Hardcore In-N-Out fans may not be happy with the existence of CaliBurger, which opened in China in 2012 and borrows heavily from their muse, who sued the company and later settled. It’s an understandable grievance. If someone imitated Dick’s and opened a Richard’s in China, Seattleites might not take it well. But CaliBurger is here now, and we have to deal with that.
The chain opened its first U.S. location at 4509 University Way N.E. last week, and though similarities to In-N-Out abound, there are striking differences. Besides the boozy milkshakes, which I’ll discuss later, CaliBurger is rife with somewhat new technology. If there’s a line, you can use the automated ordering station at the door; if that has a line, you can order on your phone.
Your phone’s dead, you say? Then charge it at the wireless charging beacons on each table. While you’re waiting, you can play Minecraft with other networked customers on a giant screen. It’s like Minority Report with burgers.
“When I was a kid and went to McDonald’s, there was a physical playground,” says founder John Miller. “Today’s kids needed a virtual playground.” Well, that’s debatable . . .
Putting aside all the hoopla about technology and copyright infringement, the menu and taste pretty much resemble In-N-Out’s. One may order a hamburger ($3.99), which includes an all-beef patty, lettuce, tomatoes, and “Cali Style” sauce, or a Cali Double ($4.99). You’ll notice that many items have the prefix “Cali” in front of them, except the Chipotle BBQ Chicken Sandwich with Bacon ($6.99). That stands all by itself. The word “chipotle” has that kind of power. (What you won’t find is yet another Seattle burger joint jumping on the brioche-bun trend. Just a normal bun here.)
The burger can be ordered with regular fries ($1.99) or “Cali Style” fries ($3.75), containing cheese, grilled sweet onions, and Cali sauce (that mayo/ketchup concoction that tastes like Thousand Island dressing) atop it all. As a side note—and I may lose the state of California on this—but in the pantheon of fries with shit on them, including poutine, plain cheese fries, and carne asada fries, California fries are at the bottom (not that there’s any shame in that).
What’s remarkable is the plethora of beverages to wash them down with. Along with Rachel’s Ginger Beer, Stumptown drinks, and over a hundred types of soda from a magic machine, CaliBurger offers milkshakes, featuring go-to standbys like chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. They even give you the option of having your shake spiked with Evan Williams bourbon, and recommend spiking the vanilla shake.
Of course, if you want to be weird and booze up your strawberry shake with bourbon, feel free. Keep in mind that you’ll need at least four or five milkshakes to get a buzz. You’ll also need the code to the bathroom, which is 57014. They’ve probably changed that by now, though.
Since we live in an age of incessant remakes, one must ask the preposterous underlying question: Will CaliBurger marginalize the original In-N-Out? The burgers are a little thicker, the shakes boozier, the technology certainly newer. Still, the comparison is unfair.
It’s like when people say that Lebron James could beat Michael Jordan at one-on-one in his prime (just go with this). That may or may not be true; nevertheless, you have to remember that James was able to learn from Jordan’s career, to benefit from all his innovations. So CaliBurger has an unearned advantage, if that ridiculous analogy makes sense.
“Seattleites are very picky,” says local franchise partner Reyaz Kassamali, “so if we can make it here, we could make it anywhere, and I know that’s a line from a song about another city.”
It will be interesting to see how the upcoming burger wars are going to play out, as further CaliBurgers are planned for Los Angeles, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., among others. Perhaps In-N-Out could fight back by opening in Seattle already, because I’m not driving seven hours to the nearest location in Oregon. Not anymore, that is.