(10/08/06) (03/08/09) (07/14/10) (10/17/10) (11/06/10) (03/01/09) (01/30/11) (03/27/11) (04/18/11) (04/21/11) (07/06/11) (09/05/11) (02/20/12) (03/11/12) (03/13/12) (plus several more not recorded)
The original Madison Square Park location of Shake Shack is an old time burger and frozen dessert stand, only modernized with futuristic steel touches. That modernization goes even further on the website and iPhone app that lets you view the line remotely. Not just for show, it's a useful tool when the lines stretch a couple hundred feet, equating to 1-hour waiting times years after the novelty has worn off and additional locations (three in Manhattan, one at the Mets stadium, one in Brooklyn, one in Connecticut) have been erected. What gets me erected are the burgers, the dairy and the service. New Yorkers would expect nothing less from owner Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group also runs Eleven Madison Park and Blue Smoke. The Kansas City native supposedly based Shake Shack on midwestern burger institution Steak and Shake.
Menu breadth, hospitality and modern conveniences include the following:
A 'shroom burger that's a hit with vegetarians.
Doggie treats that are a hit with dogs.
Dogs that are a hit with weiner freaks. Even Chicago weiner freaks, but only to an extent.
High powered space heaters at Madison Park that make outdoor dining a reality in winter.
A separate line for frozen custard that's usually immediate and rarely more than a 5-minute wait.
A friendly staffer who distributes menus to patrons waiting in line (or for you New York types, "on line").
Another friendly staffer who helps find tables for patrons
More friendly staff behind the counter.
A no-tipping policy.
Beepers that alert you when your order is ready.
Beer and wine, even at the outdoor location.
Free water, with plastic cups.
It's become commonplace, or as we food bloggers like to say, ubiquitous, but Shake Shack was an early practitioner of the Martin's potato roll. Super fresh and bouncy, slightly eggy (think challah) in flavor and as yellow as Hubie Brown's teeth, it's a fantastic vessel for the beef. It's sturdy enough to support the beef and its juices, light enough to let the beef standout and pliable enough to stay in lock step with the beef for the entire glorious ride.
I'll cut to the chase right here: the Shake Shack beef blend may not be the best I've ever had, but it's far and away the most exotic and luxurious you will ever have in a $5-and-under burger. Myriad flavors of the perfectly constructed ShackBurger hit you in unison, but it's the beef that hits hardest. The well-done exterior is crisp, crunchy, slightly greasy and bursting with salt. For a burger that you can't request medium rare(but sometimes is), it erupts juices on first bite and stay with the meat all the way through. Pinkness varies, but juiciness is an absolute. Fueling the juiciness and flavor is that blend, furnished by rock star meat supplier Pat LaFrieda and rumored to be a mix of chuck, shortrib and brisket. There's always the question of whether to get a ShackBurger or a double ShackBurger. I say there's enough beef in the single already, but the double must be tried (and ideally split and shared) every now and then. And the plain hamburger should not be left out; this is a perfect way to focus on that beef blend after the ShackBurger is long gone.
With Shake Shack, there's always the question of whether it lives up to the hype. As a barbecue enthusiast from Boston targeting several joints around Shake Shack's periphery nearly a decade ago, I was exposed to Shake Shack before the hype was in full throttle, so I fell in love immediately without it being a factor. I've introduced several friends to it, finding an even mix of those who fall in love too, and those who like it but don't feel it lived up. Nobody hasn't liked it. But because as an out-of-towner my revisits are infrequent (maybe a half dozen per year at best), I'm continuously comparing each new bite to the bite in my memory, and Shake Shack comes through every time.
The American cheese on the ShackBurger is a huge upgrade from the plasticky squares on its McCompetition. At Shake Shack it's always melted and sometimes approaches a velvety near-fondue, adding as much pleasant mouthfeel as richness. Green leaf lettuce and bright red tomato both appear garden fresh. The Shack sauce is a familiar riff on Thousand Island, but very well executed and not overdone. All of the ingredients in the sandwich are of high quality and in the right proportion to each other.
The Achilles heel might just be the fries, as they're the ordinary semi-thick frozen crinkle-cut variety frequently seen on a boardwalk. But for what they are, they're another example of good execution: warm, golden, crisp, fluffy and well salted.
First, the shakes. I think I had just one in about two dozen visits, and it was a competently prepared chocolate shake. Good thickness, no shortage of flavor, but nothing I'd call special.
As for the custard, I think it's very special. Some may call the burgers overrated, but I'm calling their custard as underrated as it gets. Whether in a "concrete" with signature or custom add-in combinations or as a simple cup, this custard brings extraordinary flavors, smooth-as-silk consistency and a richness that easily trumps ice cream. Standard flavors are limited to chocolate and vanilla; daily specials have included peanut butter and jelly, salted caramel, maple bacon banana, root beer freeze, fluffernutter, Shiraz pear. Many a late afternoon barbecue crawl has ended with a small cup of Shake Shack custard to cleanse away the smoke. For late night energy on stayovers, my go-to concrete is "Pretzel: the Concrete" (chocolate covered pretzels, peanut butter, fudge and marshmallow, all blended into a homogenous goop).
Yes, I've had and very much like In-n-Out burgers. Shake Shack blows them away.
The Bottom Line
The combination of an approachable, old school burger style with a surprisingly hifalutin (yet equally approachable) beef blend is irresistable. Then combine that with flawless execution, juiciness from a small patty, world class custard desserts and a no-attitude staff, and you've got a recipe for an all-time favorite.
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