The Long-Awaited Verdict on Shake Shack
Ever since Shake Shack opened in Beirut City Centre last September, I’ve been following diners’ reviews with earnest. Many of you know I was born and raised in Southern California, but Shake Shack is a rather new operation (est. 2004) concentrated for the most part on the East Coast, so I'd never before tried it. With 21 locations in the USA (9 of which are in NYC alone) and 13 worldwide, Shake Shack is the wholly-owned subsidiary of Union Square Hospitality Group run by the esteemed restaurateur Danny Meyer.
Shake Shack prides itself on its freshly-ground 100% angus beef, free of hormones and antibiotics; its crinkle-cut Yukon potato fries—supposedly 25% less fatty than any other fast food fries; and its frozen custard shakes and concretes. As I sifted through all the rants on Lebanese social media sites, several prevailing motifs popped up: “overrated,” “overpriced,” “overhyped,” “inconsistent,” “oily,” “fatty,” “soggy.” Others raved about the well-seasoned beef patties, the tasty cheese sauce on the fries, and the original ice cream blends with mix-ins. I even expanded my survey to international references like the New York Times, whose food editor called the burger a “work in progress,” sometimes flattened and seared to “brown and crunchy” against a griddle, other times “tall, soft and melting, so pink inside that its juices began to soak the bun at the first bite.” The foodie forum Serious Eats was warmer in its praise.
Armed with these impassioned criticisms, I really didn’t know what to think as we headed to the new outlet inside ABC Achrafieh for my very first Shake Shack dining experience. A quick glance at the bustling kitchen, with at least a dozen staff tending to burgers, dogs, fries, and custards, made our stomachs leap with anticipation. It was time to order and set matters straight.
The double Shack Stack® is a cheeseburger times two topped with a crisp-fried Portobello mushroom filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheeses and garnished with lettuce, tomato, and the signature ShackSauce. It is a beautiful mess, a veritable tower of perfectly-seasoned beef that makes everything else in there seem like an afterthought. The bun is simple, soft, yellow, and holds its own, resistant to any crumbling or dismemberment. The two small slices of tomato are bursting with flavor and juice. But every thought of that burger evokes the flavor of savory beef, and it was scrumptious.
The double ShackBurger® resembles its Shack Stack kin sans the mushroom. It is a bit wieldier: easier to clutch, engulf and obliterate.
The Shack-cago Hot Dog® is a Vienna all-beef dog split and griddled to crispiness. It is decked with finely chopped white onions, relish, pickles, a slice of tomato cut in two, a small pepper, and a cucumber, which it could have easily done without. Again, the bun is mellow, yellow, and dissipates with the pressing of your fingers against it. Perhaps the most understated offering on the menu, the hot dog packs a punch with its smoky flavors and chewy texture.
I can’t understand why several folks found the fries to be soggy and limp beneath the weight of the cheese sauce, but I adored them. Cheese-dressed or not, they were fried to a crispy gold, crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, and structurally firm. They transport you back to your childhood days of Ore-Ida’s frozen fries, but they are a far cry from the grocery store variety.
What resembles frozen yogurt is actually dense frozen custard spun at high speed into a smooth, silky ice cream. Make no mistake: this isn’t Haagen Dazs nor Ben & Jerry’s. The Shack Throwback® is a chocolate lover’s dream, drawing on a chocolate custard base, chocolate fudge sauce, chunks of chocolate truffle cookie dough, Valrhona chocolate pearls, and chocolate sprinkles. The center seems hollowed out, but I think it’s meant to mimic a centrifuge, with the contents slammed against the rim of the cup.
The Red Velvet concrete features vanilla frozen custard blended with pieces of red velvet cake, but the one taste that comes through strongest is that of cream cheese icing. The actual cake form has been reduced to fine smatterings which are lost in the sea of vanilla ice cream.
Verdict: Shake Shack’s burgers are tantalizing with real Angus beef flavor, balanced seasoning, and the ideal burger-to-bun ratio that will leave most mature burger aficionados sated. The fries are a happy departure from the thin-cut standard at fast food chains. The custards are refreshing but a tad underwhelming. Pinkberry next door will do the trick if you’re craving a lighter frozen treat.
To all those diners who dismiss Shake Shack as glorified fast food, you’re right, it is, if fast food can mean quality ingredients, bold flavors, and premium taste. And Shake Shack proves that it can. If you think it’s overpriced, let me remind you how ecstatically many of you embraced Roadster’s Route 66 burger combo at 24,750LL. The equivalent at Shake Shack—a double Shack Stack® (16,000LL) and a side of cheese fries (7,000LL)—weighs in at a slimmer 23,000LL. And may I also remind you that these are imported ingredients, with Angus beef and an internationally renowned label to boot. So please check your bickering at the door.