In Spite of Letterman’s Love Letter to Steak ‘N Shake, Actual Food Disappoints


Figuratively speaking, David Letterman blew the chain in Macy’s (or maybe we should say Marshall Field’s) window.

The city has seen a recent influx of fast-food chains from other places, the most recent being Steak ‘n Shake, specializing in the elemental combination of hamburgers (“steak,” in hype parlance), french fries, and milkshakes. The city of origin is Chicago, as with the recently arrived Potbelly. The place is located at the north end of Times Square, next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Letterman is taped. Almost two weeks ago, just as it opened, David Letterman — ever the Midwesterner — shamelessly touted the place in a lengthy comic segment.

Chocolate shake, fries, “steak frank,” and steakburger at Steak ‘n Shake Times Square. But there’s virtually no place inside to eat them.

The segment got me excited to try the food, so I biked up there yesterday. Yes, the place is gleaming and new, but so small that there is space for only around 10 to sit and eat, and another five or six to eat standing up. This despite three cash registers and lots of cooks on the line. Clearly, takeout is the main objective.

I’d scoped out the chain’s usual menu online, and was most excited to try the Chicago-style hot dog. Unfortunately, when I saw the menu at the Times Square branch, it was severely curtailed, with some of the most interesting stuff unavailable — including the Chicago dog. This is a dick move on the chain’s part, since the Chicago-style hot dog is one of the few things missing from NYC’s foodscape (Shake Shack’s rendition notwithstanding).

There are two main hamburger choices, styled “The Original” (two eighth-pound patties, $3.99) and “The Signature” (one six-ounce patty, said to be made with organic rib eye and New York strip steaks, $5.99). Both come with fries. I went for the latter. The meat had a somewhat odd flavor, not like actual steak, but slightly off. It was nicely cooked, though, faintly pink in the middle, and topped with ripe tomato, lettuce, American cheese, good pickle, and raw onion. (Letterman’s fantasy that he could smell fried onions was apparently a hallucination on his part.) The hamburger turned out to be the best part of my meal.

The steakburger, “all the way”

The fries are thinner than usual, and low on flavor.

The fries, smaller and more delicate than the usual fast-food article, were already cold when my beeper thingy went off. Not sure why these fries are so celebrated in some quarters. They’re better than McDonald’s, I guess, but then this place is supposed to be something of a premium burger chain.

The biggest disappointment lay in the hot dog. Not only was it not a Vienna Red Hot (which would have accurately reflected Chicago sausage terroir), but something that tasted like it had been pulled from the bulk meat cases at Western Beef, salty as hell and none too good. It had been split and grilled (plaudits for that), and slathered with ketchup and mustard. Actually, I couldn’t tell right away whether the yellow stuff was mustard or Cheez Whiz, though I’m inclining toward the latter. Cost: $3.29.

The disappointing steak frank. Who in their right mind would make a wiener out of steak?

As promised, the milkshake was thick and “hand-scooped,” the way it’s done in the Midwest, so thick you can’t sip it through the bubble-tea straw provided, and are forced to revert to the plastic spoon. This is all to the good. The bad part was that the shake had been made with only milk and ice cream, meaning that the chocolate flavor was severely diluted, making for a very pale shake. As any true Midwesterner knows, you’ve got to also add chocolate syrup to the formula to make the shake more chocolaty.

At least Illini visiting Times Square can now visit a Chicago fast-food chain. I advise New Yorkers to give the place a wide berth.

The pale chocolate milkshake

Funny — the white cash register employees in the Letterman segment have now been replaced with black ones.

Steak ‘n Shake
1695 Broadway