Something about In-N-Out Burger inspires fanaticism among its fans. Maybe it's the fresh, all-beef patties griddled with mustard – if you know the ins-and-outs of the secret menu and order accordingly. Maybe it's the melty gooeyness of American cheese and the sweet, tangy Thousand-Island-dressing-style "spread." Maybe it's the fact that the company pays its workers higher-than-average wages and offers vision, medical and dental benefits (almost unheard of in the fast-food industry).
Whatever it is, Vancouver doesn't have an In-N-Out, but we do now have the – allegedly – next best thing.
CaliBurger, an In-N-Out knockoff that launched four years ago in China with a similar look and menu, opened its second Canadian franchise (the first was in Waterloo, Ont.) this summer. Even some of the most mild-mannered foodies I know were champing at the bit.
I've been to In-N-Out only once (five years ago). And although I do remember that the Double Double burger and Animal-Style fries were really quite good and quickly devoured, I don't have enough experience to compare. But I can judge CaliBurger on its own merits.
Is CaliBurger a great burger joint deserving of all the hype and your hard-earned dollars?
The signature item is the Cali Double, made with two fresh (never frozen) all-beef patties, melted American cheese, fresh tomatoes, iceberg lettuce and onions (diced and grilled or sliced and raw), spread with its signature Thousand-Island-style Cali sauce on a soft, toasted white bun.
The extra-ground chuck shoulder tastes like real beef (better than McDonald's). And at 2.67 ounces a patty, it's a plentiful portion. But the patties aren't smashed enough, which would give them a more desirable caramelized browning, or even seasoned with enough salt and pepper. They're grey and bland.
Order the raw onions. I had the grilled onions, and combined with already sweet, mayonnaise-heavy Cali sauce, the melted cheese and the soft bun, it all amounts to one big, insipid, cloying condiment stew. The lettuce doesn't offer enough texture. And without ketchup, mustard or pickles (all of which you can order as extras), there is no acidity to cut through the sloppy mess.
The Chipotle BBQ Chicken Sandwich, which comes with pickles and raw onions, has better tang and crunch. But the sandwich is overwhelmed by a noxious chipotle-barbecue sauce that tastes like synthetic smoke.
The Cali Bello Mushroom Burger is the best of the bunch. A juicy portobello is encased in a crispy fried panko crust. But the mushroom is under-seasoned and the Calinese (dijonaisse-style) sauce is overly sweet.
I probably would have had a more satisfying burger experience had I known more about the secret menu (dishes not advertised but available to customers who ask, usually after learning about them from social media). At In-N-Out, everyone orders from the not-so-secret menu. But since Cali Burger is new to this market, they've put its most popular item (the Cali-Style Fries) on the regular menu.
CaliBurger's secret menu is really just a selection of customized options. You can order a low-carb burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun, have the beef patties griddled with mustard (highly recommended, since they're so bland alone), or ask for pickles (desperately needed) and extra sauce (don't bother). There is also a variety of mix-and-match drink options.
CaliBurger's willingness to make any substitution within its capability (as long as the item is in the kitchen) is its only redeeming feature. But considering that the secret menu is already loosey-goosey, the servers could do a better job of explaining this option to customers. Or why not just state it clearly on the menu?
The owner says the skinny hand-cut fries made with skin-on russet potatoes are double-cooked. But they're still sickly pale and starchy inside. Do yourself a favour and order them well done (another feature of the secret menu). Skip the Cali-Style fries smothered in melted cheese, grilled onions and clumpy Cali Sauce. Some strange alchemic reaction makes the combination taste slightly briny, almost like it has a dash of tamari.
CaliBurger is licensed. That's nice. The liquor menu includes local craft beers from Parallel 49 and the Red Truck Beer Company on tap. You can also add a shot of Jim Beam, Malibu coconut rum or Bailey's Irish Cream – or even fizzy Stumptown Nitro Cold Brew Coffee – to your milkshake. But beware of novice milkshake makers (who get only minimum wage to start, by the way). Some of them forget to reduce the milk to compensate for the liquor, and over-blend them in the Vitamix at full throttle. Mine was thin, frothy and a total waste of good hand-scooped vanilla ice cream.
SERVICE AND SETTING
CaliBurger is equipped with a lot of high-tech bells and whistles, if you're into that sort of thing. You can pre-order from a mobile app, charge your phone on tabletop hot spots, play Minecraft against your fellow diners on an interactive nine-foot video wall. But the one thing to remember is to not toss your bill. The bathroom access code is at the bottom. Maybe the cleaning staff tossed their codes, too. That would explain why the rest rooms are so dusty and grimy.
If you go to CaliBurger, order wisely and customize the menu to your tastes. But I'm not sure it's worth the hassle. There are definitely better fast-food burgers in town – Triple O's, Fat Burger, Five Guys and that funny, nameless food truck on Granville Street.