a few measly drinks.
There was only one way we could settle this . . .
Fast-forward to our last meal in San Antonio. We drove 30 minutes west of downtown so Matt could have In-N-Out one more time. We picked up his Double-Double and Cheeseburger order (both for him), and then went around the corner for my much-anticipated dinner at:
This time, in full daylight and perfectly sober, I went inside myself and ordered a chicken sandwich and some of their famous waffle fries.
I was just going to get the original sandwich again, but when I saw the spicy option I couldn’t resist. Because I like my chicken fillets the same way I like my meatballs,
. . . SPICY!
This time around the fillet wasn’t as giant as the one in Austin, but it was still bigger than the top bun. The crunch of the batter was actually visible and begging to be bitten into.
The Fil-Ayyyyy was as juicy and tender as I remembered it. The spiciness added a nice kick, but I wasn’t so awesome that I would always choose this over the original. In fact, I think I liked the original (and whatever secret herbs and spices it has in its batter) better. And yeah, I’ll admit that while this had all the same qualities as the first sandwich in Austin, it didn’t blow my mind in the same way. But it wasn’t because my judgment had been impaired that first time, it was because your first Chick-Fil-A sandwich is like your first kiss. You may have it again dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times in your life, but nothing will ever compare to the moment when you first experienced that completely new and sweet sensation that was unlike anything you had felt before.
Chick-Fil-A, I bestow upon you the highest honour: the coveted, prestigious, and freakishly oversized
TEAM CHICKEN 4EVAAAA!