Shake Shack-down!

Burgers are like opinions…

So, I went to Shake Shack the other night. Yes, that Shake Shack. We have a new one near my work.

This is one of those establishments who’s reputation proceeds it. I’d been hearing about the place for years, but had never had the chance to visit one. The day before my visit, several co-workers were discussing its merits. One swore by the burgers, but thought the fries were undercooked. Two others thought it was a bit expensive, but worth it to varying degrees.

I arrived just after 8pm on a Sunday. Maybe a dozen people were in the dining room, with a few coming in before and after me. The menu offers five burger options, four hot dog types, a chicken sandwich, a modest selection of shakes and a range other ice cream desserts, with a couple seasonal ones listed, and basic beer and wine. There’s even a house dog biscuit listed.

I debated trying a more complicated burger selection, but something I’ve taken to doing more often lately is ordering the basic “house” selection as a starting point. This makes for a more consistent benchmark when measuring against other burger joints. The ShackBurger comes with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and Shacksauce. I took the burger and fries to go and ate on my drive home.

So what did I think? Let’s start with a fundamental truth about burgers. Burgers, like other foods, come in such a range that it’s unfair to compare them all as equals. From a distance, they may share a common foundation, but get up close and there are various styles that should be separated into categories. There should be the pressed down thin burgers with the crispy edges (like Shake Shack and Smashburger), the thick, roughpacked patties, the greasy, smooth pressed squares, and so on. Chains that have drivethrus should be separately compared from those that don’t. To lump them all in the same category and compare ignores the value in the variety, and how one can crave different styles at different times.

I have never found just one burger to top all burgers. My past favorites include a place called the Onion Grill, which no longer exists. They used a special seasoning blend in their handmade patties, housemade pickled cucumbers, thick slices of onion and melty American cheese, and used that same seasoning on their awesome thick cut fries. Denny’s also once offered a surprisingly delicious garlic mushroom swiss burger that remains the barsetter for that style. That being said, I would put Shake Shack in a category that includes Five Guys, Smashburger, Wayback Burgers, and others. The slightly upscale fast casual shop, where the burgers are a little pricier and offer some customization that breaks from the fast food clones.

As is my habit, I started with the crinkle cut fries. While tasty and fresh, they fell a little short of my all time favorite crinkle cut fries from Portillo’s. In addition, I’m convinced that crinkle cut fries are the best for dipping in ketchup and darn near require it. I learned the hard way a long time ago not to dip and drive, so the fries suffered a bit for it.

Now on to the burger. The patty was a great example of a pressed burger, a bit thinner with crispy edges and had good overall flavor. The lettuce was dark and leafy, probably the same as McDonald’s serves on its signature line. (Sorry, I only know my lettuces well enough to know it was not romaine, iceberg, spinach, arugula, or bibb.) The tomatoes may have been roma. Then there’s the Shacksauce. A little creamy, a little tangy, but beyond that, not as stand out as I’d hoped. All of this sits on a soft bakery-style bun, hinged on one side. I feel like whenever bread is served this way, it leads to an inconsistent distribution of flavors, which has always been a detractor for me. The sauce wasn’t present throughout, so it meant a noticeable portion of the burger was less distinct.

Overall, I enjoyed Shake Shack, but would not put it at the top of my list. I’ll return to try a shake at a later date, but my search continues for a master burger to rule them all. I don’t expect to ever find just one. I do expect to eat a lot of delicious burgers along the way. Enjoy!