Perhaps the most iconic signifier of California culture, besides car fumes, dubious diet trends, and evil sex cults, are In-N-Out cheeseburgers. For whatever reason, the fast food chain powerfully evokes a dreamy nostalgia for a California that never was. So it’s kind of odd that it doesn’t serve veggie burgers.
Sure, they technically offer vegetarian options. They’re just really lackluster. They have a “grilled cheese” which is basically just a warm slice of cheese squished between two buns with lettuce, tomato, and onion. Ask for a “veggie burger,” and they’ll give you the former, without cheese.
It’s strange, because California is perhaps one of the most health-conscious and vegetarian-friendly states in our vast, ground beef-huffing nation. The demand for veggie burgers at In-N-Out is high, as online petitions attest. Though it’s a notoriously stubborn, old-fashioned chain (global warming famines will likely kill off humanity before they ever expand beyond the west), this isn’t really a solid justification for depriving us of mock-meat. Even White Castle, one of the first burger chains ever, serves them.
What’s a hungry vegetarian who wants to partake in some overwrought ~California Dream~ cuisine supposed to do? Eat rocks?
No. Just smuggle in some veggie burgers.
It’s perfectly legal to bring outside food into restaurants. The California retail food codes omit any mention of the subject, seeming to indicate that it’s outside the health department’s jurisdiction. Restaurants can, however, kick people off their private property for any non-discriminatory reason. Fortunately, there are no signs anywhere inside In-N-Out prohibiting outside food. (I choose not to interpret this as oversight, as there are signs banning smoking.) On their website, their terms and conditions make no mention of such a thing — and given that their site has pages devoted to their menu’s supply chain and nutritional information, In-N-Out is nothing if not thorough. Basically anyone, if they have the time and courage, can take a veggie burger from anywhere else, cook it, sneak it into an In-N-Out, and swap it with a meat patty.
This was all just theoretical, of course, until — in the interest of curiosity and cheap stunt journalism — I decided to test it out for myself. (Disclosure: I am not actually a vegetarian.)
First, I needed to find the right veggie burger. One of those crummy frozen patties from the supermarket, made with twigs and crunchy beige peas, simply wouldn’t do. The veggie burger needed to be a reliable substitute for an actual In-N-Out burger. Fortunately, the Umami Burger in Oakland recently started selling the excessively-hyped Impossible Burgers, and cooks them in the In-N-Out house style: Two thin patties, well-done, each topped with two slices of American cheese. It was by far the best option. I drove over to Umami Burger with my friend John, ordered one to go, and then sped to the closest In-N-Out location in Alameda, only 10 minutes away.
Although we were legally and morally in the right, I was concerned that a local store manager might go rogue and try to be a hero, tossing us out of the restaurant. Or worse: In March, after a YouTube prankster went into an In-N-Out posing as the company’s CEO and demanded free food, the chain filed a restraining order against him, and sued him for $25,000 in damages. Of course, I could have gotten it “to go” and carried out the experiment in the safety of my own apartment, but eating it inside the actual restaurant seemed important. Something about the atmosphere — the red tiles, hospital-white walls, yellow neon signage promising “quality you can trust” — is integral to the whole In-N-Out “experience.”
I needed to sneak the veggie burger inside without raising any suspicions. In the parking lot, on the trunk of my car, I surgically removed the Impossible patty from the bun, and slipped it into a Ziploc bag. This was all done in a highly sanitary manner, with my bare hands. I then slipped the bag into my jacket’s inside pocket, which I now refer to as the Meat Pocket™.
Unfortunately, the day was warmer than planned. My jacket suddenly looked out of place. While ordering, I really needed to convey that I was a normal, hungry lunch man, or risk blowing the whole operation. I put my phone in my front pocket to capture the process.
Remember the disappointing In-N-Out vegetarian options I mentioned earlier? As sucky as they are in isolation, they happened to be perfect for my project. I ordered their sad “veggie burger,” which provided all the necessary burger accoutrements without any extraneous meat patties. I ordered a double-double with cheese for comparison purposes, and also because I was very hungry.
Choosing the right booth in which to perform the ol’ switcheroo was crucial. A week before my operation, I planned a recon mission to scout the location. It was clear that the booth closest to the ordering line offered a semi-obstructed view from the ordering counter, and the line of people — almost always long at lunchtime — would provide an additional layer of cover. Fortunately, the booth we needed was empty. We quickly sat down and waited for my order, the excess body heat from wearing a jacket on a hot day keeping my Meat Pocket™ sufficiently warm.
They called our number — “88.” It was go time. With the tray in front of us, I unsheathed the Impossible Burger from my pocket. The baggie was opaque with steam. Nearby, an old man watched. I took the patty out of the Ziploc bag, opened the empty “veggie burger” bun, and placed it inside. The old man raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
Just as I finished assembling it, an In-N-Out employee walked over.
Is everything alright over here?, he said.
I froze, figuring we were busted, about to be unceremoniously bounced before we had the chance to try the burger, possibly banned for life and buried in expensive lawsuits.
“Everything’s great,” John replied. The employee smiled, glancing at the empty plastic baggie and the reconstructed burger in front of me. He shrugged and left to check on the next table, leaving us to eat our custom burger in peace.
The ersatz In-N-Out Impossible Burger looked nearly identical to the real double-double when placed side-by-side-by-side.
But how did it taste? Amazing. The Impossible Burger isn’t quite the same as the double-double — it was way less meaty and greasy, for one, plus it had a weird soy-chemical aftertaste. However, true to my theory, eating it inside an In-N-Out, with In-N-Out buns and toppings, it tasted like an In-N-Out burger. If I were an actual vegetarian and suddenly, desperately needed an In-N-Out meat bomb in my body, this would definitely satisfy the craving.
My friend decided to try a blind taste test to see if he could tell the difference between the real burger and the illicit one. He closed his eyes, and I handed him the burgers one-by-one. He took bites of each, and easily guessed correctly, but was still surprised at how good the veggie burger tasted.
Since my friend wasn’t hungry, I finished the burgers by myself. I do not recommend eating two double-cheeseburgers in one sitting, even if one of them is Impossible. The damage to my body was significant, and I was waylaid on the couch the rest of the day with a cheeseburger hangover. But they were both so good, it was hard to stop.
So, it is very easy to smuggle a veggie burger into In-N-Out. Be warned, however, that it is kind of a splurge. The Umami Impossible Burger cost $16, and the In-N-Out veggie burger costs $1.80, each before tax and tip. If I wasn’t getting paid to eat cheeseburgers for this article, I probably wouldn’t do it.
One other downside: after the experiment, no matter how many times I washed my hands, they smelled like cheap burger innards for days. (Yet mysteriously, the Meat Pocket™ smelled fine.) If you try this for yourself, I highly recommend wearing gloves.