As alert readers will have noticed, I really like food, especially the artery-clogging variety. Sure, I enjoy a lovely arugula salad from time to time, and I don’t feel deprived when I pick up a treat from Tasti D-Lite (screw Pinkberry!) or Jamba Juice rather than Ben & Jerry’s. But Mama always comes back to the comfort cuisine.
I tend to be a creature of habit as well as a bit of a cynic, which means that I’m usually a few years behind the curve when it comes to the Next Big Food Thing. (I’m also frequently caught wearing styles that were hot a decade ago.) So when I first saw all the yuppie scum waiting in line in Madison Square Park at lunchtime, I thought, “What kind of morons stand around waiting for thirty minutes for a burger?” Seriously, just because it’s run by restaurateur Danny Meyer, who probably spent a little more coin on logo design than did the owners at your average greasy spoon, doesn’t mean that the Shake Shack is the second coming of ground red meat.
Here’s the thing, though: it is. What would Jesus do? He would eat lunch at Shake Shack.
Luckily, I still haven’t had to wait around in the park with the rabble in order to partake in this quasi-religious experience, because the Shack now has indoor locations around Manhattan: in the Theater District, in Battery Park City, on the Upper East Side, and (my preferred site) on the Upper West, right near the American Museum of Natural History. In a parallel universe, I live in this neighborhood, and every Friday, after picking up my gifted and talented child from his or her excellent public grade school, I treat him/her to an afternoon among the dinosaur bones and crazy-ass gemstones, and then to a yummy, juicy, greasy dinner. In my real life, I happen to work in the area a few times a week, which gives me an excuse to indulge in the Shack’s sinfully scrumptious burgers (including a mind-blowing veggie option), fries, hot dogs, compotes and custards.
I feel almost guilty lavishing my praise (and my money) on this high-end fast food chain. Am I sure the grub is actually better than at your average burger joint, or am I just being seduced by the creator’s pedigree (Meyer currently runs five pricey restaurants in NYC—one within a jazz club—in addition to managing the cafés at the Whitney Museum and MoMA)? This weekend, I challenged myself to resolve this question when I conveniently found myself near a Five Guys location. Once again, I’m way late on this East Coast cultural obsession; this chain began spreading to areas outside of its native D.C. eight years ago, and hell, POTUS did photo-ops there twice in 2009. But from what I tasted at the restaurant in downtown Brooklyn, I haven’t been missing much. The portions are massive, and the fries are pretty tasty, but the burger’s the thing—or ought to be—and I found it bland and too well-done. America, once again you disappoint me.
Shake Shack’s patties are smaller than those at Five Guys, but thicker, and cooked medium, so that you can actually taste, you know, the meat (a special, secret blend on which the company holds a trademark). In the interests of full disclosure, I will confess that I haven’t actually sampled the, uh, shakes…but if they’re as good as the frozen custard I inhaled earlier this week—Boston Cream Pie was the flavor of the day—I think they would satisfy any milkshake connoisseur. So is it just a coincidence that, given the choice of a blue-collar, just-the-basics burger chain like Five Guys, or a budget gourmet one like Shake Shack, my taste buds go for the latter? I’m afraid not. Once again I prove myself a hopeless Manhattanite, trying to have it both ways: wanting a relatively quick, simple meal but hoping to be transported to Food Heaven in the process. This doesn’t mean I’ll never deign to eat at Wendy’s, Mickey D’s, or (when in L.A.) In-N-Out ever again…but when I do, the aura of Shake Shack will be hovering over me, reminding me why people are so devoted to it: like NYC, it takes pride in doing a lot of fun stuff really well. Of course, that doesn’t mean its awesomeness remains confined to New York…foodies from Connecticut to Florida to Kuwait (yeah, that Kuwait) can now also enjoy the fare that makes twentysomethings in pencil skirts cheat on their diets!
Speaking of which…this column is going to be dormant again for a while. I have to go to the gym.