Friday, April 23, 2010

Shake Shack: A Burger Worth Waiting For

It seems that some restaurateurs become so entrenched in a particular neighborhood in Manhattan that they inevitably become synonymous with it. An example of this analogy might read: Batali is to Greenwich Village as David Chang is to the East Village. Another would be Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group's (USHG) association with the Gramercy area. Although Meyer's reach has expanded into into Queens (Citi Field) and will eventually become international (Dubai), Madison Square Park remains home to some of his most iconic restaurants. From basmati (Tabla) to BBQ (Blue Smoke), Meyer has found success with multiple cuisines. Yet a simple burger "shack" may be the most popular of them all. Since its inception in 2004, Shake Shack's popularity can be traced to Meyer's ability to deliver a gourmet version of a beloved food. Though it holds itself out as a "fast food" joint, rest assured, Shake Shack is anything but your average McDonald's.

For the uninitiated, Shake Shack's line is a sight to behold. A phalanx of hungry New Yorkers perpetually feeding a never-ending beast that often spills onto the nearby sidewalk during peak times. The line is so notorious that the Shake Shack website features a Shack Cam, allowing viewers to see "real-time" images of the line so they may plan their trip accordingly. Additionally, there is even an iphone application aptly called, "The Shackdown," which allows users to share this important information to their burger-loving friends. Clearly, Shake Shack is anything but "fast" food. Shake Shack's popularity may inadvertently be its own undoing. Whenever anyone mentions Shake Shack the conversation inevitably shifts to whether it's worth the wait; a topic TheChief lamented about in a post that you can read here. Coincidentally, while standing in-line on a recent visit I was approached by a tourist who asked me, "is the burger worth it?" Obviously referring to the long wait. I hesitated before replying, "it all depends." I felt bad that I couldn't give him better advice but to me, it all comes down to a subjective cost-benefit determination that may vary person-to-person. What one considers a reasonable wait may be irrational to another, and so on and so forth.

While the Upper West Side location boasts shorter lines it also poses an entirely different obstacle for potential patrons: children. Maybe I'm a cynical asshole but I hate children running around a restaurant like its their playground; I find it puts the restaurant in an awkward situation and other diners in an even more uncomfortable one. However, this issue reminded me of the Latin phrase, "Caveat Emptor," which I learned during my first semester of law school and translates to "buyer beware." Indeed, I should expect families and children if you choose to visit this location. But upon a recent visit to the UWS Shake Shack it wasn't the children laying in the middle of the floor as much as it was the table-stalking adults that I found most off-putting. Fortunately, MW had found an empty table while I ordered our food and we were able to avoid the entire mess.

For those of you like myself who are willing to brave crazy parents and insane lines for delicious food, read on. One thing I appreciate most about Shake Shack is that it serves beer; not only does it go great with a burger but also helps makes waiting a lot more tolerable. While the lines in Madison Square Park can get quite out-of-hand, a couple Shake Meister Ale's from Brooklyn Brewery makes time fly by. Just have a friend to keep your place in line and grab your desired beverage from the "B Line."

When it comes to actually ordering you have multiple options. I feel obligated to disclose the fact that I've never ordered a hot dog or 'Shroom Burger from Shake Shack. As tempted as I am to try something different I resist and order a Shack Burger or more recently, the Shack Stack. The Shack Burger is Shake Shack's version of the typical cheeseburger. American cheese, lettuce, tomato and a mysteriously named "Shack Sauce" accompanies the burger on a potato roll; a must read is J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's article for those wanting to re-create this burger at home. The Shack Burger is a consistently great burger and take my advice and order the double for exponential beefy satisfaction.

However, curiosity got the better of me one day and I ordered the Shack Stack: a Cheeseburger and 'Shroom Burger topped with lettuce, tomato and the aforementioned shack sauce. This monstrosity is bulkier than Barry Bonds on steroids and keeping with the baseball analogy this burger is a home run. Shack Shake takes the best of the Shack Burger and adds a 'Shroom Burger (a Crisp-Fried Portobello Filled with Melted Muenster and Cheddar Cheese). This gluttonous accoutrement provides a crunchy texture to an already great burger. Like a montage of groin shots, the molten oozing cheese from the portobello is something so good even though you know its so wrong.

Fries are the perfect accompaniment to any burger and Shake Shack's version are especially good. The crinkle-cut increases the surface area of the potato which culminates to a crunchier and superior french fry. I usually prefer fresh-cut, twice-fried potatoes but the crinkle-cut fries here are like potato crack.

Although the burgers get most of the attention (rightfully so), Shake Shack's Frozen Custard is nothing short of spectacular. Growing up on Abbott's custard in Rochester, I've long been a fan of this creamier cousin of ice cream. The two standard flavors are vanilla and chocolate with a special flavor of the day that rotates. Most recently, I've sampled Friday's (Lemon Meringue) and Saturday's (Pancakes and Bacon) flavors and have enjoyed both. The Lemon Meringue tasted similar to the pie with a strong lemon flavor to it. The Pancake and Bacon custard was topped with additional pieces of bacon and reminded me of breakfast when you combined the maple-flavored custard with the smokey pieces of salty bacon. While I like trying the different flavors, MW prefers the Cocreation Foundation; your choice of custard mixed at high speeds with different mix-ins. MW's standby combination includes vanilla custard mixed with hot fudge sauce and pieces of shortbread cookie.

As an obvious Shake Shack fan could you say that I've drank the Danny Meyer Kool-Aid. But you don't have to take my word on whether Shake Shack is worth the wait; instead, all you needed to do was see the smile on the tourist's face who had approached me earlier as he ate his burger.

Shake Shack (Madison Square Park Location)
11 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10010
(212) 889-6600

Shake Shack (UWS Location)
366 Columbus Ave.
New York, NY 10024
(646) 747-8770

To see all our pics, please click the flickr link.

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