The ritual will be repeated, time and again, countless times by countless numbers of California-bound travelers. They will leave the airport, whether in Los Angeles, or Oakland, or any of the others in between, they will have been on an airplane for far too long, coming from somewhere far away, and they are hungry. All they can think of now, besides how pleased they are to be here, where the weather is most likely better, or at least more temperate, where the air just smells that good, how does California manage it, all they want is that first In-N-Out burger.
The hour may be late, the streets quiet, but the Golden State’s most iconic fast food restaurant will have left the lights on, typically well into the darkest hours, welcoming all comers with characteristic cheerfulness, taking into account their many and varied customization requests, ready to make them feel good, all for the cost of just a few dollars.
Reasonable people might shy away from the barely-contained chaos that defines late night at a popular fast food restaurant, but there aren’t too many chaotic scenes quite as entertaining, and often downright wholesome as the ones you will typically encounter at an In-N-Out Burger in California, from El Centro along the Mexican border, all the way up to Redding. Brace yourself, and dive in. Walk through those doors, place your order, then take a seat on the bench facing the counter. Breathe deeply, meditatively. Feel the army of boisterous strangers just beyond your elbows and toes slipping further away in your mind, marvel at the squad of fresh-faced youths in the kitchen, working at lightning speed, nearly always in admirable sync, as if their only purpose in life were to feed the masses with a smile, the masses who have suddenly figured out, for whatever reason, that they are starving, even at the stroke of midnight on a Tuesday.
The waits can be excruciating to outsiders, but everybody in California knows, or very nearly everybody, that at In-N-Out, anticipation is part of the experience. Finally, your number is called, and there it comes, that classic, familiar burger, wrapped tightly in its paper nest, with half a head of iceberg lettuce somehow crammed in there, along with the tomato, your choice of raw or grilled onions, or both if you’re clever, perfectly-melty American cheese, the burger of course, typically perfectly cooked, two of them ideally, plus plenty of the house spread. It’s the same, every time, this is the taste of home for millions, the taste of welcome back for millions more. Welcome back, to the good life. There are other burgers, there are certainly better fries, but this is just about as close as a fast food restaurant could ever come to being the happiest place on earth.
In-N-Out is far from the only fast food chain linked tightly with its home territory—all over the United States, scores of lower-profile, but equally worthy gems, some generously shared with other parts of the country, others tightly-held by their respective microregions, add up to one of the most iconic, sometimes under-appreciated dining sub-cultures in the world. Fast, easy, typically quite affordable, but nearly always imbued with a deep sense of place, these restaurants often end up pulling double duty as ambassadors for their place of origin—they can be a great introduction to an unfamiliar place, the perfect place to tune in to the local vibe. Let’s go see America, shall we?
Tucson likes to talk about its pioneering status as the first North American city to be designated a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, in celebration of its rich, multicultural culinary heritage, starting with some of the world’s best flour tortillas, and while it is highly unlikely the decision-making process at the United Nations-appointed agency was swayed by a sip of a frosty-cold lemon eegee (frozen lemonade, essentially), or a bite of a delicious grinder stuffed with salami and provolone and pepperoncini, Tucsonans who have been wonderfully faithful to this relatively obscure regional treasure, hard at it since the 1970s. (Eegee’s)