Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Secret Menu

In-N-Out Burger. 6:00 p.m. I say to my girlfriend in line beside me, "I want a burger, but I'm tired of all that bun."

A bearded 20-something walks past and says, "protein style, lady."

Confused, I look at the menu. No mention there. But the cheerful teen behind the counter nods approvingly and asks, "you want it that way, wrapped in lettuce, not a bun?" Great idea, I say.

And just like that, I'm in on the secret. Menu, that is.

Turns out, that's just one of the many so-called "secret menu" items at this famed California fast foodery. (They're posted on the Web site, though not in the brick and mortar spot.)

And it's only part of a bigger feast fad known as "the secret menu." Try the McBruschetta at the Golden Arches (toasted tomatoes, onions, bun), the Naked Chicken at Popeye's (meat, no breading), or the Short Cappucino at Starbucks (more intense brew served in a kid's cup).

This is strictly grass-roots stuff, however. Most of these items are not official. (In-N-Out Burger executives deny a secret menu, calling the Web list a customer service.) They're the fruit of enterprising, empowered customers taste-testing their way into new territory on their local fast-food turf. The top combinations rise like cream to become unofficial "secret menu" items that spread through word of mouth and repeated orders.

Big shots in swanky nightspots have always been able to order a sirloin seared to personal taste. But custom eats for the common man are relatively new.

According to a number of food experts, it's part of a feasting frenzy fed by Internet chatter and the explosion of foodie reality TV shows -- "Top Chef," "Hell's Kitchen," etc. -- that makes everybody feel like a gastronomic insider, no matter their budget.

The secret menu appears to be on the upswing, so I decide to taste-test this theory on local terrain. I press Monitor intern, Alison Tully, into service. She hits Jamba Juice and Starbucks; I take the rest.

In-N-Out, which used to be the Golden State's own fast-food secret with its freshly stamped fries and authentic shakes, is known for its helpful servers. It's also famous for offering a select, few items on that glowing outdoor board -- basic burgers, shakes, sodas, and fries.

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