A New York Spin on the West Coast–Style Burger
I was sitting in Los Angeles' famous Apple Pan restaurant a few weeks back talking with a lady who was curious as to why someone might be taking pictures of hamburgers. We got to talking about burgers, blogging, and A Hamburger Today, and when she found out that I lived in New York, she immediately asked about the Shake Shack. As I finished expounding my thoughts on the place, I heard a polite "excuse me, did you just mention Shake Shack?"
It turns out the gentleman asking the question was a friend of none other than George Motz, author and director of Hamburger America, the book and the film. It's a small world, and Shake Shack has managed to become virtually synonymous with hamburgers in New York. Even if they can't quite put their finger on the name, out-of-towners will often effuse about the great burgers they had in the park.
Upon returning home to New York after an extensive education in L.A. burgers (many, many reviews to come) I needed two things. The first was a bit of exercise, and the second was a frame of reference. Something to put into context what I had sampled on the West Coast and relate it to my hamburger experiences in and around New York.
I could have gone to a number of great spots for this task, but my recent conversations about the Shack made me realize that I had not actually eaten there at all this year. This omission was the result of nothing other than a stubborn refusal on my part to stand in line for something that I used to get with no wait at all. You see, during the Shacks earlier years, before they opened year-round and became permanently cemented into the tourist vernacular, there was a time when you could roll up at odd hours, say mid afternoon or late evening, and be guaranteed only a short wait for your burger.
These days, the line is prohibitively lengthy no matter what time you get there.The handy Shack Cam that was added in 2006 certainly helps monitor the situation and usually saves one from even bothering to leave home if the line snakes all the way to the edge of the webcam's field of view, which is almost all the way to Broadway. If you see no line, it usually means that the weather is inclement, a fact that is usually confirmed by watching for a few moments and seeing umbrellas unfold and the Shack's outdoor seating empty out.
Since I live nearby, I actually use the Shack Cam to gauge the weather. In any event, the line is an indication that something special must be going on in Madison Square Park. To say that the Shack is a roaring success would be an understatement.
That is not to say that Shack operator Danny Meyer has rested on his laurels since opening Shake Shack in 2004. Last year, in particular, saw the introduction of some positive innovations, such as the buzzer notification system that helped dissipate the mass of people who would huddle around the food-service window; the erection of heat lamps to better suit the Shack's new, year-round schedule; and the addition of pickles and diced onions as an option on the burgers. The latter change was a most welcome to the menu; I had often opined that the putting pickles and onions on the Shackburger (the signature burger here, which comes with tomato, lettuce, cheese, and "Shack Sauce") would be an improvement on an already exceptional burger. I do wish however that they offered the new condiments inside the burgers rather than serving them in small plastic containers. I hate fumbling with the containers while my burger looses heat, and I also like it when the pickles are warmed by the burgers and wilt slightly. They could also save a lot of plastic containers, but given the extremely cramped quarters within which the Shack operates, I can appreciate that space—especially counter space—is a valuable commodity.
The Shackburger seems to be the most popular burger on offer. It has often been likened to the West Coast chain In-N-Out Burger because it is served with lettuce, tomato, and "special" (or, in this case, "Shack") sauce. Having eaten at In-N-Out the preceding week, I can understand why a cursory observation of the Shack Burger might lead one to conclude that it is a West Coast–style burger, but I don't think this is necessarily borne out in the taste and texture of the sandwich.
For one, the patty is a lot thicker at the Shack, dwarfing even a double from In-N-Out, and the beef is far more flavorful and has a higher fat content; it is also cooked to order and ostensibly served medium by default, although I think they tend to generally overcook the patties. The Shack, unlike most L.A. burgers that I sampled, adds lettuce in a sparing manner, by the leaf rather than the head, and the bread used is definitely pure East Coast—the Shack uses potato rolls that are part of the Dutch/German/Pennsylvania baking tradition. Even the special sauce, which in California is invariably a Thousand Island variant, is at the Shack much closer to a garlic mayo. It is fair to say that Shake Shack took the West Coast model as inspiration but has put a unique New York spin on it.
Biting into a the Shack's burgers can be a wondrous experience. The buttered and griddle cooked potato roll exhibits a dark-brown burnish and has the richness of a croissant even before the copious juices from the custom blend of beef drench it. Bun disintegration is a distinct possibility at the Shack, especially because it serves its burgers standing upright, which causes the torrent of juices to collect at the bottom of the wax paper sleeves. You can't let Shack burgers sit around too long lest you be left with a very mushy bun.
The bun is similar, albeit larger than the potato rolls I so loved at White Manna recently and it does an equally outstanding job at holding the plump, succulent patty.
The beef, an intoxicating mix of brisket and sirloin, which used to be ground at Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park across the street, is now sourced from hamburger king Pat La Frieda. I would imagine that the demand exceeded the restaurant's ability to grind sufficient quantities in-house. Said beef is of an exceptional quality that has a distinct taste, closer to steak in fact than a hamburger. It has a richness and depth of flavor that is not achievable with regular chuck, and texturally it can be ground a bit coarser and still achieve tenderness.
The flattop griddle on which the patties are cooked is exceedingly hot, putting an impressive crust on the exterior of the burger even when cooked rare. The cheese adds just the right amount of creaminess, and the crisp lettuce adds some snap and resistance to the proceedings that juxtaposes nicely with the squishy compliance of the bun. I am not a fan of the double,finding the beef-to-bun ratio way off. There is simply far too much patty and not enough bread or condiments to bring it back in line. The delicate balance of texture and flavor of the single is gone.
Despite my admiration for the Shack Burger, by far my favorite burger on the menu here is the plain cheeseburger cooked rare with a dab of ketchup. When "Hamburger Matty" Jacobs reviewed the Shake Shack back in 2005 he noted that while "... it's fun to pile a burger high with condiments, this one can stand alone." I couldn't agree more. Reducing the burger to the basic trinity of beef-bun-cheese allows the purity of the individual components to truly reveal themselves.
Having said all that, there are times when the Shack can be a letdown. Burgers are often overcooked even when ordered rare, and, as previously mentioned, the buns can get rather soggy. This is made all the worse by the fact that you've inevitably waited so long to get the burger in the first place. But even when there is no line, getting your order can still take a maddening long time.
I am also not a fan of the fries. Although they're an improvement over the ones that they used to serve, I still find they have a prefab, stale quality to them. I guess it would be a little difficult to hand-cut fries in the tiny confines of the Shack.
People often ask me if the Shake Shack burger is worth lining up for. These days the wait can be more than an hour and on weekends I would imagine even longer. Personally, I have eaten there enough times and have so many other tantalizing burger options close by that I skip the Shack unless there is almost no wait. But if you are visiting New York and have never had a Shack burger or would rather spend some time outdoors than in a grimy burger joint, the Shake Shack will generally reward you with an outstanding burger. The place has an awful lot of hype to live up to, but I think the hype is largely justified. Whether the wait is justifiable, well, that is a personal decision.