Meanwhile, In-N-Out appears to be testing the market across the Pacific. In December, it took its signature burgers to Shanghai for a one-day pop-up event to introduce the brand to consumers. Last month, In-N-Out held a similar tasting in Sydney, Australia.
Protecting its image is nothing new for In-N-Out, which has been quick to take legal action against U.S. copycats. A Maryland chain called Grab-N-Go Burger agreed to change its red-and-yellow logo after In-N-Out sued last year for trademark infringement.
All the fuss was lost on Chinese customers dining at the Shanghai CaliBurger on a recent Friday night. Though the initial buzz was driven by expatriates, many diners had never heard of In-N-Out.
"I live in the neighborhood and I wanted to try something new," said Stephen Sun, 31, a shoe salesman dining with his wife. "I like how they toasted the bun. I also like how strong the spiked shakes are. I worked hard today."
Zhang Wenting, a 24-year-old local resident wearing Dior glasses and a faux-fur coat and carrying a dark Gucci purse, said the California vibe was lost on her. She found the cream-colored banquettes and chessboard floors uninspiring.
"I think they need to do something about the color scheme in here," she said, describing her plain burger as "no different from Burger King."
Customers who knew about the In-N-Out connection — mostly U.S. expats — said CaliBurger is a welcome addition to Shanghai, which is better known for its famous soup dumplings, or xiao long bao.
As she attacked a cheeseburger, Cheryl Hung, an American, said its flavor was close enough to In-N-Out to satisfy her taste buds.
"It's China," said Hung, 26. "Anywhere else and I'd be surprised by a rip-off."
Hsu reported from Los Angeles and Pierson from Shanghai
Nicole Liu and Jonathan Kaiman in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.