Burgerpalooza: A Bicoastal Battle Of the Burgs

Kevin Zhang
13 min readOct 7, 2016


Sorry for the late update — I’m back in school, so things have been kind of busy. I’ve had my review notes done since the beginning of September, so all that’s left to do now is format it and figure out how to put this thing together.

Ever since I decided to start writing about food — ever since I even started thinking about writing about food — I’ve always wanted to breach this topic. I grew up eating the quintessential, iconic, West-Coast burger chain In-N-Out. (If you’ve never eaten at In-N-Out, it’s something I implore you to do with the greatest urgency. If you have never heard of In-N-Out, please briefly stop reading and look it up now. Please. ) On the other hand, I go to school in the East Coast right now — I’ve sampled Shake Shack many a time after hearing the rave reviews and the hype that comes along with it. These types of comparisons have been done to death by any and every food media outlet there is, but I wanted to do it anyways.

To accurately judge each chain, I chose to order the items on each menu that are most similar to each other to get the most accurate comparison. The extra food in the pictures probably belong to whoever it was that I was eating with at the time — I have friends, you know. In that vein, Animal Style Fries have been allowed to be judged, keeping in mind that Shake Shack’s Cheese Fries are akin to it. With that in mind, I’ll do my best to be impartial while judging each burger chain. Here goes:

In-n-Out: Animal Style Double Double, Vanilla Shake, Animal Style Fries

Shake Shack: Double ShackBurger, Vanilla Shake, Cheese Fries

And just a warning: this is going to be a long one. I hope you have a burger to eat while you read this.


Animal-Style Fries, Vanilla Shake, Animal-Style Double Double and Hamburger

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a decade — I moved near Oakland when I was seven, from Guam, where I had moved to from Honolulu. In the 11 years that I spent in California — from driving around the suburbs of Fremont to exploring San Francisco, San Jose, Palo Alto, and every major city I could reasonably drive to, as well as every 6+ hour road trip to Los Angeles or Las Vegas — In-N-Out was a staple of my adolescent diet. My family ate at home a lot — my grandparents lived with me and they sternly insisted that we eat their home cooking (which was excellent) instead of going out. Early on in my teenage life, In-N-Out would be a rare treat. Every trip to a movie theater; every rushed lunch between volleyball practice and piano lessons; every friend that came over; was an opportunity to use my allowance to chow down on a two dollar burger and a milkshake. Finding out the secret menu as an eleven year old also blew my mind — Animal Style, Neopolitan Shakes, Protein-Style (which I refuse to try because I love the toasted buns so much), Grilled Cheese (why would I choose not to eat meat). In the years that followed, I learned to drive and got a car, these trips became much more frequent (once or twice a month), but no less sacred. This became an easily accessible foodstuff — whether it was something I could wolf down during 2:00 AM munchies, or a convenient pit stop down Highway 1 on my way to the San Gabriel Valley, or food to sneak into the movies. Even in college, every time I come back home, I eat it at least once every two weeks, maybe more. When I fly back to school, I always store a few in an insulated container to bring back with me. People think it’s gross, but its become tradition.

Shake Shack

Strawberry Shake, Vanilla Shake, Cheese Fries, SmokeShack, ShackBurger

Shake Shack is a different kind of animal entirely. I’ve always heard legends about it — the dubbed “fast casual”, almost upscale type of burger eatery that boasted pristine bougie-ness — that drove me to seek one out almost as soon as my plane landed. I don’t remember where I even learned about it — maybe a food magazine, or Lucky Peach, or something that I read on the internet. But damn, I was interested. Unfortunately, the whirlwind of first semester freshman year completely flattened me — my eagerness to explore the city and chow down on expensive (and bougie!) burgers was replaced by the monotony of constant midterms and the hell that was fraternity pledging. During my first Thanksgiving away from home, I stayed with a friend who lived in New Jersey, who took me to, among other places, a Shake Shack, nestled in the freeway en route to New York. My first and immediate reaction was, damn, this place is fucking bougie. And it was. All (reclaimed) wood tables, greenery, houseplants, minimalist metal chairs, beer on tap and wine bottles in the cooler, and a gigantic menu. It took me a full five minutes to decide what flavor of shake I wanted (I ended up with coffee, which was delicious). It was a complete departure from the burger chains I grew up eating, and something that I found entirely new and refreshing.


Double ShackBurger vs Animal Style Double Double

First off, the burgers. One a west coast fast food staple, the other an east coast delicacy. From bun choice to meat quality, to toppings, to mouthfeels — the distinctions set these two burgers apart.

Let’s start with Shake Shack’s Double ShackBurger, priced at $8.09. Just based on presentation, it looks fancy — the large cut of green leaf lettuce that juts out from the two potato rolls that aren’t quite separated, the thick slab of beef topped with a viscous melted cheese. Upon first bite, it’s clear that the ShackBurger is all about the beef. The Martin’s potato roll buns are excellent —chewy, soft bready pillows that are both an excellent transport and a textural delight. The green leaf lettuce tastes almost elegant — bitter, smooth, and sophisticated. The Roma tomatoes are sweet and lightly acid. The American cheese is a comforting blanket of dairy that my stomach can’t quite process, but welcomes anyways. The sauce is a mayonnaise-based secret sauce that has a little bit of everything. But all the accents fade after a few chews — the patty overpowers everything else. Not that it’s a bad thing, but the bites quickly becomes more monotonous. Added with the fact that the burger’s texture is essentially homogeneous (everything is chewy, with only minor notes of crunchiness), I feel like I’m eating a fancy mush.

On the other hand, In-N-Out’s $3.60 Double Double: two patties, two slices of cheese, crisp iceberg lettuce, pickles, a slice of tomato, and the acclaimed animal style sauce (thousand island dressing with grilled onions). I’ve eaten around over 200 of these burgers in my lifetime (trust me, I’ve calculated), and no matter where I go, what time it is, and what my state of being is, it tastes exactly the same. The buns are toasted and crunchy, fluffy white bread. The iceberg lettuce and onion both serve to give a satisfying crunchy texture that contrasts the burger, while the pickles and tomato are an acid/sweet combination that also compliments the burger. The sauce is a thousand island base, topped with sweet grilled onions. Every ingredient has a strong flavor— yet the burger is in harmony. The predominant flavor you get is onion first, which quickly changes into meat, sauce, tomato, bun. It’s fun in the way that there’s so many flavors to taste, and doesn’t get boring. I do prefer slightly sweeter pickles, so the pickles on the Double Double are a little too much for me, but the spread (read: sauce) gives it the sweetness that helps balance out the flavor profile. In terms of mouthfeel, it feels healthier — everything is crisp, or crunchy, or juicy. It’s definitely not as oily as some other burgers I’ve had.


Hear me out before you complain. Sure, Shake Shack wins in the meat department — it has a patty made from a “special blend” of beef, and is made using a special flattening technique. But a burger doesn’t win on just meat quality — Shake Shack loses this round three different ways:

The ShackBurger is missing an important element that I believe makes a burger stand out — textural contrast. The first thing that it lose out on is missing two key aspects of any good burger: the onion and pickle. “But Kevin,” you might say, “why didn’t you just ask for pickles and onions?”. Because, reader — these burgers are meant to be a certain way. ShackBurgers aren’t meant to have onions and pickles, otherwise they would’ve included them straight off the bat. The fact that you have to ask for the addition of certain toppings makes it seem extraneous. With the lack of this, the burger, however tasty, eventually becomes a mash of one texture and flavor. Like I mentioned earlier, this burger seems to highlight the meat, meaning that the condiments and toppings are muted and serve as background for the patty. When you first bite into an In-N-Out burger, you experience the hot fluffiness of the toasted bun, the crispness of the lettuce and onion, the burst of acid from the tomato and pickle, and then you taste the meat. The toppings in the Double Double are also highlights, yet they don’t take away from the meat.

The second thing that it loses out on (and some may disagree) is the price point of a burger. The Double ShackBurger is over TWICE the price of an Animal Style Double Double. This is a point that will be made consistently throughout the debate, so I won’t get into it. But the point is, for over twice the price, it’s not twice the quality.

The last thing that the ShackBurger loses out on is post-meal feels. Let’s put it out there right now, the ShackBurger is more dense than a Double Double. Which means, yes — it’s more filling. While that may seem like a win, I can attest that it’s not. At around 200 more calories than a Double Double, the ShackBurger makes me feel sluggish and bloated after eating it. In addition, the meat (however high quality)is super salty and has nothing to take away from it, leaving me with palpable meat sweats. I could probably (by which I mean I have before) down more than a single Double Double with less aftereffects. Must be the vegetables.


Cheese Fries vs Animal Style Fries

Next, fries. Let me just preface this by saying, I am ashamed to say that I love McDonald’s fries. They are fucking tasty and terrible for my body. Anyways.

We need to start with In-N-Out’s fries (priced at $3.40) for obvious reasons. Anyone who’s a real fan of the franchise can and should say that yes, we know these fries are bland. They can’t stand alone without ketchup. Did you know that they’re healthier for you? Yes? Okay. And yes, I’ll gladly sit down and eat a serving of In-N-Out fries, but let’s face it — they’re not the best. Even Animal Style has certain cons associated with it as well. On a base level, the fries are made by dicing actual potatoes right into a deep fryer. You can’t get more potato-ey than that. But because of that , the fries are soggy-ish and almost stale tasting sometimes. They also aren’t very salted at all. To offset the mushiness, I ask for twice-fried fries when I order fries, but as this debate is centered around the base order of items, I chose not to. Animal style provides a nice way to flavor the fries without sauce — cheese, spread, and onions. And yes, the first half dozen bites are delicious. But the rest of the container won’t have any spread on it, and I’ll have to eat it with a ketchup and pepper condiment I make at the condiment bar. At the end of the day, In-N-Out fries can’t stand alone without condiments or toppings.

Shake Shack’s fries (priced at $4) are obviously shipped frozen and re-fried in-house — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Crinkle-cut waffled fries that look straight out of an elementary school cafeteria, but taste pretty damn good. Again, Shake Shack tastes somehow oilier than other fries, but not bad. The cheese adds an element of saltiness and savoriness that makes you want to keep eating, but again, makes you feel oily and slightly ashamed after eating an entire container. I personally think the cheese tastes a little gummy, almost like mac-and-cheese like in texture. I’d honestly prefer normal fries at Shake Shack, but more power to them for having cheese fries, I guess. There’s nothing much to say about these fries because they’re done so simply, and well. Sure, you can taste that they’re frozen, but then again, so are most fries nowadays.


It’s honestly pretty obvious. Like the previous round, the mushy texture really kills it for me — the mushy fries, sauce, and cheese turn the In-N-Out fries into a literal pile of savory goop. Even with the Animal Style spread, the fries are bland and the spread only hits the top layer of fries. It’s a pity I can’t defend these fries, but Shake Shack’s fries are good enough to eat without ketchup (for a while, at least) and only cost a mere $.60 more.


Vanilla Shake vs Vanilla Shake

Last but not least, the shakes. I’m not huge on milkshakes for one reason — they take too long to drink usually and they don’t really cleanse my palate between bites of food. For me, it’s more of a dessert (while taste-testing both of these I had a bottle of water that I used to wash down the food). Actually, two reasons: I’m also kind of lactose intolerant, so I don’t even know why I decided to do this. For science, I guess.

Shake Shack. Shake. Shack. It’s in the name. So yes, their shakes ($5.29) are good. The ice cream quality of the Shake Shack Shake seems pretty high quality — it doesn’t taste like cheap vanilla flavoring. It’s really damn sweet, and it really coats your mouth and leaves behind a lingering aftertaste that reminds me of burnt custard or almost toffee. It’s also relatively easy to suck out of a straw — which is always a plus. I also got a strong “milk” taste to it, which makes me think overall that Shake Shack either uses slightly-melted ice cream or a bigger milk-to-ice cream ratio to make it smoother. Either, way, good shake.

In-N-Out’s milkshake ($2.20) hails back to the 1990s, where people probably wore the same uniforms as they do now, except with roller skates and rock music. And probably some mullets. Anyways, the first thing I noticed was that this shake was way thicker than Shake Shack’s — it’s hard to suck out and you have to try at it to get to it. It tastes great — a strong vanilla soft serve flavor that makes you feel like a 90’s kid. It’s super creamy, but not in a milk-heavy way. Honestly, when I think of the word “vanilla milkshake” I think of In-N-Out. It’s very basic, very solid, and I have no complaints other than the fact that it’s a little too frozen/thick to drink quickly.


Hear me out — Judging purely based on quality, Shake Shack wins any day. Judging overall — price vs quality, convenience, etc — In-N-Out wins by a landslide. Remember the “over twice the price but not over twice the quality?” thing I said earlier? Yeah, it’s here too. Both shakes are delicious. Shake Shack’s Shake is more easily drinkable and tastes more expensive (because it is), but In-N-Out’s shake feels like more of a milkshake, not an expensive dairy treat. If I’m paying money to fight my bowels via lactose intolerance, then I’d prefer to pay less to do so also.


In terms of a “better burger chain” it is extremely clear that Shake Shack has higher quality ingredients, and higher quality food. That much is reflected in it’s higher price points. The ShackBurger is undoubtedly a juicy, delicious burger that emphasizes it’s quality beef patty. The fries are crunchy and delectable. The Shake tastes fancy, or as fancy as ice cream and milk can taste. So yes, on that aspect, Shake Shack is better. There’s no question about which one is decidedly more “gourmet” than the other. Yes, I said it: Shake Shack is better than In-N-Out.









But I wouldn’t choose Shake Shack over In-N-Out for the fucking life of me. Yeah, sure, Shake Shack is better — if you want to spend about $18 dollars on a burger/fry/shake set, whereas you could get an equally as satisfying meal at In-N-Out for $9.20. But it’s not even about that — it’s not about how I can pay half the price and eat something almost quite as good as Shake Shack. It’s about how often I can do that, and as a result what it becomes. The ease and accessibility of it make it more than just a cheap foodstuff, and instead a memory. It’s not about what In-N-Out is, but what it represents — a middle-schooler fishing out a crumpled five-dollar bill and getting two hamburgers to eat while waiting for his parents to pick him up from the movie theater. A first date. Munchies. Drunchies. Ditching school in high school to grab food off campus. An emergency meal for someone who’s late for their flight. To me, In-N-Out doesn’t taste like onions, or tomatoes, or thousand island sauce, or meat, or cheese, or buns. In-N-Out tastes like home.

Sorry for the length — this is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while.I hope you guys enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Stay hungry.



Kevin Zhang

Some people write about politics, or sports coverage, or science journals. I write about the food I put in my fat mouth.