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The Secret Menu: CaliBurger in Shanghai

The Secret Menu: CaliBurger in Shanghai

As discussed in my previous post, perhaps the most famous secret menu belongs to the iconic Southern California chain, In-N-Out Burger. All In-n-Out stores must be within a day’s drive of a distribution center as they refuse to freeze their beef. Their menu is simple, serving only burgers featuring their characteristic sauce, grilled onions, and a few other accoutrements. (OK, they have a grilled cheese too.) This policy results in a ridiculously fresh burger with a zealous following worldwide yet only available along a tiny slice of the US.

So zealous that an imitator has sprung up over 6,000 miles away in the bustling Chinese megalopolis of Shanghai. It makes sense that the land of fake Prada, Gucci, and Rolex would also spawn fake hamburgers. In fact, when CaliBurger sprouted up last year, In-n-Out felt it was such an outrageous copy that they sued and settled out of court.

Your fearless blogger braved the perilous journey to the so-called “Paris of the East” during the hot, humid days of September to see for myself.

I had CaliBurger’s address from their website. However, the directions in English weren’t so clear. I asked several locals where this place was and they had no idea. It seemed CaliBurger hadn’t carved much of a name for themselves in Shanghai. Finally, someone called them for me and got the directions–it was only a short metro ride away from my hotel.

CaliBurger is nestled deep inside the Prime One Shopping Center. One of an infinite array of cavernous indoor malls, filled with identical rows of luxury brand shops. After spending 5 days in Shanghai, the only way I could tell one from the other was based on how well air conditioned they were. Prime One was particularly hot inside, fairly normal for Shanghai malls.

I descended to floor B2 and there it was–a burger shop decked out in the characteristic red, yellow, and white color scheme of In-N-Out complete with palm tree iconography and a menu containing some suspiciously similar looking burgers. I got a kick out of the hilariously blatant copy of In-N-Out’s decor. The store was completely empty and the clerk seemed to be shocked to see a customer at around 7 PM on a weeknight.

This being the Secret Menu, naturally I had to order something off of CaliBurger’s. Thus, I got a CaliDouble “Wild Style.” This is the equivalent of In-N-Out’s Animal Style Double Double–A double cheeseburger fried in mustard, for the uninitiated. Total cost for just the burger was 35 RMB (nearly $6) which is a bit more expensive than the real thing.

After a short wait my burger and fries combo was ready. Wrapped in paper and served on a red tray, it sure looked like a Double Double. Perhaps the only difference was the lack of grilled onions. Maybe this minor difference is a required change from the legal settlement?

Upon the first bite it was apparent this is no Double Double. It has the slight kick of an Animal Style burger, but the quality isn’t even close. With what tastes like an old bun, frozen beef, and accompanied by stale fries, this is exactly what In-N-Out would taste like if they dropped their standards and started expanding over the globe. I can see why they are so strict about where locations are opened.

If I lived in Shanghai and was homesick for Los Angeles, this would do. It’s far better than burgers I tried at McDonalds and KFC in Shanghai. Hey, I even ate two of them! Yet, CaliBurger pales in comparison to the genuine article.

CaliBurger is currently staging a US invasion with a location planned for Miami, Florida and In-N-Out’s home base, Los Angeles. In-N-Out isn’t taking this lying down. In addition to taking CaliBurger to court, they have been operating In-N-Out pop-up stores in parts of Asia to let locals know what the real deal tastes like. Once people get a dose of the originator, I can’t imagine CaliBurger will be much of a threat.

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