CaliBurger, the completely shameless In-N-Out knockoff that first opened in China and got sued for intellectual property infringement, is finally open in Pasadena. This is great news all around. Storylines don’t get any better than this in the food world and now the most epic, heated, and downright wacky burger battle in history can finally go down. It’s Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, Warriors vs. Cavs, UCLA vs. USC all smashed into a bun and slathered in Thousand Island. Let’s do this thing.
CaliBurger’s Cali Double
Meat: Flaccid, unseasoned, gray-ish discs of beef whose overwhelming squishiness is more redolent of your high school cafeteria than In-N-Out. There’s no hard sear, or crust, or single grain of salt on the patty, and if you eat a bite of the meat by itself—just out of morbid curiosity—you might start to think that no one here seems to care about how your food tastes. It will make you sad inside.
Toppings: Crisp iceberg, fresh tomato, and caramelized diced onions that are a dead ringer for In-N-Out. Yeah! They got this part right. The sauce misses the mark though. The pickle-bit frequency (PBF) is way too low in CaliBurger’s pink shmear to do a proper In-N-Out spread impersonation, and it leans on the sweeter side.
Bun: Nahhh. Just nahhhhh. It’s a similarly generic white bun to In-N-Out’s, except at CaliBurger it comes less toasted, which allows all the gray beef juice and iceberg sweat to coagulate at the butt-end of the burger. However, if you like a bun that you can wring out like a sponge as a fun and interactive finish to your meal, this may be the burger for you.
In-N-Out’s Double Double
Meat: Each CaliBurger patty weighs 25 percent more than each In-N-Out patty, but In-N-Out’s meat is at least 300% more flavorful, so treat that math however you want. The beef is salty, delicious, and caramelized, and those are tenets that In-N-Out never seems to neglect.
Toppings: Look at that slice of tomato! It’s the exact same size as the bun. That is incredible. You get a little bit with every bite of burger, and that’s magnificent. There’s a bit less iceberg lettuce on In-N-Out’s burger than the one at CaliBurger, but, otherwise, it’s pretty similar. That In-N-Out spread though—it’s the mass-market Thousand Island to which all other mass-market Thousand Islands should be measured.
Bun: Oooooh, it’s just so toasty, and it’s so good. The spread and the requisite tomato leakage gets completely trapped in the toast nooks on the bottom bun, and the beef juice and cheese gets trapped in the toast crannies on the top bun. This is a perfect system that allows for maximum conservation of flavor.
Winner: In-N-Out. And it’s not even close to being close.
CaliBurger’s Cali Style Fries
These fries are hilarious, for so many reasons. In 2012, CaliBurger got sued for trying to use the uniquely In-N-Out term “Animal Style,” and then changed the name to “Wild Style,” and then, finally, settled on “Cali Style,” except the term “Wild Style” still exists on its United Kingdom online menu, so who knows what the hell’s going on. Anyways, the thin-cut, double-fried potatoes are topped with the nonsensical-but-beloved combo of American cheese, caramelized onions, and Thousand Island. CaliBurger apparently uses higher starch (read: better for frying) Russet potatoes compared to In-N-Out’s Kennebec. But, against all scientific odds, the Cali Style fries still seemed soggier and darker. The good news—In-N-Out’s single texture, undersalted starch sticks aren’t exactly aspirational.
In-N-Out’s Animal-Style Fries
The fries at In-N-Out have long been ridiculed, and for good reason. The potatoes are always cut fresh and fried in store, which is a noble concept, but it makes for a worse finished product. Some truthers insist that they’re better ordered “well-done” but that just turns them into crispity-crunchity potato sticks without the silken fleshy inside that you want from a good French fry. There’s no winning here. The caramelized onions and cheese are the same at both In-N-Out and Caliburger, but In-N-Out’s spread is far superior to CaliBurger’s Cali sauce. Even then, the differences between the fries are negligible.
Winner: Draw. But, like, both aren’t great.
CaliBurger’s Vanilla Shake
Ice cream gets blended with milk right in front of your eyes. This is a good thing, and, unlike In-N-Out’s potato-to-fryer delivery system, it makes for a good product. It’s thick, but not so thick that you can’t drink it through a straw, and it makes a better condiment for their fries that their Cali sauce. Also, you can add a shot of Evan Williams bourbon in it for a few bucks more… but why would you?
In-N-Out’s Vanilla Shake
In-N-Out deserves to catch wayyyyy more flack for how bad their milkshakes are. They’re made from real ice cream—or so sayeth their relatively secretive ingredients list—and they come out of a giant churning machine. Something bad happens inside that machine. I’m not sure if there’s a whipped cream effect happening, and air gets folded into the ice cream during the churning process, but the shakes are bizarrely thick and warm. In-N-Out makes the thickest, warmest milkshake in all of milkshake history, and it’s a travesty.
Winner: CaliBurger trying to pull that come-from-behind victory
When talking about In-N-Out, you have to try and quantify the unquantifiable. There’s a reason they’ve become such a culturally dominant force in the quick-serve world, and it doesn’t only have to do with the taste of their food. You walk into any In-N-Out location, and you immediately know what to expect. It’s brightly lit, the restaurant is crowded, the employees are smiling and excited to take your order, the cooks in the back are communicative, and it’s a generally pleasant environment. And it’s fifty-plus years of building a positive corporate culture that has created such incredible consistency.
That’s not the case with CaliBurger—or at least that wasn’t the case with my visit. The employees seemed relatively apathetic, it was a dark space with dark furniture, and the room just had zero energy. Everyone in there just seemed sad, including me. Even though CaliBurger’s food was markedly worse than In-N-Out, the greater offense is that they seem to completely misunderstand why In-N-Out is so beloved in the first place.
Winner: You already know.
P.S. On Yelp, business owner Roy N. says CaliBurger is “not trying to be like any other burger restaurant,” so I could be completely off-base on this whole In-N-Out comparison thing. My bad, Roy.