In a discussion about fast food, the In-N-Out Burger chain in California came up. I hear Californians sing its praises all the time. But I also hear people say that Californians only like it because it’s the home team, so to speak. I’ve never eaten there, so I don’t know how good their food is. But the whole discussion reminded me of something I have sort of noticed as I’ve moved around from place to place. Local establishments sometimes get a real pass on quality. I really noticed this when we moved to Estacado. There are a few places in Santomas that everybody says we must eat there. When I do, I find that it’s… pretty typical. Clancy and I were constantly disappointed with the food selection in Cascadia when we lived there and no place disappointed us more than the ones that were billed as local institutions. None of them were really bad (okay, one was), but there was really nothing remarkable about them. Sometimes it’s just the same food with a $2 markup.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. The first is a matter of acquired taste, which requires no real explanation. Second, the positive associations with the place that are not culinary in nature become transferred to the food. You go somewhere that is convenient, you have a good time, you think of the place positively, and you forget that the food is no better there than at the local IHOP. The last possibility that comes to mind is simply hometown pride. You like the food because it’s local.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these. I’m sure if I look back at some of the places that I thought of as institutionally great, it has more to do with the associations and disassociations. I associate it with a good time. I disassociate it with the formulaic makings of chains. And of course it gets some advantage of being different but also some of the advantage of being familiar. I have really grown to appreciate this as I have moved around. I spent my last several weeks in Cascadia eating at various non-chains specifically because they were non-chains (we’re going to put regional chains under the same category as “non-chains” for the purposes of this post). Was there food any better than a national chain I could have been eating at instead? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But they were definitely places that I knew I would not be able to eat at anymore once I got to Callie. Places that made me appreciate Cascadia.

I have trouble getting through to my father on this point. He and I have the tradition of Saturday Morning Breakfast. We uphold it whenever I am in town, though we don’t limit it to Saturdays. It used to be that we would go to McDonald’s one week and then Happy Burger – a regional chain – the next. Back and forth, back and forth. However, when I go back now, I don’t want to eat at McDonald’s. I have McDonald’s everywhere else I go. Nor do I want to eat at Denny’s, where Dad likes to go for variety and a good deal. I want to eat at Happy Burger. Now, Happy Burger actually is better than McDonald’s, regional pride aside, but it’s not nearly as much better as I tend to think it be. It’s something that makes me appreciate being in Delosa.


Category: Kitchen

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13 Responses to Taste Is Half-Irrelevant

  1. Sheila Tone says:

    You guys must eat out a lot. I miss eating out. It’s difficult with little kids, especially anywhere nice.

    (Sheila’s Confinement: Day 2, 10:15 a.m.)

  2. trumwill says:

    Actually, we very rarely eat out these days. That was one of the effects that the overpriced Soundview food had on us and is responsible for a good deal of our weight loss. However, in Deseret and Estacado we did eat out quite frequently. It was one of the few ways that Clancy negatively impacted my health. Prior to her, I only ate out at fast food places. Not super healthy, of course, but fast food makes it a lot easier to keep portions small, which I often did.

    The food in Callie is not overpriced, but it is pretty bland. So we don’t eat out a whole lot here, either.

  3. ecco says:

    I’m a fan of Inn & Out and in general their quality is much higher than the other fast food chains. However, by quality i don’t mean health wise. They don’t have freezers and everything is made from scratch. I also think the taste is great. Still, their flavor profile isn’t for everyone, and some of my friends don’t like it.

  4. David Alexander says:

    In-N-Out Burger chain

    As I stated earlier, I tried In-N-Out on a trip to San Francisco two years ago, and I liked it. I’d argue that it was the closest to a home-made burger, and it was the essence of a simple burger without the need for double anything, special sauce, or any other related gimmick. Admittedly, I wish I had more. 🙂

    As for the main topic, I’ve admittedly stopped going to the diner that Wellesley Queen and I used because in retrospect, given my limited income, the food wasn’t that good and it’s on the pricy side. I think it just became a safe place for me to go to, so it became the default location, especially since it was across the street from Barnes and Nobles. I haven’t been there in nearly a year, and I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. I’ve managed to keep eating out though at major chains and other diners with friends and family.

    And admittedly, I should try other diners since it’s acceptable to eat there alone…

    But they were definitely places that I knew I would not be able to eat at anymore once I got to Callie.

    I’d extend the same trend to eating regional products at “large” chains as well. It’s nice to eat something that’s different, especially if it’s not available in your home region, hence the failed attempt at finding a Carl’s Jr on that same trip two years ago.

    Happy Burger

    If my suspicions are correct, Happy Burger isn’t one of those regional chains that’s received notoriety around here. While a few people rave about wanting to try Carl’s Jr, In-N-Out, Del Taco, Chic-fil-A. and to a lesser extent White Castle and Sonic, I’ve never heard anybody want to eat at Happy Burger.

  5. Peter says:

    It’s been several years since I last had an In-N-Out burger, but from what I recall they’re quite similar to the East Coast chain Five Guys (esp. in the use of fresh rather than frozen beef) but not as pricey.

  6. David Alexander says:

    According to some bloggers on the West Coast, Five Guys is more of a “premium burger” place while In-n-Out competes more so with somewhere like Wendy’s. It’s nearly impossible to walk out of Five Guys without spending less than $10…

  7. trumwill says:

    If my suspicions are correct, Happy Burger isn’t one of those regional chains that’s received notoriety around here. While a few people rave about wanting to try Carl’s Jr, In-N-Out, Del Taco, Chic-fil-A. and to a lesser extent White Castle and Sonic, I’ve never heard anybody want to eat at Happy Burger.

    I want to say that it blows Carl’s away, but I’m not sure how accurate that is (regional pride strikes!). Carl’s was actually one of those places that I ate at in Cascadia because they’re not around here. One of the things that makes Happy Burger so good is that if you just get a Happy Burger without any gimmicks it’s a great burger. That may or may not be true of Carl’s. I got the gimmicky stuff.

    Happy Burger also has outstanding breakfast offerings, though. Carl’s are pretty mediocre. Happy Burger’s drive-thrus are typically open 24 hours, which is really nice. Particularly since they serve breakfast in the overnight hours. That’s what I miss more than anything.

    I didn’t realize Chic-fil-E was a regional brand. That’s good stuff, too, though too pricey in my opinion.

  8. trumwill says:

    Speaking of good burgers and places I can’t name, there was a chain in Estacado named Jerry and Sherry’s. Jerry and Sherry got a divorce and so half of them became Jerry’s and half Sherry’s. Those were some truly splendid burgers. If there weren’t so many places in Estacado that I love eating at, I’d make a point of eating there (either there) when I go through. They don’t have the bonus offerings that Happy Burger (breakfast) or Culver’s (desserts) have, though.

    Seems like almost all of the restaurants in Callie are burger-oriented, which given the cow culture around here is not surprising. I have yet to have a bad burger here, though none of them are fast food. We do have two fast food burger places here, but they’re both national chains.

  9. DaveinHackensack says:

    It sounds like you don’t have a lot of good food there. That’s one thing we have a good selection of here. In addition to Five Guys we’ve got a local slider place for burgers called White Manna, and we’ve got an outpost of Bobby Flay’s new burger chain, Bobby’s Burger Palace.

    David Alexander, you should take a road trip to the Skylark in Edison, NJ sometime. Blogged about this last year, but finally got down there last week. Thumbs up.

  10. Peter says:

    I didn’t realize Chic-fil-E was a regional brand. That’s good stuff, too, though too pricey in my opinion.

    Last I heard, there was only one Chic-fil-E in the New York area, but it is not accessible to the public, being located in the New York University student center.

  11. David Alexander says:

    you should take a road trip to the Skylark in Edison, NJ sometime.

    Somewhere in New Jersey not near a railway station? Haha.

    If it was on Long Island, I’d probably go visit it, but it’s a bit of a stretch to sit through all of that traffic and pay two toll crossings just to eat at a really nice diner. It’s admittedly the weird quirk of New York Metro, where the metro area is so big and the crossings limited so going to Jersey from Long Island becomes an annoying trip even for a roadgeek.

  12. DaveinHackensack says:

    “It’s admittedly the weird quirk of New York Metro, where the metro area is so big and the crossings limited so going to Jersey from Long Island becomes an annoying trip even for a roadgeek.”

    6 or 7 years ago I won tickets to see Paul Westerberg half way out on Long Island somewhere. At the time, I had a job that required me to travel to Long Island occasionally, so I scheduled meetings there for the day of the concert and invited a friend from NJ to meet me out there. I picked him up at an LIRR station and he joked about wondering whether he needed to change his currency. I remember noting that, before I got that particular job, I had been to California more times than I had been to Long Island. NJ folks generally don’t go there.

  13. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    I had this same experience in Knoxville and your experience confirms that this is pretty much a universal phenomenon. You’re wrong about In-N-Out burgers being only average, though; it’s not simply a case of regional pride but a matter of good choices made with the ingredients of the food. I don’t claim that In-N-Out is uniquely good; I do, however, claim that it is better than the national franchises.

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