By John Carruthers and Ken Haynes
We set out with a sacred duty – to find the best Kinda Fancy Chain Burger (and fries) in our great city.
Here are the only rules:
- We order a place’s signature (or standard, if that’s the only option) cheeseburger and fries.
- We eat whatever else we want because Freedom.
So who is the Burger Champion? Maybe the guys with the Michelin-starred pedigree and cult following the size of a dead pulp writer’s space poltergeist church.
Level 8: Shake Shack
12 S. Michigan Avenue (inside the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel)
Motto: Serving Up Delicious Burgers & Shakes Since 2004
Locations: 136 worldwide, including Bahrain, Turkey, and Japan
Beer?: You bet your ass. A house ale made by Brooklyn Brewery, alongside local selections (Half Acre and Revolution, among others) and whatever dumb wine goes with cheese fries.
We came into this with John already a pretty steady fan of the place. His kids have the plush burger and fries (adorable), and he even read Danny Meyer’s interesting-in-theory/very-dull-in-practice memoir. But you never know if a place you like is going to stand up to the scrutiny of actually grading its component parts. Enjoying a burger with your friends after the bar is a different thing than bringing a little notebook and trying to jot down quantitative data.
And heck, if you’re reading the eighth entry in the burger diary of two random beefmen, you’ve probably already got an opinion about Shake Shack too. So let’s address the issue of their reputation first.
To our mind, the takes on well-known burger chains tend to come in two varieties:
- “That place is great!”
- “That place is overrated!”
Turns out they’re just as pre-formed, predictable, and uninteresting as frozen burger patties. But by all means, if you’d like to share your Shake Shake take (is it better than YOUR local chain? What about In N Out?) please write it down longhand, address it to us, light it on fire, and throw it in the toilet.
Good? Nice. Let’s eat some food.
We ordered ahead using the Shake Shack app, which makes it almost horrifically convenient to stuff your face. In order to guarantee your scheduled pickup window, there is an ever-present timer counting down like you’re trying to pick seats for the Cubs home opener. If you’d like to replicate this exciting sensation without using the app, feel free to encourage your very best friend to practice their best ED-209 impression next to you while you fumble through an order in person.
We figured we were getting one over on the line-standers (this location gets rope-length lines pretty regularly), only to show up and see that we were the only ones there. They sure did have our orders ready, though.
First of all, the burger looks like something that Norman Rockwell painted. The colors, the textures, the sense of balance – all seem like something out of a sketchbook, rather than off a griddle. In the Big Fuck You Burger era of the late aughts, we despaired that we’d never again find something this well balanced. The beef is good (and seasoned!), the cheese is melty and salty in the best griddle burger way, and even the lettuce and tomato – the soggy afterthoughts to be picked off at most places – were fresh and vibrant. And honestly, this time of year, any tomato that doesn’t make you stop and consider the end of all life on earth is a huge win. Order a sandwich with a tomato from any of the big chains at ANY time of year and it looks like something that floated up when a tomato serial killer didn’t quite secure it to the riverbed tightly enough. So this was a delightful surprise, inasmuch as a tomato can affect your enjoyment of a burger.
That said, it’s not all sunshine and roses, though the sunshine and roses were fresh and never frozen. Both of us noticed some real variation in how done the burgers were. Ken’s was well done all the way through, while John’s had a bit of pink, heavier to one half. That’s not super ideal,though we’re not the types who faint at a bit of color, because it’s not super consistent during a time we knew for a fact there were only three orders in the kitchen. Also, Shack Sauce is the most anonymous part of a lauded group since Alex Lifeson in Rush. If this sauce was a person who drank eleven Scotches at the bar and hit John with a pool cue, we still wouldn’t be able to pick it out in a police lineup.
Honestly, though – the qualms are all pretty small. One of these burgers kept in the pocket of a canvas jacket for an afternoon would probably be better than a full third of the burgers we’ve tried for this column.
Fun fact: for a place that is all about the fresh and the fussed-over, this place uses frozen crinkle-cut fries. But it’s not an afterthought. A few years ago, the ever-tinkering team behind Shake Shack decided to get on the fresh-cut fry train. And people had themselves a damn fit. The might of the potatariot (proletato?) beat back the forces of the lesser and the uncrisp and restored a bit of sanity to this mad burger industry. If Twitter hadn’t already made the phrase “a hill to die on” completely meaningless, this would have been a good petty use for it.
Anyway, they’re good. Salty and crispy on the outside, piping-damn-hot on the inside. You can get cheese on them, but you shouldn’t. We tried it on an earlier unofficial visit and it turns out their cheese carries with it the airy, waifish presence of a past-its-prime Lassie. These fries demand cheese with the heft and heroic fortitude of a fresh, out-of-the-box Lassie! If you’re gonna cheese up the fries, you’ve got to have Last Days of Rome in your head as the desired result. Alas.
Cheese aside, the dipping sauce choices are Ketchup, Nothing, or Fuck You. These are VERY satisfying fries.
We knew before we started this wacky adventure that it was going to be one of the most difficult tests to grade. For all the hype and preconceived notions, the Shack largely holds up where others fall behind. The burger hits all the notes you’re listening for and the fries will have you licking your fingers until the manager comes over and says “I really don’t want to have this conversation again.”
Final Rating: 4.31/5
Hoooooo damn, we have a new leader! While Epic Burger is still pretty secure in the top burger spot, the fries swung it for Shake Shack.
After all these long lunch walks, ingested calories, and discussions of the intricacies of burger construction, it turns out some bagged frozen fries swung the top of our rankings. It’s like something out of O. Henry.
This thing turned on WHILE we were eating in the restaurant:
So pretty sure there’s a new Burger Pope. Sadly, it’s neither one of us because the Burger Vatican is all politics.
Want to see the rest of our burger adventures? INSERT COIN