Takeout contributor Danny Palumbo recently wrote about how the fries at beloved West coast burger chain In-N-Out are very bad. Those are his words, not mine. These are now my words, not his: The fries at In-N-Out are bad. I still eat them, though, usually animal-style (mostly out of novelty, and yes, I know, I know, the fries get weird when the cheese starts cooling off, but I’m well aware of what I’m getting into).
I get the obsession with In-N-Out. The burgers are awesome, and I love my Double-Doubles, animal-style. If I’m in an area that has an In-N-Out, I’ll do my best to drop by. It’s a solid place. But there are great burger places a lot closer to home, too, and I started to wonder: does the Midwest have a spiritual analogue to In-N-Out, something we can only get here, and which is special to us in the same way as Californians embrace In-N-Out? After doing some soul-searching I came to a conclusion. The answer is yes: We’ve got Culver’s.
Now, people often feel the need to compare In-N-Out with Shake Shack. This seems like an unnecessary, played-out, coastal ego war. Shake Shack is great too, but it’s brutally expensive. At the location nearest to me, a double Shackburger, fries, and shake, plus tax, costs around $20. Bye!
By the numbers, Culver’s has the bigger spread, by a long shot. In-N-Out currently has 358 locations in 7 states. Culver’s website indicates 796 locations (as of April 2021) in 25 states, which is over twice as many. The two states with the most Culver’s locations by far are Wisconsin (where it was founded) with 142 outlets and Illinois with 122. There are four lucky states that get to enjoy both In-N-Out and Culver’s: Utah, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado, for those who want to do a side-by-side comparison.
In-N-Out, I’m sure, would slay in the Midwest too. But the chain won’t expand this far east, because it doesn’t want any of its restaurants to be more than 300 miles away from its patty-making facilities, which... is fair. Gotta love that stubborn commitment to quality.
But enough about that. Let’s talk about the food.
If a fast food place focuses primarily on one big thing, as In-N-Out does, it’s got to be good. And its burgers are great. The meat is cooked to order, the toppings are always fresh, and I’ve never had a bad one from any location. As we know, the fries aren’t good and you can’t change my mind about that (this isn’t even a hot take), and the milkshake is, well, a milkshake. The chain’s reputation as a good employer also goes a very long way in my book and is not something to be overlooked.
Culver’s, on the other hand, has a giant menu. Even if we just make a burgers-to-burgers comparison, Culver’s blows In-N-Out out of the water, in my opinion. Just look at the color on that beef. The restaurant uses a classic smash technique that gets as much surface area of the griddle touching that patty as possible so you get a beautiful sear, and with that sear you get beefy flavor. I’ve never seen that color on an In-N-Out burger. My personal favorite is the one most similar to the Double-Double, which is the Culver’s Deluxe (double). It has lettuce, tomato, raw red onions, mayo, and American cheese. No special sauce needed. If you prefer, you can asked for grilled onions instead.
Here’s the other thing: The top bun of a Culver’s burger is buttered, which is a nod to Wisconsin, where the restaurant was founded and is still headquartered. My fiancée is from Plymouth, Wisconsin, and when you order anywhere near there, the buns come slathered in butter by default. Honestly? That’s awesome.
Any menu with a wide variety of items could indicate some pitfalls, but besides burgers, everything else I’ve had at Culver’s has been very good. The cod sandwich ranked very high in our fast food fried fish sandwich power ranking, and I can personally attest that it deserves the hype. Surprisingly, though, the fried shrimp is also fantastic. And the menu represents a wide swath of Midwestern food: there’s a fried pork tenderloin sandwich, pot roast (!!!), a reuben, soups and chili (good for our shitty winters), and even a spicy chicken sandwich (which I’ll admit is only okay).
And the sides? Oh, man. As if this place isn’t already whupping In-N-Out’s ass, there’s onion rings, coleslaw, pretzel bites (we’re new converts to them in our household), and fried cheese curds. Heh, fuck it, next time I’ll just put those on top of my burger. Now, the fries, which are crinkle-cut, are not always stellar: when they’re crisp, they’re delicious, but if you get a limp batch, they aren’t super good. This still puts them miles ahead of In-N-Out’s fries. And you know what rescues mediocre fries? Cheddar cheese sauce, which Culver’s has in droves. This isn’t some watery cheese, either (you can’t see, but I’m mean-mugging you, Wendy’s); it’s a thick, sharp, flavorful sauce that’s a must-have on the side. If you want an ultra-boss move, try dipping the cheese curds in the cheese sauce. Picture me taking a bow.
When it comes to a battle between ice cream and frozen custard, custard beats the shit out of ice cream. In-N-Out only serves shakes. Culver’s frozen custard selection is so wide that it could be a standalone parlor.
It’s a little difficult for me to have both frozen custard and a burger in the same sitting (so rich!), but if I’m in the mood for frozen custard, I’ll make a trip just for that. Unlike ice cream, frozen custard contains egg yolks, and isn’t churned to beat as much air in it, so it’s silky, dense, and oh-so-good. There are shakes, sundaes, malts, concrete mixers, and everything is customizable with 33 toppings and mix-ins available (yes, I counted). My favorite option is usually the flavor of the day, which lets me try a combination I probably wouldn’t have picked on my own. For example, today’s flavor of the day at mine is a dulce de leche cheesecake. There’s no way I’d say no to that, are you kidding?
As much as I enjoy and respect you, In-N-Out, in the end, you can’t hold a candle to what we’ve got in the Heartland. And when it comes to food, I’m not generally a button pusher; I don’t like being divisive. I’m just here to tell you the truth, and it’s that Culver’s is way, way, better than In-N-Out.