By: Ben Seeder
In Los Angeles, there are three main local hamburger chains that dominate the marketplace. In-N-Out, Fatburger and Astro Burger. In-N-Out is by far the most lauded, sought after by tourists and troglodytes, known the world over. Fatburger, whose praises have been sung by none other than Ice Cube, and lastly the lesser known dark horse that is Astro Burger. After five years of living in LA, I like to think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the situation. Here is everything you need to know for lunch, dinner, or when it’s late and you’ve just gotten out of the bars.
As stated, In-N-Out is easily the most famous. Its moderate number of locations and celebrity endorsements lend to the air of exclusivity surrounding it. When your friends visit from God knows where, this will for sure be one of the places they’ll want to go. But be careful. The location most attended is the restaurant off the corner of Sunset and Highland. This area is one of the worst places you could ever go, the LA equivalent of Times Square or Wrigleyville after a Cubs double header, only way more banged up. There are other locations out in the valley, but if you live there you don’t count.
SIDENOTE: If you by chance happen to be in charge of a family and are thinking of using your vacation money to bring the family to Hollywood, please don’t. You’ll be much, much happier using the money to take them to San Francisco, Napa, San Diego, etc. The streets of Hollywood, most notably the walk of fame and Hollywood Blvd. in particular are almost exclusively populated by bong shops, dildo shops, street kids, crazy people, homeless people, weed stores, stores where you can buy miniature plastic Oscars, wank theaters, transvestites, and unbearable D-bags of every size shape and color. It is not nice. It is not glamorous. It is not impressive. It is not pleasant. It is a collection of people who have had too much sun and too many drugs. They desperately want to be famous but don’t know how. You will hate it, your kids will be appalled, and I will love watching it happen. That is a promise. But if you want to witness a seven year old girl forced to sing boombox karaoke on the streets at midnight on a Monday because her Ukrainian parents believe it will make her famous, then absolutely take your family on vacation to Hollywood.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, in the middle of everything I just described is the central In-N-Out burger of Los Angeles and it is a horrible, godless place. One summer when I was going to be a sophomore in high school, the Chicago Bulls won the NBA championship. I went to a rally in Chicago’s Grant Park along with a hundred thousand other Bulls fans to celebrate with the team. I ended up being probably two miles from the stage with an overcrowded melting pot of all ages and ethnicities, everyone on top of each other. The intoxicated mixed openly with the children and elderly, all of us crammed together in the broiling humidity under the punishing summer sun. It was terrible and no one there felt like they were part of anything, let alone a world championship. This is what the atmosphere at the In-N-Out on Sunset is like. Everyone jam-packed into not a very big space because these burgers are the Chicago Bulls and we are in love with them.
The In-N-Out parking lot is one of the worst you will ever experience in your life. Size, width of spaces, people accidentally driving at each other and then needing to turn around but they can’t because too many people are behind them, the whole nine. It is absolutely on par with the cruel joke that is Trader Joe’s parking lots, perhaps the last Nazi experiment. Armed police smile politely and watch over the activities of the lot which means there must have been some pretty horrible shit that went down there one time. Or maybe it’s the company’s subtle nod of suggesting “Look, we know where we are and we know what this is, everyone just be cool. There’s hamburgers inside.”
Once you have narrowly avoided four car accidents and entered the restaurant, you will find Armenians screaming at each, club kids, white nerds from the valley, tourists with Hollywood sign fanny packs making comments like “Susan, they’ve got strawberry shakes!”, Hispanic metalhead skaters, and you. However, what remains most astounding about In-N-Out Burger is that you will almost never catch any member of their staff in anything less than a fantastic mood. For real. It’s amazing. I don’t know how this happens, but I’m beginning to think they might all be Scientologists.
One upside is that In-N-Out offers by far the cheapest prices of all three chains mentioned, pricing the holy trinity of burger, fries and drink at less than seven dollars. In-N-Out’s secret weapon is its spectacularly fresh ingredients. I mean, you know... by fast food standards. They are delicious. The fries blow, the actual hamburger patties are thin, but the ingredients bring it every single time. If you want to feel like a boss, request your burger “animal style,” which means they grill the onions and put some strange secret sauce on it. It’s probably made of dogs, but you could do way worse than In-N-Out Burger. Also, its consistency rate is one hundred percent, not unlike Chiptole. When you’re in the mood for it, it never doesn’t hit the spot. If you show up between 10:30 and midnight, you will avoid seventy percent of the horror I’ve just described, but the people who are there will be three times as fucked up as the daytime crowd.
My favorite experiences with In-N-Out are honestly when I’m driving and not thinking about anything and maybe it’s the weekend and In-N-Out just happens out of nowhere and I think “Oh, nice” and the lot is half empty. No stress. No fuss. The sun is down. Low key. In-N-Out is essentially the ideal place for people who don’t usually eat hamburgers, but if your friends are in town, you may as well go.
By far the most locations of the main three. Drive in any direction and you’ll eventually hit one. Where In-N-Out are little molly coddles in terms of the size of their patties, Fatburger is out of fucking control. This place grills everything right in front of you, the actual turnaround time is way longer than In-N-Out, but you burn lots of time in In-N-Outs often unacceptably long lines, so it can eventually even itself out. Plus, everyone’s not all on top of each other.
At Fatburger, you’re offered a selection of different sized hamburgers, but here’s the thing, you’re already at Fatburger so you may as well play to win. I’m willing to guess you didn’t show up at Fatburger to eat conservatively and pack on only a polite one thousand calories.
While the ingredients are average at best, you get your money’s worth at Fatburger with the sheer size and awesomeness of the burger you are eating. There is no question you are eating something that has been killed, you won by being higher up in the food chain than it was so now it’s time to celebrate. The fries are thick wedges, cleverly titled “Fat Fries.” They offer smaller sized fries, but again, you’re at Fatburger. Who are you trying to impress? You’re probably wearing sweatpants.
Fatburger is not a joke. It does not take prisoners. This will involve sweating and is pretty much the prelude to a stress nap in which you will have terrible, sodium-induced nightmares. This is what’s wrong with America but when you choose to answer the call then it’s on like nobodys business.
As you can guess, there are a few downsides, and one of them is that Fatburger is so unhealthy for you that you may temporarily lose your eyesight. After you’ve eaten it, out of all the chains discussed Fatburger will by far excel in making you say things like “Oh no... What have I done? I can’t feel my face or hands!” or “I haven’t had an erection in weeks, do you think it was that hamburger, Joan?” or “Why is my ass bleeding?”
Because the actual burgers are so massive, the grease usually ends up seeping through the bottom of the bun, pleasing nobody. Another downside is that the trinity at Fatburger will cost you in the neighborhood of fourteen dollars making it the most expensive of your three options. The price, loss of will to live, and subsequent bouts of vertigo can lead you to ask yourself, “For the price, why didn’t I just get Thai food?”
While this doesn’t occur at all of them, I’ve noticed a strange ritual some of the locations seem to partake in, which is if you order, say, the Fatburger, the employee at the register yells “Fatburger!” and then all of the cooks by the grill will compliantly repeat in unison “Fatburger!” If you then order the Fat fries the dude will yell, “Fat fries!” and the cooks will yell that too, though none of them look at you. It is childish and degrading and it is a totally joyless routine that will thoroughly convince you you’re hated which you probably don’t need more of if you’ve found already found yourself at Fatburger.
On top of everything else, Fatburger has doubled down on the 50’s sock hop old-timey-jukebox hamburger stand of the past vibe. This lends itself to the bizarre when you are the only one in Fatburger who speaks English while being crooned by Carl Perkins and looking at posters of the King. It is also worth mentioning that for whatever reason Fatburger has the flat out strangest clientele by far. I don’t know why.
In the end, Fatburger offers a haven for the recently broken-up-with, the freshly unemployed, the clinically depressed, and the down and out. For that we must give it credit. It’s probably best to have Fatburger twice a year tops unless you’ve already given up and then hey, we’re all just trying to do our best, you know? If it’s good enough for Ice Cube it’s gotta be good enough for us. Fatburger should not be eaten by pregnant people.
Now we’re talking. The red headed stepchild of the three, Astro Burger rests quietly in only a few parts of the city, having the lowest number of locations by far. Astro Burger is like the youngest sibling of a family where the two older siblings are mega-ambitious over achievers. Meanwhile, the youngest sibling Astro Burger decides it’s not interested in trying to compete and instead chooses to do its own thing, making it the most fun to hang out with, because who likes to compete anyway?
A touch less expensive than Fatburger but more expensive than In-N-Out, Astro Burger clocks in at about twelve dollars for the trinity. The biggest downside to Astro Burger is it’s cash only, though there are always ATM machines right next to the cash register which may or may not be working. Still, for the cash strapped and debit card enthusiast, an unneeded trip to the ATM can be a deal breaker.
The good news is that Astro Burger is fucking delicious, and acts as a perfect marriage between the Fatburger hamburger patty and In-N-Out ingredient. The burgers themselves are thick and full flavored without being monstrous or grotesque, the ingredients not spectacular but stellar and far better than that of lowly Fatburger. The fries are textbook diner fries, full figured but not a meal unto themselves, complementing the burger exquisitely.
Astro Burger also grills your food in front of you, and offers the chillest vibe and lowest douchebag percentage. They are fantastic hamburgers and are my favorite chain in Los Angeles. Plenty of seating, plenty of sun, liberally placed tubes of ketchup, plus many offer relaxed outdoor patios. Though the patios are placed directly next to major streets like Santa Monica or Melrose, they usually succeed at providing a pleasant or at least non-traumatic dining experience, and that can go a long way in LA.
Astro Burger offers a moderate level of “Hold on what have I just done to myself? Can I even have kids anymore?” bodily feelings after consumption. Or maybe it only feels moderate when compared to Fatburger, in which case the feeling after drinking seven warm PBRs also feels moderate by comparison. Astro Burger does not disappoint and triumphs as the perfect late night burger for when you’re totally housed.
So there you have it. You definitely can’t go wrong with any of these three choices, but check in with yourself beforehand and choose wisely. Hopefully my advice will help you properly decide the best decision for you if you ever find yourself in this the city of angels.