Culver’s vs. In-N-Out: The Burger Challenge

It started with this comment in my post about hot dogs: “Sure, there’s In-N-Out out here in California, but, honestly, it’s not that different than Culver’s in the midwest.” Fightin’ words, apparently. Scott tried to ban me from ever getting an Animal Style burger again. James educated me about In-N-Out fries. But the question remained: were they really that different?

Later, James emailed saying: “I’m pretty sure Arizona is the only place you can get all In-N-Out (west coast), Five Guys (east coast) and Culver’s (mid west). What an amazing place.” Since we were in Phoenix for Spring Training, we decided to take advantage of Arizona’s burger bounty and settle this. It was time for the burger challenge.

First, let’s just get this straight, none of these have anything on the McGangBang, the ultimate fast-food treat. We decided on simple rules and a simple challenge: In-N-Out single cheeseburger with ‘everything’ and onion (burger, bun, lettuce, tomato, ‘spread,’ American cheese, white onion) vs. Culver’s single butterbuger with ‘the works’ and American cheese (burger, buttered bun, ketchup, mustard, pickles, red onion). If we’d been fastidious, we would have ordered them exactly alike, but that’s impossible thanks to In-N-Out’s special sauce. In hindsight, we probably should have ordered the Culver’s deluxe which has lettuce, tomato, and ‘signature’ mayo. Next time.

Culver's burger. You want to lick that cheese drip don't you?
Culver's burger. You want to lick that cheese drip don't you?
In-N-Out burger, listing to starboard.
In-N-Out burger, listing to starboard.

Honestly, this was a tough one. The wine challenge was easier. I thought they tasted basically the same. The In-N-Out burger got its crunch from the lettuce; the Culver’s burger got its crunch from the pickle. Neither tasted bad. Neither tasted that beefy. Both tasted mostly like onion. Onion was the dominant flavor of both burgers and overwhelmed the other flavors. If both restaurants were on opposite sides of the same street, I honestly would go to whatever one didn’t require a left turn. It was that close for me. I liked the butter-toasted bun and pickles at Culver’s. I liked the tomato and lettuce and wrapping at In-N-Out. Culver’s was a little faster. In-N-Out is appealing because the menu is so damn simple. Negligible differences, all of them. Neither was as good as the Larry Burger.

Lisa was able to pick a winner: Culver’s, because it tasted more beefy to her. But, she’d go Animal Style at In-N-Out over Culver’s if given the choice. I like Animal Style too, but man, this one’s too tough to call. It just opens up too many questions. Should we have tried the double-patty options for even more beefy flavor? Should we pit Animal Style against Deluxe? Should we have tasted them blind? Should we have judged the components separately, tasting the burger and buns separately? This sort of science is hard work!

Knowing it was close, we grabbed a McDonald’s cheeseburger to put everything in perspective (Phoenix apparently has every fast food option within sight of its competition). This burger was only $1, less than half what it costs to get one of the other two. The first thing we noticed was the milder onion flavor (McDonald’s dices their onions instead of using full slabs). This allowed for a little more beefy flavor. The bun also stood out — it was doughy and sticky and not nearly as good. Were the other burgers twice as good? Not really, but they were better enough to warrant the extra cost.

McDonald's: the people's favorite.
McDonald's: the people's favorite.

In the end, I’d rather have a local option like the Larry Burger. Or the Jalama Burger. Or the Hearst Burger. Sure, they’re maybe 2-3x more expensive again, but all these are an indulgence for us and aren’t something we’d eat everyday. And I like my burgers with a beer.


8 thoughts on “Culver’s vs. In-N-Out: The Burger Challenge”

  • Agreed, I’ll pay more for a better burger.  I don’t eat them often, so if I’m going to have one it’s going to be good!

      • I am so disappointed in my daughter – she never went to McDonalds, Burger King or other fast food places growing up!!!   Were we bad parents?  Sent you a pic of a real burger.

  • I think that you have to go double patty on both culvers and in n out, otherwise it’s too bready. Also, raw onions are too potent. You have to go with grilled at in n out or pick them off at culvers. At in n out I get a double double with extra grilled onions and add pickle. It’s amazing.  I think you need to do this challenge again, with a side of cheese curds :)

    • Yeah, I think the double patty is the way to go for fullest flavor. Unfortunately, they print the calorie counts on the menus in California, so it’s a bit tougher to order when staring at that. 

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