My quick trip to Las Vegas this month was my sixth consecutive NBA Summer League pilgrimage to the desert to watch basketball. During each of the past two trips (or as long as I have had a blog about the Washington Wizards), I have made a deliberate side trip, a quest for something beyond the basketball action which is the reason for me being there in the first place. I have to fill this thing up after all, right?
Two years ago, I visited the Neon Museum's Boneyard, a back lot full of old neon signs near downtown Las Vegas along Fremont Street; last year, I tracked down some Deschutes beer that I hadn't been able to find since I was in Portland in 2011 on a two week cross country trip that still stands as one of the best vacations I have ever taken. This year? Sort of a mixed bag; I might have tried to pick off too many things.
I took a trip down to the Hoover Dam on the Wizards' preliminary round day off but I can only get so excited about that place. I mean, it's a big concrete mass that retains water and has equipment inside that I don't quite understand. I also spent some time waaaay off strip at the Railroad Pass Casino in Henderson, Nevada playing quarter roulette $2 at a time for a couple of hours while knocking back a few Budweisers and taking the casino's money. Definitely the best time I have ever had playing roulette. But I think if I were to pick the signature side trip of this trip, it would be a visit to see an old friend I hadn't sat down with since 2008.
If you look west on a clear day when crossing the bridge between the Excalibur and New York, New York casinos, you can see all the way to the mountains. As an aside, I have pretty much settled on Excalibur as my hotel of choice in Vegas (cheap and convenient is the logic here); and after all, where else would a Wizards fan stay. Even if it's not clear, you can see all the way beyond I-15 about a half mile down the road day or night easily. But at night, just on the north side of Tropicana Avenue, you can see something else, a wonderful red and yellow neon sign that taunts and teases vacationers and locals alike: In-N-Out Burger. This was my 2014 Summer League side trip.
I was first introduced to In-N-Out Burger about a decade ago, either on a 2005 trip to Southern California or maybe just a few years before that to visit my friend Jim, my former college roommate. I'd heard about how good In-N-Out Burger was somehow (I had a tendency to track fast food news at that time in my life) and so I asked Jim to take me one day when we were hanging out doing pretty much about nothing. That first trip was really really good, way better than the fast food burgers we could get on the east coast and despite Jim's insistence on the supremacy of Carl's Jr. burgers, In-N-Out Burger rocketed to the top of my fast food hamburger list where it has stayed ever since.
After that first taste, I made sure to make a detour for some In-N-Out Burger goodness each time I visited close to one anywhere out west, which mostly meant California or Vegas. Why no east coast franchises you ask? Well ever since they were founded in 1948, In-N-Out Burger has refused to allow distribution to anywhere that will require them to freeze their meat in transit so they've stayed close to their California headquarters. My trips to In-N-Out Burger when on the west coast became an essential rite of passage and I brought other friends with me to hear the gospel. Good times.
But then in 2007, I found out I had gout. After reviewing what exactly that meant, I pretty much determined that ground beef was my Achilles heel that would cause my knees, ankles or toes (or any combination thereof) to swell and hurt really really badly so I had to give up hamburgers made out of beef, which meant no more In-N-Out Burger. I tempted fate in 2008 in San Francisco and paid for it the next week. From there, I swore off hamburgers. Done. Fini. No more.
The 2008 Double Double I had in San Francisco was the last fast food hamburger I allowed myself for a while. In the meantime, I decided (or maybe somebody decided for me) my gout had become so bad that it needed medicating and so for the past couple of years I have been mostly pain free. So in a perhaps uncharacteristic YOLO move, I decided on this trip that I could make one more trip out beyond I-15 to sample something that I used to think about every time I considered going to Vegas. Sunday night after the Wizards-Timberwolves, I made the journey.
In-N-Out Burger essentially makes three things: burgers, fries and shakes. No chicken sandwiches, no breakfast, no burritos, no salads, no pies, no pork sandwiches pressed into the shape of pork ribs with bones. Just burgers, fries and shakes. That's the first beauty of In-N-Out Burger; they are totally and utterly dedicated to making three things really well. No need to diversify; no need to ruin perfection. According to their website, they do actually make other things but I've never seen it, other than the kids' grilled cheese, which is selectively omitted here.
When it comes to burgers, you actually do have options at In-N-Out Burger: single hamburger, single cheeseburger or double cheeseburger (the famous and fabulous Double Double). For the sake of tradition and utter deliciousness, I opted for the Double Double with fries (also known as a number one!). Then I waited (for two reasons). One, In-N-Out Burger makes everything fresh. There's no microwaving or burgers sitting around waiting to be ordered. Secondly, the place is always packed. I mean, always. We got there at about 10 pm and there was a line several people deep, a full drive through and about 10-12 orders inside waiting to be filled. Lines after years in business mean the place is good.
I don't understand what makes In-N-Out Burger so good. I mean it's just freshly cooked beef patties with cheese on a fresh roll with lettuce, tomato, secret sauce and onion (always get the onion). But whatever they do to it, it works. There is something so amazing about biting into a Double Double and getting a taste of that rich premium beef with fatty, delicious melted American cheese. The crunch of the lettuce and onion, the sharpness and freshness of the onion and the sweetness of the tomato just complement the perfect bite so well, especially when offset with their secret sauce (which In-N-Out Burger just refers to as "spread"). Regardless of the reason, it's so much better than a Big Mac, Whopper or even a Wendy's triple burger (and yes, Jim, even better than Carl's Jr.) it's impossible to resist.
In 2008 in San Francisco, I paid the price for my In-N-Out Burger indiscretion in the form of knee or ankle pain. My 2014 experience was totally different and totally consequence-free. Looks like I'm back in the saddle again. And I will be. Just as soon as I can get back out west.