I’m from Indiana. I grew up going on dates to Steak and Shake in high school, and only hearing about the mystical In-N-Out Burger from afar. It was a fantasy world — where the burgers were made fresh and the fries were served animal-style. And Shake Shack? That wasn’t even on my radar until my favorite food blogger posted a recipe for a “Fake Shack” burger knockoff last year.
And then I moved to Las Vegas. And that’s when my education on cheeseburgers officially began.*
Here’s the thing: this topic is bound to be very divisive, because both In-N-Out and Shake Shack have robust cult followings. As far as I can tell, it’s a very East Coast versus West Coast thing — In-N-Out was founded in Baldwin Park, Calif. and they still haven’t expanded beyond Texas (intentionally so), while Shake Shack, the baby of the two — with a fifth of the history and a third of the locations — launched in New York City.
The restaurants are slightly different, too. Shake Shack is fast-casual, with buzzers, pretty interior decor, and a more expansive menu, while In-N-Out, with its notoriously stripped-down menu, makes no excuses about its status as a fast food restaurant. One has a celebrity chef founder, the other sells kitschy T-shirts.
But take a look at each restaurant’s core offerings: burgers, fries, shakes. What really made their fanbases is the fact that they do each of those three items incredibly well. Begging the question: Who does it best?
Of course I had to test it out and see. For the purposes of this article, I chose to isolate and compare just the cheeseburgers from Shake Shack and In-N-Out. Both restaurants offer sandwiches with incredibly similar blueprints: In-N-Out’s is composed of a toasted bun made of “old-fashioned, slow-rising sponge dough,” a slice of American cheese, a beef patty, lettuce, tomato, optional onion, and the restaurant’s special spread. Shake Shack’s is a beef patty topped with lettuce, tomato, ShackSauce, and cheese — no word on what type — and sandwiched between two potato buns.
Even though I’m in Las Vegas, I still had to drive quite a bit to get my burgers. In-N-Out has at least nine locations throughout the city, but Shake Shack has just two: one down on the Strip, where I was definitely not going to go, and one a half hour’s drive away from my place, all the way out in Summerlin.
Because I was devoted to giving both burgers a fair comparison, I took my orders to go, stopping first at Shake Shack (and scoring an incredible parking spot, I might add) before moving on to In-N-Out and spending 10 minutes waiting in the drive-through line. By the time I finally made it home, the burgers were cold and I was starving.
Key point: both burgers were cold. Which meant that I could successfully compare them side by side. If I could control my urge to scarf them down on the spot.
Even before I dug into my much-deserved lunch, though, I noticed a couple obvious differences between the two burgers. First, the price: In-N-Out’s cheeseburger, $2.70 with tax, cost less than half that of Shake Shack’s, which came in at $5.72. (Apparently you pay for that fancy Shake Shack ambiance.) Second, the weight: heft-wise, Shake Shack’s burger weighed in a full two ounces less than In-N-Out’s.
Less burger for more price? Shake Shack wasn’t starting the contest off on the right foot.
When I cut the burgers open, something immediately became clear: weight calculation alone didn’t tell the whole truth. Shake Shack’s patty was definitely thicker than In-N-Out’s, which was almost lost between the fixins. Also: the center of the Shake Shack patty was a lovely pink, as opposed to In-N-Out’s cooked-through brown. I wondered briefly if this would make a difference in the flavor rating before putting it out of my mind and wolfing down the first halves of each burger in roughly 30 seconds.
I’m pregnant, okay? Baby needed beef.
In spite of my haste, I was still able to make a few initial observations about the burgers. The first thing I noticed about the In-N-Out cheeseburger was the overpowering flavor of the toppings — most notably, the onion I’d added on to the order. The great thing about In-N-Out is that they’re totally open to customization. I’d added the onion because the drive-through worker had asked if I wanted it; if I’d really wanted, I could have gotten it grilled. Shake Shack does offer onion (and other add-ons), but they didn’t ask me about it when I ordered the burger.
Compared to Shake Shack’s cheeseburger, though, there was a real difference. The lack of toppings on the Shake Shack burger — you might also notice that the lettuce is green leaf and not a stack of iceberg — actually allowed for a savory, beefy, grilled flavor to come through.
For fairness’ sake, I took off the onion before eating the second half of the In-N-Out cheeseburger (after, of course a necessary post-burger coma nap and a couple hours to allow my stomach to empty again). Still, though, the flavor of the patty was lost between the tomato and lettuce.
Additionally, In-N-Out’s patty was much drier than Shake Shack’s — which backs up my theory about the pinkness inside the Shake Shack burger cross-section.
The buns, too, lent a slight difference between eating experiences. In-N-Out’s sponge dough bun of repute just tasted like a normal hamburger bun from the grocery store. Shake Shack’s potato bun, by contrast, wasn’t necessarily of a higher quality, but it was slightly sweeter, which lent a nice contrast to the salty, savory flavors of cheese and beef from the patty.
As for each restaurant’s special sauce, I couldn’t really taste either. I’m sure both were there, adding a bit of lubrication and flavor to the experience, but neither really stood out to me. I definitely wouldn’t do without them, but I think their influence was subtle at most.
So which burger came out ahead? Shake Shack’s, by a flavor landslide. Sure, the higher cost is a downside, but it’s worth paying for a burger that’s more moist, flavorful, and downright beefy. I now feel like I have to apologize to half of Uproxx’s readership. Look — you guys can keep your In-N-Out. But me, I’m heading to Shake Shack next time I get a hankering for a good burger. Even if that means driving all the way out to Summerlin. It’s definitely worth traveling for.
*Actually, I need to clarify something here: my education on cheeseburgers began a few years earlier than my move to Las Vegas, when was bopping between Mississippi, Alabama, and New Mexico. Whataburger I feel meh about, but I will always hold a special place in my heart for Blake’s Lotaburger’s green chile cheeseburger.