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Enshrine this burger

September 05, 2006|Mark Kendall | MARK KENDALL wrote the "Fast Food Dude" column for the Riverside Press-Enterprise from 2001 to 2004.

BACK IN MY '80s high school days, In-N-Out Burger hadn't yet reached our semirural Santa Clarita Valley, north of Los Angeles. So during lunch period we would do the Double-Double dash -- speed 10 miles to the real Valley in San Fernando to wolf down one of those mysteriously perfect twin-patty burgers before hustling back for class.

Today, these hunter-gatherer adventures are no more. In-N-Out has more than 200 locations; three in no-longer-rural Santa Clarita alone. You can down a Double-Double in Las Vegas, Phoenix or even -- this hurts -- San Francisco. The family-owned chain has been successful enough to spawn a famous commercial jingle, earn several loving write-ups in the New York Times and have its burgers served to A-list celebs at swanky post-Oscar parties.

The great taste hasn't changed, but the mystique that inspired our carnivorous cross-valley quests sure has. The earlier, spartan drive-throughs, which once kept us at arm's length, a sheet of glass sealing off the inner sanctum where clean-cut workers frenetically packed the grill with meat patties, has given way to brightly lighted indoor seating no different from the national fast-food chains. The fabled secret menu, for years passed around solely by word of mouth, giving those of us in the know an easy way to separate the true In-N-Out fan -- and true Southern Californian -- from the wannabes

How can we preserve that vanishing sense of wonder while giving proper respect to the important role In-N-Out has played in postwar SoCal culture? An idea came to me a few months back while driving on the 10 Freeway, when I glimpsed a well-worn yellow-arrow sign, bearing a quaint pre-digital clock.

It was there, in Baldwin Park, where Harry and Esther Snyder started it all back in 1948, according to the company's website. (The original hamburger stand was demolished when the 10 Freeway came through; this site was its replacement.)

The old store, though, has been closed and gated off since 2004, replaced by a much snazzier restaurant just on the other side of the freeway at the same Francisquito Avenue exit. Next door stands the two-story "In-N-Out University" managerial training center and company store, selling such items as ski caps and beach towels emblazoned with the chain's name.

Company honchos have told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that they plan to preserve the building, and there was even talk of a museum, but I envision something more -- a full-blown In-N-Out shrine. We don't do a good job commemorating the innovative fast-food chains that Southern California has unleashed on the world. Carl's Jr. launched from Anaheim; Jack in the Box sprang out of San Diego. Del Taco first heated up the fast-food scene in the desert outskirts of Barstow; Taco Bell's Glen Bell got his start selling hot dogs in San Bernardino, the same city that gave us McDonald's.

At least the site of the original Mickey D's is now commemorated, though not by the company itself. Fast-food entrepreneur Albert Okura, who operates the local Juan Pollo rotisserie chicken chain, owns the building and uses it to house his corporate offices and an unofficial McDonald's museum. Okura dreams that his chain, which has more than 30 units, will someday become the world's largest. "That's my destiny," he says.

If the birthplace of mundane McDonald's can nurture dreams, just think what inspirational powers would be unlocked by an In-N-Out shrine. It could be old-fashioned, like the chain, with folksy docents serving up homespun stories. Or maybe actors would earnestly re-create the early days, when the Snyders and original business partner Charles Noddin endured "cold, smoggy nights" as they sold 2,000 burgers their first month, according to the book "The Heritage of Baldwin Park." Or maybe it could be fully 21st century, with touch-screens, animatronics and an interactive grill "experience." Either way, I can see buses shuttling tourists between store No. 1 and the San Gabriel Valley's other great attraction, the giant drive-through Donut Hole in nearby La Puente.

When I contacted In-N-Out's marketing department with a few questions (which they requested in writing), the replies were terse. "We don't have any plans for the closed store #1," wrote spokeswoman Michelle Guzman.

She had served up a riddle. I pondered her enigmatic answer.

It came to me. Just look at the simple menu of burgers, shakes and fries. The In-N-Out folks are masters of minimalism. What if they skipped the bric-a-brac and gimmicks and just let the old store slide into a mysterious ruin? Keep the grill's pilot light burning in an eternal flame. Keep the cult following alive.

As the decades pass and In-N-Out's empire envelops the globe, burger lovers would come from far and wide to glimpse this intriguing roadside relic, an American Parthenon, summoning all the grandeur of Ancient Grease.

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