When planning first started for a Spring NYC trip, I started to make a list of likely candidates for a “Burger Adventure” across the city. As I polled people for their tips, two words cropped up every time, generally with an increasing volume of nodding; Shake and Shack. It was for that reason, that on the last full day of the trip that we joined the epic queue that snaked around a sun-bathed Madison Square Park mid-afternoon and hoped that the experience would match the ensuing wait. I’ll skip to the end. It does.
On the face of it, here are the facts; Shake Shack is – at least in this original location – a burger stand in a city park. All seating is outdoors, which at least in the city’s unseasonally warm Spring, affords a chance to eat whilst enjoying a constant parade of the well-dressed miniature dogs, that seem to almost outnumber the human visitors to the park. It’s menu is a mix of burgers, hotdogs and the shakes (along with their frozen custard cousins) which give provide the inspiration for the eponymous name.
Rotating daily specials – advertised on boards along the queue route – add to the simple choices; 5 burgers (served as single or double pattys), dogs with a similar number of topping choices, shakes/custard in various forms and drinks (both sodas and alcoholic varities). Prices are keen, burgers ranging from $3.50 to just over $8, dogs $3 upwards and their crinkle-cut chips on the side for just north of $2.50.
Let’s deal first with the obvious first question, that of the queue. Yes, it can be long. Our mid-afternoon wait before ordering was around 40 minutes, with another 10 minutes before receiving our food. On a nice day like that that we experienced, it was a pleasant experience and the queue moves pretty steadily, in less fair conditions it would be less enjoyable. Having said that, this is still a burger stand in a park where you’re going to be parting with no more than $10. Comparing this experience with any bricks and mortar operation would be grossly unfair, but having done my fair share of queuing for street burgers of late, this was one of the more pleasant waits.
We ordered the day’s burger special; “Smoke Shack”, a bacon/cheese with cherry pepper relish and the house “Shack Sauce” (their variation on the trad mayo/ketchup sauce), a standard single “Shack Burger” (lettuce, tomato, cheese and the “Shack Sauce”), Frisky Dog (with tomato infused onions), fries and a soda to wash it down with. A few minutes later and the buzzer signalled our order box was ready for collection and a moments pause for photography later, we tucked in.
The pattys are 4oz beef mixes, hand shaped and cooked just north of medium. This a burger of the traditional variety, unsullied by pretention, but concocted perfectly. Served in a grease-proof paper half-dish (an innovation that I wish would become popular in the UK), each lasted no more than a couple of minutes of silent consumption; the special’s sting of chilli and lick of salt from the bacon meshed beautifully with the still-moist beef, the house standard burger managed to balance the basic perfectly.
The dog was marginally less successful; served as a half-slice, it lacked real juice until the tomato/onion sauce was added… this is a dog that needs well-saucing to bring it to properly life (or in this case with a little sweet & sour mix). Fries too, hot and crispy as they were, needed a good dousing in salt before they stepped up to the standard set by the burgers.
As the popularity of Shake Shack has grown in the 8 years of their existence, they’ve spawned a few more branches and there’s some groans that this has come at the price of inconsistency across the locations. This may be true, but at their original location in the park, there’s little to suggest that either their popularity, or the quality of what they do, is in on the wain. Ignore the inevitable wait, just go visit.
Madison Square Park (Madison Ave. / East 23rd St.), NYC.