Alan Richman hits all four N.Y.C. outposts of the burgeoning Shake Shack empire
If there isn't already one near you, there will be soon. Shake Shacks are on the move.
The newest branch, on the Upper East Side, opened two weeks ago, on August 6. Then, suddenly, it was no longer the newest branch. Seven days later I read an announcement that a Shake Shack would be opening in Washington, D.C., early next year. I figured that would bring the total to eight: four in Manhattan, one in Queens at Citi Field, one in Saratoga Springs, one in Miami Beach, and soon one in the nation's capital. I figured wrong. I had missed one. The Battery Park City branch, also scheduled for 2011, had slipped by my Ballistic Burger Early Warning System. I was reminded of War of the Worlds, relentless machines on the move.
I knew I couldn't stop them. I could only review them.
I decided to check out the four branches in Manhattan, knowing that if I wasn't either clever or lucky, I would spend more hours waiting than eating. Concerts, free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, and Danny Meyer's burgers are what New Yorkers will happily stand in line for these days. Going during off-hours, when nobody is supposed to be eating, seemed to be my most efficient option. Actually, there is no time when nobody is eating at a Shake Shack. I always found lines.
My plan was to order the basics: A single, plain hamburger so I could investigate the quality of the meat. A double (two patties) ShackBurger with its standard toppings of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and slightly garlicky ShackSauce, the ultimate in Shake Shack offerings. Fries. Vanilla shake. I ended up having a caramel shake at each branch, too, because a friend who joined me at the first location demanded one. I was so perplexed by that first one I couldn't resist ordering another everywhere I went.
Upper East Side, Sunday, 3:30 p.m.; two days after the grand opening; 79 people in line, 35-minute wait.
I ordered all my burgers rare. (At Shake Shacks, the options are rare, medium, or well-done.) I wanted to experience the heralded Pat LaFrieda proprietary blend ground beef without taking a chance on it being overcooked. My conclusion: The meat, while beefy and dense, isn't particularly flavorful or juicy. It has sufficient fat, but what it does not have—I speak now of the love that dare not speak its name—is blood. We all crave juicy burgers, and blood is what juicy is all about. The LaFrieda blend is simply not bloody enough.
The very soft Shake Shack potato roll comes buttered and grilled. It compresses as you grip it until, finally, it's compacted into near-nothingness. I rather admired the roll because it didn't overwhelm the meat, but one of my friends said it was too soft—she claimed to see her fingerprints squished down into it. The vanilla shake is perfect in flavor, but at three of the four locations it was under-stirred, which meant there was a blob of partially melted frozen custard within a thin, milky liquid. (It reminded me of the milkshake floats I liked as a kid.) The caramel shake turned out to be wrong for so many reasons. The crinkle-cut fries are satisfying in an eating-on-the-boardwalk way, but they don't have a great deal of potato flavor.
Although the four locations I visited had identical menus, they do not look alike. Finally, this: Most hamburger joints, particularly chains, appear to be staffed by surly juvenile offenders on parole, whereas the attitude at every one of the Shake Shacks was astoundingly helpful. I suggest Meyer be named chancellor of the New York City Department of Education
Madison Square Park, Monday, 3:15 p.m.; 9 people in line, 2-minute wait.
Shuffling along in line, I read signs in the window attesting to ethical construction, sustainably harvested oak walls, salvaged bowling alley lanes, and friendly teak plantations—to be honest, I never knew teak plantations to be hostile. The newest generation of Shake Shacks are big on consciousness-raising. Here you will find an outdoor seating area in a reclaimed area between buildings, a considerate touch. The patties—one in the single, two in the ShackBurger—came medium-rare, even though ordered rare. The fragile roll had trouble containing the gooey, delicious mess that's a ShackBurger. The fries were okay, although mostly about crunch. The lip-smacking milkshake was undermixed. The caramel shake tasted like the vanilla shake—I was pretty sure the milkshake team had failed to add whatever flavoring agent transforms it into caramel. The brand-new servers also forgot one of my burgers, but they gave me the missing item cheerfully when I went back to complain.
I warned an out-of-town friend going with me that the wait could be up to two hours. Because he didn't understand the mystique of Shake Shack, he replied, "In that case, why don't you just have it delivered?" How commonplace would Shake Shacks be if they stooped to that? Only one goody-goody boast here, that the electricity is wind-powered. This is the finest burger venue in Manhattan, at least during warmer months. It has a perfect outdoor setting: pulverized pebbles underfoot, plane trees, slatted chairs, balloons, kids, dogs. A statue of New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, who died of exposure after walking through the Blizzard of 1888, stands in the park, serving as a warning to those who are thinking of dining outdoors in winter. The burger patties, ordered rare, were between rare and raw. The caramel shake was dark and bitter. The vanilla shake was semi-stirred again. The fries had more potato flavor, maybe because of better spuds. Despite the flaws, this is informal alfresco dining at its best.
Upper West Side, Tuesday, 10:30 p.m.; 8 people in line, 3-minute wait.
You want a shack, this is it. The tables and benches appear to be government-issue lawn furniture, molded from scrap metal. Downstairs is a small seating area that looks like an underfunded senior center with a donated flat-screen TV. All of the burgers, again ordered rare, came medium-well. They seemed bigger and greasier than the others—this was the first Shake Shack where fat from the meat dripped on my pants. The fries seemed to have been cooked in not-quite-pristine, late-night oil, which enhanced their taste. Both milkshakes were fully mixed and uniformly creamy. The caramel had just the slightest dab of flavoring, which meant it tasted like a weird vanilla shake. I ate outside, on a bench, with artificial turf underfoot. No professions of piety toward society or the environment were in sight. This is a Shake Shack for truckers and motorcycle gangs.
The blinking, shimmying Shake Shack marquee does everything but play "Give my regards to Danny." Very nice. Inside are more marquee-style bulbs, these in overhead fixtures. The decor is basic, but wood tables and wood benches cheer the place up. A true open kitchen allowed me to observe employees doing very little—this is the slowest Shake Shack of them all, as my too-long wait in line demonstrated. The single burger, ordered rare and cooked perfectly, was wildly salty. The twin patties in the ShackBurger were medium-rare and salty. The fries were fine, the vanilla milkshake again undermixed. The caramel shake had a novel problem—it was only foamy milk, without any discernable frozen custard. Bathrooms require a Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff-style entry-code for access. I promise that you won't figure it out the first time you try. Probably not the second time, either. And getting out of a stall is no cinch.
Theater District, Thursday, 4:45 p.m.; 7 people in line, 9-minute wait.
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