Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Shake Shack Sheep

When people ask if I’ve ever been to Mardi Gras, my answer is that I would never visit New Orleans when it’s so crowded. The same rule applies in my life when it comes to Black Friday, free Shakespeare in the Park, and Danny Meyer’s global hit burger chain Shake Shack. Mr. Meyer started his empire 30 years ago with Union Square Café, and has experienced continued, subsequent success after opening restaurants like my favorite, Gramercy Tavern (whose original chef, Tom Colicchio, is now famous in his own right). Shake Shack was different from the restit was Mr. Meyer’s personal love project based on the modest burgers, fries and ice cream he experienced growing up in the Midwest.

As the first Shake Shack opened in NYC’s Madison Square Park in the early '00s, the lines of people waiting to get their hands on some began. Personally I think waiting in long lines is crazy, associated in my mind with having a sheep mentality and following the herd. Sometimes the line is worth it, often times it's not. I thereforedespite being a loyal Mr. Meyer fanavoided trying Shake Shack for a very long time. Then, on a cold night in 2014 while dog sitting in Brooklyn, I figured it might be time to give it a shot. The newly opened downtown Brooklyn location was close by and didn’t have lines, so there was no excuse.

What did I think of my first Shake Shack cheeseburger, fries and Concrete (soft custard
so thick it’s like concrete)? It was all overwhelmingly meh. Really? Then why are there snaking lines at all the NYC locations, and world expansion to places like Dubai? This confused the dickens out of me. "I don’t get it," I'd often say, an opinion vindicated on Facebook when a food-writer pal agreed wholeheartedly. He didn’t get it either, confirming that too many people are acting like sheep when it comes to Shake Shack.

Then two things happened this summer: 1) Shake Shack smartly joined the current fried chicken craze sweeping the city by creating the limited edition ChickenShack sandwich, and 2) a Brooklyn foodie friend exonerated Shake Shack by saying the Brooklyn location had the weakest kitchen, so I should try again. My inner dialogue flipped and turned, "But…lines! Hey, I’m no sheep! However as a seeker of fried chicken miracles, the press photo of that new sandwich sure looks great!" The new chicken sandwich was testing only in Brooklyn, where I would soon be dog sitting again, so a second attempt at Shake Shack was imminent.

I arrived at the downtown Brooklyn location on a Friday at 6:10 p.m. There was not only no line outside; there was no line inside! I walked right up to the counter and in 10 minutes had the ChickenShack sandwich in hand. It was delicious, and that had nothing to do with my no-lines good mood. 

The sandwich displayed a beautiful point and counterpoint: a crunchy, juicy chicken patty (with real meat, not ground) against a soft and fluffy potato bun. Also on the sandwich: some shredded lettuce, pickle (thankfully, a nice change from the ubiquitous sandwich tomato) and buttermilk herb mayo. For $6.29 + tax, I had an incredible taste experience and also felt like an ass. How could I have been so closed-minded? Did my anti-sheep mentality block my taste buds the first time? Do I just like chicken better than burgers? Or were my expectations too high? Hmm, the Brooklyn location was new in 2014; maybe back then it wasn't up to snuff yet.

But back to the present. After gingerly eating the sandwich to make it last longer, I decided it was only fair to try another Concrete for dessert. And I was sure it would be meh again no matter if I swirled in dark chocolate chunks and peanut butter sauce, walked it back to the apartment in the heat and refroze it. Guess what. It was SO GOOD. Everything was so good. So, after having a ChickenShack plus a Concrete 180, for the sake of research I decided to go back the next day to try the burger again, and heck, as long as I’m already there, an order of cheese fries would not be a horrible idea either.

The next day I trudged (jaunted?) back to Shake Shack, and then something occurred to me. During the '90s the city seriously upped its burger game, where restaurants became the sheep by all serving gourmet, butcher-blended, short rib and/or truffle stuffed burgers with $25+ price tags. Burgers became a fancy food, revamped, elevated, and priced on par with more serious entrées.

That fancy and stuffy city burger trend is still here. And maybe that’s why as I took a bite of my Shake Shack burger, I tasted yesteryear: the backyard BBQ, a grilled burger at the beach or the stadium. The Shake Shack burger remains simple and true as it proclaims to all haughty NY restaurant burgers, "Get over yourself, burger. This is what I’m supposed to be, and nothing more." Now I get it.

Alas, it’s as if a stubborn veil of denial blocked my ability to have an unbiased eating experience, and now that I’ve seen the light the veil has lifted and I am suddenly now a sheep too. Bah! Well, as long as there are no lines.

Until we eat again,

ps: This blog is now located back in NYC. All previous entries were LA-based.

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