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