Shake Shack Shakedown: Are All ShackBurgers Created Equal?


The expansion of Shake Shack is a double-edged sword. With four Shake Shack locations in Manhattan (plus another in Queens, one in Saratoga, and one in Miami, with more on the way), the average New Yorker is now closer than ever to juicy, gooey, beefy, cheesy bliss. On the other hand, the real question is whether or not quality will suffer with the expansion. Is it possible to cook burgers that are not only the best in the city, but consistently the best in the city in four different locations?

I took it upon myself to find out.

I'd eaten a few burgers in each of the four Manhattan locations in the past, but this time I decided to taste all four within a single lunch time. Man, do I love my job.

"There are few burgers in the world that are better cooked to medium than to rare. The ShackBurger is one of those"

At each location I ordered a regular ShackBurger with no special requests. It comes with a single American-cheesed patty, two slices of Roma tomato, a single piece of green leaf lettuce, and a few squirts of their not-so-secret ShackSauce (the secret ingredient is pickles) all on a buttered and toasted Martin's Potato Rolls. There are few burgers in the world that are better cooked to medium than to rare. The ShackBurger is one of those, precisely because the flavor of a ShackBurger is just as much about the browned crust as it is about the tender beef. Too little time on the griddle and its signature aroma simply doesn't develop, and its grind is of a texture that tends to stay mushy if cooked too rare.

Unlike large, grilled burgers which can dry out, a thin griddled ShackBurger manages to maintain a good deal of juiciness even when taken to medium. That it's coated in cheesy goo and garlicky mayo certainly helps as well. All the same, in the name of good investigative journalism, I decided to order a single plain rare hamburger at each location to ensure that the harried burger flippers could still get you your burger cooked to order.

I judged each of the restaurants and burgers by the following criteria:

  • The Line: Do I have to wait an inordinately long time for my food? And if so, is it at least a reasonably pleasant environment to wait in?
  • Crust Formation: ShackBurgers are cooked using the smash-n-scrape technique which is designed to maximize the formation of the browned beefy sheath that covers one side of each patty. Are the smashers and scrapers doing their job right?
  • Temperature and Juiciness: ShackBurgers come medium by default, but you can order them rare or well-down if desired. How close to target are they? And are the burgers still hot and juicy when they get into my hands?
  • Toppings and Construction: Is the lettuce crisp and is the tomato juicy and flavorful? Is the cheese melted right and is the whole package assembled as neatly as it should be?
  • Sides: The fries at the Shake Shack have never been fantastic (frozen, crinkle cut, not much potato flavor), but at the very least they should be hot, crisp, and well-seasoned. I got one order of fries and a milkshake at each location. How'd they stack up to the burgers?

Madison Square Park: The Original and Best

10 Madison Avenue (in the park; map); 212-538-1884

If there's one good thing to come out of the rapid expansion of the Shake Shack, it's this: In all but the worst of times (I'm looking at you, pretty-spring-days), the lines are completely bearable. Indeed, with only 4 people in line, my wait time at the original Madison Square Park location, which just a few years ago would have been in the upwards of 45 minutes range was a mere 7 minutes 28 seconds from my time of arrival until I received my food. That's significantly less time than it takes to get an order of fries from the McDonald's around the corner from my place in Harlem*, and waiting outdoors in Madison Square Park (even in the winter—they've got heat lamps!) is a uniquely pleasurable experience to share with your dog.

*Unofficial but rigorous testing has declared it to be THE most inefficient McDonald's in the world.

20110106-shack-comparison - 03.jpg

"there is much less of a lag between the time a burger comes off the griddle and the time it reaches your eager paws."

I've always felt that the original location did the best job with their burgers, and this roundup confirmed it. It's tough to pinpoint exactly what makes them better. The UES Shack has a better crust. The Times Square location keeps their burgers juicier. My guess is that it's a combination of two factors. First, the griddle has been in service for several years longer, slowly soaking up the flavors from the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of burgers that have been pressed onto it in its lifetime. Secondly, the kitchen is smaller. Though this means that they cook fewer burgers at a time, there is much less of a lag between the time a burger comes off the griddle and the time it reaches your eager paws.

We've said it here many times before: A truly great burger should be more than the sum of its parts. The original ShackBurger from the MSP location is the poster child for this notion.

Upper East Side: The Seared-est Crust

154 East 86th Street (b/n Lexington and 3rd aves; map); 646-237-5037

The newest addition to the Shack-family is on the Upper East Side, right across the street from where I used to wait for the bus home from school every day. I would have been a much rolier-polier kid if I were in high school now. This one gets points for the second best outdoor seating arrangement of the four. In their spacious garden, you can almost forget that you're in the middle of the city, though they lose points for most uncomfortable line. It snakes around the interior and up a set of stairs on bad days. Today it was only seven people long. I had my food in 9 minutes 19 seconds.

20110106-shack-comparison - 06 copy.jpg

"one side of the patty is significantly thinner than the other"

The first thing I noticed with both my burgers (and the several burgers I've had here in the past) is that they take smashing and scraping to the extreme on the Upper East Side, to the slight detriment of the burger. They get compressed with such force and ferocity that often one side of the patty is significantly thinner than the other. Despite developing an amazing crust—one that can rightfully be described as "crisp," the patties suffer from toughness. Of all the locations, this was the only one that served me a tomato that was pale pink and mealy instead of bright red and juicy. This could be a fluke.

If crust is your thing, head here. I prefer it when there's a better balance struck between crust and moisture.

Upper West Side: Best Option If You're Already In the Neighborhood

11 Madison Avenue (at 77th Street; map); 646-747-8770

This is the one closest to my own 'hood, so I desperately wanted it to be the best. Unfortunately, not all ShackBurgers are created equal, and customers at this outpost get the short end of the stick. It's not the space that's bad. I love the astro-turfed outdoor bench with the built-in dog bowl and leash-holder (Dumpling certainly appreciates it). The vertical flower pots and greenhouse seating are also nice, but stay away from the cafeteria-style basement. Lines here can be bad, especially after school, but today I got in and out in 12 minutes 43 seconds.

20110106-shack-comparison - 09.jpg

Indeed it was the UWS location that first put the idea of a Shack-off style tasting in my mind. I get a burger from there approximately ever two months, and while I'm never disappointed, I've also never felt it stacked up to the Madison Square Park burgers.

Today, I managed to quantify a few of those feelings. The most obvious problem is the crust, or relative lack thereof. It exists, but it doesn't have the deep deep browning of the other locations. The burger also comes out too cold—this fits into my theory of the smaller kitchen side helping out at Madison Square Park. By the time I bit into it, it was still warm, but the cheese had begun to congeal. Finally, it was the least well-seasoned of the bunch—a problem I've noticed here several times.

The Upper West Side Shake Shack may still be the best burger in the neighborhood, but it's at the bottom of the Shack pile (the Shack stack?).

Times Square: The Least Like a ShackBurger

691 8th Ave (b/n 43rd and 44th streets; map); 212-956-1795

Okay, strange things are afoot at the Times Square Shake Shack. There's nothing weird about the location itself other than the fact that there's no outdoor seating at all. The interior is probably the nicest of all, with plenty of large windows, low-tops, and bar-style seating. Despite the crowds in Time Square, the cooks seem to have found their stride, rapidly churning through orders. With a line of 9 people, I had burger-in-hand in 10 minutes 33 seconds.

And what an odd burger it was.

20110106-shack-comparison - 13.jpg

Odd not because there was anything wrong with it per se, just that it was so vastly different from what I've come to recognize as a pretty uniform product in every other venue I've had it at.

"It's a different tool and different technique, and gave markedly different results."

Rather than being smashed into the wide, thin, well-browned patty I'm used to, the burger at the Times Square Shack was barely pressed at all, coming out about twice as thick and a good three-fourths of an inch narrower than any other burger I'd tasted that day. Peering back into the cooking area, I discovered why. Rather than using the two-handed stiff spatula smash that's employed at the other locations, the grill cook here was using a circular meat pounder to press the patties down with one hand. It's a different tool and different technique, and gave markedly different results.

20110106-shack-comparison - 20.jpg
Times Square thick patty on the left, MSP smasher on the right.

There's still no faulting the beef, which is juicy, flavorful, and well blended, but the sandwich becomes a totally different eating experience—one that's not representative of the Shake Shack in general, and it's unfortunate that this is the burger that so many of the Times Square tourists are going to judge the chain by. Just hop on the train to Madison Square Park!

And what about the fries?

20110106-shack-comparison - 25.jpg

They were as indistinguishable as they are undistinguished. Crisp, slightly greasy, and plenty salty, they get the job done, without offering much by way of excitement.