Vox Populi: Spuds 2.0 Unveiled at Shake Shack

Although the title implies I’m going to be talking about Shake Shack, I promise that no hamburgers were consumed in the making of this post. After my killer dinner at Peter Luger, I’m letting the dust settle a bit before breaking into beef again. If you’re really curious, I do like the Shackburger, but this time around we’re going to focus on some of the lesser known elements of the menu.

If you haven’t heard, Danny Meyer recently admitted a gap in the Shake Shack menu, a crack in the metaphorical frozen custard concrete of the brand. Granted, he only admitted that flaw by immediately offering a new solution, but who would expect any less from the Sultan of Shack?

The issue: the Shack’s french fries, a quintessential part of any fast food meal, and a topic of some controversy in the food blogosphere. Prominent food writers like Ed Levine of Serious Eats had bemoaned the Shack’s cooked-from-frozen crinkle cuts, limp and generic in the face of Meyer’s ethos of heightening fast food with fresh ingredients and quality service. Personally, I’d never given much thought to the fries at Shake Shack. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about the restaurant on the whole — I know both people who actively dislike it, and some diehard fans who rack up multiple visits in a week. I can vouch that I’ve never had a bad meal there, but I’ve probably only been a handful of times since they opened their first shop in 2004. Casting a more contemplative eye towards the fries, however, I do tend to agree with the critics. As a potato enthusiast, I liked the old Shack fries because of a certain level of nostalgia (they reminded me of the Ore-Ida frozen fries my parents would occasionally serve as a dinner treat), but the truth is that they were substandard given the care put into the rest of the dishes Shake Shack offers. Yes, the crinkle cut fries had merit, since frying from frozen guarantees a consistent level of quality. But it also means that the flavor potential is capped — you’re never going to achieve the freshness you’d get from newly cut potatoes straight out of the fryer.

And so, 9 years after opening, Shake Shack admitted that they really had been listening. As they proudly announced on their website (http://www.shakeshack.com/2013/08/06/fresh-cut-fries-debut-at-ues-shake-shack/), they are, as of last week, serving fresh cut, never frozen, skin-on fries. It was revealed that the Upper East Side location served as the test kitchen, the staff spending countless hours training before opening each day. Right now you can only get the new fries at the UES branch, leaving a strange potato-paradox of past and present iterations coexisting in Manhattan, the crinkle and the fresh-cut fries simultaneously available with only a cross-town bus ride between them.

As it happens, despite living on the UES for 3 years, I’d actually never been to the Shake Shack up by me (I’ve visited their Upper West, Times Square, and Madison Square Park locations), so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out my local shop and be overly judgmental about some side dishes.

 

First Impressions:

The familiar logo at the entrance to the UES Shake Shack.

The familiar logo at the entrance to the Upper East Side Shake Shack.

The UES Shake Shack is on 86th Street between 3rd and Lex, so it’s nearly impossible to avoid walking by unless you’re a hermit who never leaves the neighborhood. The entrance features the familiar prominent plate glass windows, metallic lettering, and green neon fixtures of the rest of the chain’s locations. The restaurant itself is below street level, along with the outdoor plaza next door, which is technically open to the public but seems pretty much exclusively used by Shake Shack customers. Inside you’re greeted with the same pseudo-industrial aesthetic I noticed at BurgerFi — plain planks of wood siding and tables, green plastic chairs, and cool metal surfaces.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining  area.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining area.

The restaurant was in full-on fry propaganda mode. Outside, the windows had signs announcing “fresh cuts,” and the normal burger-shaped neon sign had been swapped for a new icon displaying a cup of fries. Inside, all of the employees were decked out in brand new green shirts with the same fry-cup design, topped with the caption “We Heard.” The Specials chalkboard near the menu featured the following message (note the hashtag), and there were announcement flyers detailing the new fries prominently displayed near the registers.

Did we mention we have new french fries?

I’m not sure if you knew, but Shake Shack has new fries.

No seriously, they're brand new.

No seriously, they’re brand new. But they’re keeping it kind of on the DL, hush-hush, you know?

I figured that as long as I was being adventurous, I might as well take a chance on Shake Shack’s vegetarian option, the ‘Shroom Burger, to make sure I ingest as many fried foods in one sitting as possible. Luckily, Jacob was there to split my order of fries, and he also opted for a non-hamburger item, choosing the Chicken Dog with Shack-Cago style fixings. Post meal, because somehow we weren’t totally stuffed, we also split a Single Concrete of Vanilla/Chocolate swirl with Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough.

 

The Food:

Our overflowing tray of the new fries -- golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

Our overflowing tray of the new fries — golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

First things, first — the fries. In my review of BurgerFi, the french fries ended up being the standout dish of the meal — my preferred medium-cut with good crisp and a bit of skin still on. Shake Shack’s new fries are very much of the same spirit, except thinner-cut. They completely lived up to the advertising copy — thin, starchy, salty, with obvious skin on at least one side of each fry, and a discernibly fresh potato flavor. None of the fries were limp or soggy, nor did I find any blackened burnt sticks, an impressive feat given the relative inexperience of the kitchen. Our generous portion seemed to be the norm as I watched other orders being filled, and because the fries are now thinner, I think it’s better bang for your buck than the chunkier old crinkle-cuts. Overall, I was impressed by the consistency of the fries, and the streamlined service the staff at Shake Shack had already conformed to — they had upwards of 5 people working the fry line during my visit (only a few days after initiating Operation: New Fries). It’s definitely a positive change for Shake Shack, especially because it’s more in line with their ethos of conscious fast food.

The fry line in action -- there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The fry line in action — there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The 'Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly "lighter" option at Shake Shack.

The ‘Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly “lighter” option at Shake Shack.

Unfortunately, I think there is still room for improvement in the vegetarian section of their menu. The ‘Shroom Burger (Crisp-fried portobello mushroom filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce) came out looking like a thick hockey-puck of crispy fried breading, like someone had tried to surreptitiously replace a beef patty with a monstrous mozzarella stick (on second thought, that doesn’t sound half bad). Although it plainly states on the menu that it’s a fried mushroom, in my head I had just skipped over that fact, imaging a vegetarian take on a Midwestern Juicy Lucy (a burger stuffed with cheese) with the portobello meat as the main attraction. The ‘Shroom comes with the same fixins’ as a regular Shackburger, and I while found the trademark Shacksauce paired well with the salty layer of fried crust,  I felt the sauce’s tanginess clashed with the mushroom flesh once I made it deeper into the patty.

Biting into the 'Shroom Burger, you're met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

Biting into the ‘Shroom Burger, you’re met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

As Jacob had warned, biting into the fried ball yielded a cascade of gooey molten cheese, so proceed with caution lest you burn your tongue. The muenster and cheddar were a great combination — once I was past the middle of the patty, and had mostly leftover cheese and naked mushroom flesh, that’s when I thought the dish really succeeded, with a strong flavor from the portobello shining through. Ultimately, I found the breading merely a distraction from the merits of the burger, unnecessary especially considering the lovely potato bun that Shake Shack uses for its sandwiches. The breading was salty and overwhelming, distracting from the inherent umami combination of the mushroom, tomato, and cheeses. I’d rather Shake Shack take their Shackburger and just sub the beef for a couple portobello caps, or even make a ground up mushroom burger and stuff that with cheese, rather than hiding the pleasure of flavorful fungi behind a mask of crowd-pleasing battered breading.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

Jacob seemed to enjoy his Chicken Sausage Dog (Shake Shack chicken, apple and sage sausage), which was topped with the Shack-cago Dog fixings (Rick’s Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt and mustard). I thought the sausage itself was great — don’t expect it to taste like a hot dog, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the interplay of the sweet apple and the earthy, herbal sage. I found the toppings to be a bit overwhelming, however. Maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy when it comes to hot dogs — gimme some ketchup, maybe some mustard, and I’m all set. Here I was disappointed by how the pickles and celery salt overpowered the subtle sausage flavors with their intense vinegar bent.

Our swirled Vanilla/Chocolate Concrete with Chocolate Truffle Dough. Take that, Dixie Cup!

Chocolate custard with dark chocolate truffle pieces — proof positive you can never have too much chocolate.

I feel like I barely have to give a review of the Concrete, because most of the time I find Maggie + ice cream = immense satisfaction, and this is just another proof of the validity of that equation. But I do think I should mention that while BurgerFi wins the french fry race in my heart (because of their slightly thicker-cut fries), Shake Shack has a lock on the frozen custard competition. Both the vanilla and the chocolate flavors were smoothy, creamy, and tasted exactly like what they claimed to be (some might think this would be obvious, but some frozen dessert shops, like Tasti D-Lite, offer vanilla and chocolate flavors that are somewhat different, but definitely don’t taste like a chocolate bar or a vanilla bean. It’s more of a “flavor A” or “flavor B” scenario). The texture of Shake Shack’s custard is somewhere between Mr. Softee’s soft-serve and Rita’s frozen custard. The Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough was misleading, because it seemed just like small chunks of chocolate truffles (I’m pretty sure truffles aren’t baked anyway, so using the term dough seems unnecessary), but regardless of nomenclature, they were delicious —  rich, dense, dark chocolate, just chewy enough to linger on your tongue as the custard melted away. My only complaint is that the truffle pieces were few and far between — I could have doubled down on those truffles, easy-as-pie (or custard, I suppose).

 

Final Thoughts:

Shake Shack’s empire is expanding exponentially these days, with new locations popping up both around the country (Washington DC and Boston this summer, Las Vegas in 2014), and around the world (London and Istanbul in just the past few months). With all of this growth, it’s gratifying to see that the company is still looking for new ways to improve their offerings. It still makes a difference what people are saying about their food, beyond focus groups and market tests. Will these french fries ever win a worldwide competition? Hardly — you’re better off checking our Pommes Frites down in the East Village if you want some hardcore fry action. But if you’re in Shake Shack, contemplating your options, pick up a side order — they’ll put Mickey D’s fries to shame.

I don’t doubt that once Shake Shack rolls out these new fries to all their locations, there will hardly be the same level of quality assurance. But the initial impulse comes from the right place. Yes, this is a fast food chain, yes, it’s a corporate monolith (although not faceless like McDonalds, thanks to Danny Meyer), and yes, there may even be a bit of disappointing discarding of principles in the face of business decisions (such as Chipotle’s new investigation into using antibiotic-treated meat). But for now, as Shake Shack is so proudly shouting out to the world, what the people want, the people will get. Maybe if we use our mouths as more than hamburger-receptacles,  it could lead to more changes, like a few more vegetarian options on the  menu. Danny Meyer’s aiming to empower, so  speak up, the Shack‘s all ears.

Shake Shack

(Multiple locations, new fries only at 154 E. 86th St)

http://www.shakeshack.com/

Snackshots

In the spirit of mixing things up (slash a thinly veiled attempt at proving I am actually taking more pictures when I eat/make things), I thought I would use this post as a brief retrospective of some of the delicacies from December and January that didn’t quite make it into the spotlight. Consider this a tour of the minor league, if you will.

Mulled wine from Radegast

Mulled wine from Radegast

I discovered my absolute favorite type of warm cocktail this winter — mulled wine. I used to be all about spiked apple cider, but as my beverage tastes have moved away from sweeter drinks, I found myself ordering mulled wine (and making it at home) more and more often. I’m a sucker for autumnal/wintry spices — cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, I find myself constantly cold, and I’m hoping to expand my taste for red wine, so you really couldn’t give me a better drink than mulled wine. This particular glass came from Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg, and was a great combination of citrus, spice, and slightly sweetened red wine. I really recommend checking Radegast out — it’s the first beer hall I’ve been to in NY, so I don’t have much to compare it with, but I enjoyed my wine, the hefeweizen I also ordered, and the German-esque food on the menu. As for space itself, the hall appears to be a converted factory, so for once in NY there’s actually plenty of space. One side of the hall is dominated by an enormous bar and smaller surrounding tables, and the other side holds the kitchen/grill and a dozen or so picnic tables.  I could see it getting a little crowded on weekend nights, but on a Saturday afternoon it was bustling without being raucous, and you can’t really argue with a Bavarian band providing the soundtrack for your daydrinking.

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

That same day I finally got to go to one of the Momofuku Milk Bar locations — albeit the one in Williamsburg, not the ones closer to me in the East Village or the Upper West Side. Milk Bar is known for its wacky takes on dessert — most famously for its Cereal Milk (yes, like the stuff left over in your bowl) and its Compost Cookie, which is a bit of a kitchen-sink type cookie with potato chips, cereal, coffee grounds, and other unexpected ingredients.

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar -- where to begin?

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar — where to begin? And yes, they do offer “pretzel milk” as well.

Although this was my first time actually inside of the store, I’ve had the opportunity to try some of the Milk Bar specialties like the Crack Pie and the Compost Cookie before. Still, there were an enormous number of options available, so I ended up falling back on my comfort zone of ice cream, and got the Oatmeal Creme Pie soft serve. I enjoyed it, but found it very mild in flavor, reminiscent of the way your milk tastes after you dunk an oatmeal cookie into it a few times. The texture of the soft serve was probably the best part — smooth and creamy in the way you want every Mr. Softee order to be. I wish they had given me a spoon instead of the nostalgic Dixie Cup wooden stick. I am eager to try out the pretzel shake at some point, not to mention the “fancy shakes” (aka spiked) shakes offered at the bottom of the menu, so I’ll probably make a trip back, although perhaps to one of the other locations.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

2012-12-16 15.19.02

The next port of call was Vegan Divas, an Upper East Side vegan bakery and cafe. I stopped in to pick up some holiday goodies for vegan coworkers. The shop was quaint but not cutesy — the focus was happily on the baked goods themselves.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

Vegan Divas has been praised for its donuts, so combined with my weakness for miniaturized things, there was little else I could pick out as gifts. I got myself a lemon-raspberry muffin, mainly to see how their baking fared. Sometimes vegan baking leads to incredible dense, lumpy cakes, so I wondered if all the wrinkles in the substitution scheme had been ironed out. Muffins can be very hit or miss depending on the baker, so I thought it would be a good test of the caliber of Vegan Divas’ desserts.

My small, but heavy muffin

My small, but heavy muffin

Unfortunately, I did find the muffin lacked the air-pocket-laden lightness of a great breakfast pastry. But texture aside, Vegan Divas succeeded in creating a healthy muffin (less than 100 calories) that didn’t taste like “health food.” The lemon and raspberry flavors were bright and very present, and I would be willing to go back and see what else the bakery has veganized, although I might opt for something more traditionally dense in makeup, like a brownie.

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

I’m pleased I was able to scrounge up at least one photo of a savory item from my recent gastronomical adventures. Shown above is the fabulous bowl of ramen I had from Minca in the East Village. I opted for the veggie-packed ramen, which to Minca‘s cooks apparently meant including an entire head of lettuce. Fortunately, beneath all that roughage was a deeply rich chicken broth with a hardboiled egg, an assortment of vegetables, and pieces of thinly sliced chicken. It was an umami-bomb, and I mean that in the best way possible. This was probably one of my favorite meals in the past month or so — simple fare but cooked expertly, and pretty inexpensive to boot. Although I personally prefer non-pork based ramen, Minca offers a wide range of soups from vegetarian to all the pig a person could want. Heads up, though — like a lot of ramen joints, Minca is cash only.

2012-12-30 19.14.56

Much like my love for the miniature, I also have a deep affection for holiday-themed versions of food. So despite it being well past Christmas when I baked this, I had to pick up the Nestle Holiday Baking Bits (aka red and green semisweet chocolate chips) that were on sale at Stop and Shop. C’mon — Christmas themed AND on sale? How could I resist? The monstrosity above was made for a New Year’s Party: Magic Bars/Seven Layer Bars/Munchies — whatever you want to call them, they involved graham cracker crumbs, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, butterscotch and white chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and Heath bar pieces. Let’s just say they were well-received.

Last, but not least, a picture from my recent visit to Salvation Taco. Although I decided to enjoy the meal sans compulsive photographing, I just had to share my last cocktail. Salvation Taco is the latest project from April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, the people behind the restaurant in the Breslin Hotel (great, but expensive brunch) and the Spotted Pig (supposedly a fantastic burger, but I’ve yet to make it there). Salvation Taco is a lounge/restaurant in the Pod 39 Hotel in Midtown, and although its over-the-top “hip” vibe is a little out of place in the mild-mannered just south of Grand Central neighborhood, I found the food and drinks to be playful and innovative. My favorite taco by far was the least taco-ish on the menu — ground Moroccan lamb served on a tiny piece of naan. My first cocktail was the “Fly By Night,” a mixture of “gin, lemon juice, cinnamon-vanilla bean, orange blossom, sea salt,” and came in a normal glass. But when I ordered the “5 Island Horchata,” which is listed as “5 island rum, coconut horchata, cold-brewed coffee, fernet-vallet, cinnamon and vanilla,” the waitress neglected to inform me of how my cocktail would be delivered:

Yup, in a parrot.

Yup, in a parrot.

It was a great drink, if a little on the heavy side. It ended up tasting mostly like a rum and coffee flavored slushy, which I was happy to slurp down, but left a bit of a snowball-esque lump in my stomach afterwards. Regardless, it was worth it, if only because I can now say, “why yes, I have had a cocktail out of a ceramic bird.” You know, in case that ever comes up.

I leave you with one last tidbit from my kitchen. Between Winter Restaurant Week and the Superbowl, there seems to a lot of serious eating in my near future. Of course I’m trying to be virtuous and eat salads and veggies where I can, but I did just get a cast iron skillet, and there’s really only one way to properly break that bad boy in:

2013-01-27 14.35.00

AW YEAH, GIANT SKILLET COOKIE. And yes, those are some leftover Nestle Holiday Baking Bits. Like I said, they were on sale!

 

Radegast Hall & Biergarten

113 N 3rd St, Brooklyn

radegasthall.com

Momofuku Milk Bar

Various locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn

milkbarstore.com

Vegan Divas

1437 First Avenue, (between 75th and 74th Street)

http://www.thevegandivas.com

Minca

536 E 5th St.

Salvation Taco

Pod 39 Hotel, 145 E 39th St

salvationtaco.com