Checking Out the Upper East Side Shake Shack


Is that butter on the Shack Burger’s bun?

When the first Shake Shack opened in Madison Square Park in 2004 — with some grumbling about public space being appropriated for private uses — it was a revelation and an instant hit. Burgers, fries, hot dogs, frozen custard, all like you might find in a kiosk in a municipal park in a small Midwestern city — duck pond, tiny amusement park train, and bandshell with patriotic bunting and all.

Looking down into the restaurant through the street-level window is like having your own personal human aquarium.

Oh, yeah, but with certain sophisticated big-city flourishes, like scintillatingly fresh tomatoes and lettuce, an elevated bun, and a patty that represents a cunning combination of meats.

But the original location quickly lost its viability as lines ran around the park so that any self-respecting person had to ask herself: “Am I crazy enough to wait an hour for a small hamburger?”

This type of success would engender greater ambitions in anyone, including Danny Meyer, if only to engrave a new and more excellent chapter in the Book of Fast Food. So, the place was cloned in various parts of Manhattan, and soon thereafter around the world, so that even Eater probably hasn’t kept track of all the iterations. (According to the website, there are 13 currently in operation, including one in Dubai. Does Dubai really deserve one?)

These are not bistro fries, but they do well enough in this context.


Picking up an order at the gleaming counter

So, while the original is impossible to eat at unless you wait a good long time, there are some branches you can waltz right into and dine almost immediately, and that includes the one on the Upper East Side’s 86th Street. It’s possible to go there in the middle of the evening and be served within 10 minutes or less, which means it probably makes more sense to go there for your Shake Shack meal, even if you start out standing only a few feet from the original in Madison Square Park.

Anyway, we decided to make a cursory examination of the fare at the Upper East Side branch to see if careless franchising had reduced the quality of the food. The short answer is that — with the possible exception of the custard — it has not. But read on for more details.

The 86th Street branch is subterranean, and as you approach the building, you’re treated to a view through a giant window that makes it seem like all the humans are at the bottom of an aquarium. A ramp leads downward to the register queues; there’s seating beside the ramp, and more seating along a narrow hall behind the counters. That obscure seating is the most pleasurable, although there are some outside tables on a deck, not open yet for the season.

The kitchen and counter are clad in stainless steel, giving the establishment an aura of a manufacturing facility. We placed our order, and were given handheld pagers, which can scare the crap out of you if you don’t expect them to go off. After a five-minute wait, the food was produced.


The Chicago-style hot dog

The Shack Burger was lushly outfitted, compact, and nicely cooked. The yellow cheese and Shack Sauce provided duel forms of moisture, and the meat combo in the patty tastes like meat, meat, and more meat. Also, our expert tasters felt like there might be butter brushed on the bun. That, and the inclusion of custard as a prominent component of the menu, made us think of the Wisconsin-based Culver’s chain, which Shake Shack more than a little resembles.

The Chicago-style frank was pretty good, meriting a “B+” if we were grading final exams. The demerit is because the wiener itself is not a real Chicago red hot, and there have been other substitutions in the ironclad formula (relish not green enough, sport pepper not quite the right type, etc.). Still, given a choice of hot dogs in the area that includes the original Papaya King down at the end of the block, I’d go for Shake Shack’s dog.

The crinkle-cut fries have never been S.S.’s strong point, but we accept them for what they are, which is 100 percent authentic. The custard is good, too, though is it possible the product we’re being served now is less eggy and consequently less rich than the original product sold? Only Danny Meyer knows for sure. I’m also not in favor of all the ice cream permutations — especially the wild experimental flavors — though the concrete with toffee was damn good.

So, find a Shake Shack with fewer customers, and make it your own.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 7, 2011


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