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Owner Danny Meyer created Shake Shack in New York City's Madison Square Park, loosely based on midwestern burger institution Steak and Shake. Shake Shack quickly became a New York City institution of its own, with lines willing to wait over an hour for the fast food style burger that was cooked to order. After expanding to multiple locations within New York City, Miami, Philadelphia and Connecticut, among others, Shake Shack announced it would finally hit Boston—if you're willing to call Chestnut Hill Boston—in "early spring" of 2013. Not only did the actual opening not drift into mid summer like most restaurant openings would, it happened on the very first day of spring. A good sign.
Located in a well landscaped area of The Street (oh, those wacky mall names) on Route 9 westbound, Shake Shack has surprisingly easy-to-obtain parking. You wait in line, order at the counter and they give you a buzzer. Though it often looks like you'll never get a seat, by the time your buzzer goes off, an opening always materializes. You pick up your order, assembled on a paper-lined metal tray. Burgers are tucked inside wax paper bags for neat and easy eating. The surroundings are all reclaimed and re-used wood, designed to create as peaceful an environment as possible in the middle of shopping mall chaos. In the warmer months, outdoor dining is an option. There are even heat lamps to keep the warm around as late into the calendar as possible.
The newer Harvard Square location, opened right after the new year in 2014, doesn't share the same easy parking but does have a funkier, more relaxed upstairs space witrh a fireplace and a view.
Shake Shack was an early practitioner of the Martin's potato roll as a burger housing. Super fresh, bouncy and slightly eggy (think challah) in flavor, 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 stand out and pliable enough to stay in lock step with the beef for the entire glorious ride. At Chestnut Hill, sometimes the ride gets bogged down by a slightly too soft, slightly mushy bun, but for the most part the bun is a big plus.
I've often said that the Shake Shack beef blend is the most exotic and luxurious you will ever have in a $5-and-under burger. Although the beef at the Chestnut Hill location is purportedly the same Pat LaFrieda blend (chuck, shortrib and brisket, they say) used 200 miles southwest, something's not quite in sync.
Yes, the well-done exterior is crisp, but noticeably less so than at the older locations (and on my first few visits, missing altogether). Yes, there's salt and juiciness and obvious beef flavor superior to all competitors at this price point, but all have been inconsistent early on and still backed off just enough from the original that the burger at both greater Boston locations doesn't compare. It's still good to very good, but short of the greatness I experienced so many times in New York and Connecticut.
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.
Tempting as the nouveau SmokeShack might seem, its bacon underwhelms me and its cherry pepper relish overwhelms the beef, so stick with the classic ShackBurger, whether single or double. The American cheese 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 are a good fit, though sometimes the lettuce isn't as bright, fresh and clean as what I've encountered at other locations. The Shack sauce is a familiar riff on Thousand Island, very well executed and not overdone. The ingredients in the sandwich are generally of high quality and in the right proportion to each other.
The Achilles heel might just be the fries. At Chestnut Hill 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. Possibly my favorite frozen fry. Down in New York, they've already experimented with fresh cut fries, so maybe these will head north as well.
At Harvard Square, the newly introduced hand-cut fries (not available at all Shake Shacks) brought a thinner cut, good potatoey flavor and just enough salt. Unfortunately they felt (temperature, texture) like they'd been sitting around a while. And another pet peeve: a high percentage of tiny broken pieces.
First, the shakes. 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. My go-to concrete is "Pretzel: the Concrete" (chocolate covered pretzels, peanut butter, fudge and marshmallow, all blended into a homogenous goop).
Execution has been sloppy.
If my first exposure to Shake Shack was the Chestnut Hill location, I'd be wondering what all the fuss was about and call it overrated and overhyped. It's good—more within its class than compared against a Craigie On Main or a Back Bay Social Club or a JM Curley—but hardly great, at least for now.
Perhaps Shake Shack global expansion has finally caught up with itself. Despite one hiccup within the first two weeks of New Haven, my experiences at the recently built Connecticut outposts have been just fine, and the Westport CT store is as reliably great as any of its predecessors in New York. But you can only stretch a good thing so thin. Chestnut Hill is both good and improving, so I can live without it being great for a while.
The Bottom Line
Okay, so maybe I've been a little critical and maybe there's still a significant gap to be bridged between what Shake Shack is at other locations and the state of the Boston branches right now. That said, this is a very good burger and the best of its breed within Boston. The combination of an approachable, old school burger style with a surprisingly hifalutin (yet equally approachable) beef blend is irresistable when executed properly. Here's hoping they eventually get it right.I'm still waiting.
My NYC Shake Shack review
My Westport & New Haven CT Shake Shack review
My Six Tips for Optimizing Your First Visit to Shake Shack
Yelp reviews of Shake Shack Chestnut Hill
Yelp reviews of Shake Shack Harvard Square
Urbanspoon reviews of Shake Shack Chestnut Hill
Urbanspoon reviews of Shake Shack Harvard Square
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