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Fast-Food Lettuce 

Thursday, Aug 28 2003
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I have come to In-N-Out on a hot weekday afternoon to try the Protein Cheeseburger — the famous In-N-Out hamburger sans bun. I don’t see it mentioned on the menu, but the countergirl knows what I want.

The fact that such a burger now exists is testament to the newest diet craze, the low-carb Atkins diet which disallows starch — such as bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, and sugar in all its forms. I, personally, have been eating à la Atkins — at least a modified, restaurant critic’s easygoing version of Atkins (I taste everything) — since last January and find it effective (I’ve lost and kept off 13 pounds) and energizing. So I have more than a purely professional interest in this bunless burger. Here is fast food I might actually be able to eat.

Waiting for my order, I look around the crowded store, with its playful red-white-and-yellow design, its scurrying young staff and completely multicultural clientele. A number of people — all of them slim — are eating the bunless wonder.

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My burger comes sheathed in lettuce, layers of it, which serves as a protective shield between the hot meat and my fingers. But the lettuce is also slippery, and non-absorbent, and an In-N-Out burger is juicy. So there’s a trick to eating the Protein Cheeseburger, not the least of which is keeping it in its little paper envelope. They’ll never be as tidy as a bunned burger, and that almost ineffable filigree crustiness of a perfectly toasted bun is one pleasure this burger won’t give. But the Protein Cheeseburger offers its own new pleasure: The layers of green cellularity have their own crispness, and also a nice fresh-cooked-greens effect where the hot meat has wilted it. Otherwise, the famous In-N-Out flavor is all there: the salty meatiness — the meat really does have flavor — the orange mayonnaise-based dressing, the melted cheese. I don’t miss the bun, and I feel virtuous.

There’s only one nagging problem. From where I sit, I’m watching the kid run fresh potatoes through the cutter before they’re transformed into golden, crisp French fries. Potato, as any Atkins advocate knows, turns to sugar almost instantly in the body, and one average baker has as much sugar as a candy bar. (One Atkins dieter I know routinely calls potatoes Snickers bars.) I can handle a burger-hold-the-bun, but a burger-hold-the-fries? That’s a sacrifice!

Another indication that fast food is changing its fat-’n’-starchy tune is the appearance of salads at McDonald’s. These salads are so successful that McDonald’s profits — and stocks — have risen dramatically in a sad economic climate.

There are three “Premium” salads including a Cobb, a Caesar and a Bacon Ranch — not that there are any lesser salads, no Vice Premium salads, or merely good or better salads. We order one of each, two of us opting for the grilled chicken breast, one for the crusty deep-fried chicken breast.

“What kind of dressing would you like?” our counterman asks.

What kind is there?

“Cobb, Caesar, Ranch and Vinaigrette.”

We think about this and order Cobb with the Cobb, Caesar with the Caesar, and Ranch with the Bacon Ranch, plus a pack of the vinaigrette, which turns out to be a low-fat option. They’re made by Paul Newman.

“Are you sure we’re at McDonald’s?” one friend asks.

The salads all have the same mix of iceberg lettuce and mixed baby greens. All sport small, dense-fleshed, fairly tasteless oblong tomatoes of remarkably uniform size. All are scattered with thin slices of carrots.

The Cobb is a pale cousin to, say, any standard restaurant Cobb — which tends to be a bed of lettuce covered in thick stripes of bacon, bleu cheese, avocado, chopped boiled egg, turkey or chicken. This one is the usual mix of lettuce with a smattering of bacon and something like bleu cheese, and egg, though the egg yolk is tasteless and has an odd, spongy, tough texture. The grilled chicken is well-salted and pleasantly spicy. The flavors, as behooves a fast-food meal, are big and salty, if not exactly refined.

Our favorite salad is the Bacon Ranch with the crusty fried chicken (which is not on any diet). But the cool Ranch dressing on the hot crunchy chicken is a classic pleasure, and the bacon adds its smoky, salty charm.

The Caesar is another wan simulacrum of the genuine article. A classic Caesar, of course, is made with romaine lettuce and contains croutons, anchovies and Parmesan cheese and is dressed in a famous amalgamation of raw egg, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and garlic. This Caesar is not made with romaine — nor does the one I order have croutons — but a shredded translucent white cheese in the standard lettuce mix bears a dim resemblance to Parmesan. Tomatoes and carrot slices add untraditional color. Newman’s salad dressing, though white and opaque as paint, has a good zing to it — it’s made with cheeses and even contains a salty lash of anchovy. Our particular Caesar also contains a stray leaf of maroon radicchio. This, I must say, stops me short. When, in my lifetime so far, did I ever expect to eat radicchio at McDonald’s? There, in the yellow-and-white, many-windowed Altadena franchise, I look up at the San Gabriel Mountains and think: “Alice Waters’ fresh-food revolution has finally come home.”

While these aren’t great salads by anyone’s standards, they’re affordable, they’re edible, they’re a healthful alternative to the usual wash of hydrogenated oils and sugar and beef raised in environmentally damaging circumstances.

And radicchio at McDonald’s?! May wonders never cease.

In-N-Out Protein Cheeseburger, $1.65. McDonald’s Premium Salads, $3.99.

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