The votes are in. The judges have spoken. The readers have had their say, with more than 3,000 of you casting votes. L.A. Weekly's ultimate burger tournament was a bloody battle, with more than one major upset along the way. Our eight judges thought long and hard about the merits of each of the 16 competing burgers — we debated, we defended our burger beliefs, we ate a whole lotta meat (and so can you, at our inaugural Burgers & Beer fest on Sat., Aug. 8). We ultimately settled on In-N-Out and Petit Trois' Big Mec as the finalists. Here's why one of them prevailed.
In-N-Out is easy to love. The restaurant chain, which was founded in 1948 and is generally believed to have invented the restaurant drive-thru as we know it, remains privately owned. The company has forgone franchising because of fears about maintaining quality. Much of the guilt of eating fast food, at least from a social-justice standpoint, is lessened when dining here. In-N-Out has a reputation for putting employees first and was paying its workers well above minimum wage before there was a noisy national movement to do so. As a regional chain born in Los Angeles, it offers much to be proud of.
Of course, the main thing people are proud of is what comes out of that groundbreaking drive-thru window. In its way, In-N-Out represents the grand glory of SoCal's burger heritage. The company took the classic Southern California diner burger and figured out how to deliver its joys consistently and quickly. The Double-Double's exact ratio of meat to cheese to sauce to lettuce to tomato to bun is thought by many to result in a culinary masterpiece. At less than $4, that's one of the cheapest culinary masterpieces you could possibly hope for.
On the other hand, the Petit Trois burger's $18 price tag (plus an automatic 18 percent service charge) is hardly a bargain, though I would argue that it, too, is a culinary masterpiece. The idea of putting the visceral experience of eating a steak dinner between two buns has been tried before, but nothing I've tasted in the past succeeds in the way the Big Mec at Petit Trois does. And because of that, this burger symbolizes the other arm of the great Los Angeles burger tradition, one that has emerged in recent years and is only getting stronger: the chef-built burger that melds elements of fine dining with the irresistible hallmarks of burger nostalgia.
If In-N-Out represents the history of L.A. dining, then the Big Mec represents where we are now.
The Petit Trois burger is a mash-up of cultures, taking inspiration from the classic American cheeseburger as well as from chef Ludo Lefebvre's homeland (in the form of bordelaise sauce with a touch of foie gras and piles of caramelized onions). There is more than a hint of French onion soup here, but with its American cheese and rare beef, this is also undeniably a cheeseburger. It's a monstrosity of a thing that won't hold together after a couple of bites, but you find yourself unable to slow down long enough to find a decorous way to eat it. You look up, stunned, 10 minutes later, covered in sauce and meat juice, having eaten the entire thing, which is far too big for any one meal. It's a glorious experience.
It may be slightly unfair that I'm not a native Southern Californian, and therefore don't harbor the kind of nostalgic loyalty to In-N-Out that so many people have. There's no doubt the In-N-Out burger is a triumph of fast-food engineering, a salty and greasy good time. But when approaching these two masterpieces from an objective standpoint, there is really no question which burger is superior.
Winner: Petit Trois
Readers Choice: In-N-Out