Shake Shack, Shake Shack, why do I love thee so? Let me compare thee with thy competition:

  1. Are you are better than In-N-Out?
  2. Are you are better than Steak ‘n Shake?
  3. Are you are better than Five Guys Burger and Fries?
  4. Are you are better than Smashburger?

Ok, enough of this burger bashing tuned to a PBS series stuck in iambic pentameter. Choosing between national, better than your average, burger chains that operate under different price points and levels of service is silly, it’s unfair. Many of these burgers have their place, though if I had all of these burger options in front of me at once, I would choose Shake Shack. And it’s kind of un Bang like of me to pick Shake Shack because it is by far the most expensive option. It is also the choice that boasts the highest quality of ingredients, the best bacon cheeseburger, oh and they serve beer, good beer. But one must be cautious, vigilant even, as to the ways one can pay and pay for a Shake Shack experience. With burgers that can cost up to$10, plus beer, tempting shakes and crinkle cut fries all aiming to rack up your tab, you really need a plan of attack when you step up to this Shack. Good thing I went through 4 burgers to find the path to Bang for your Burger Buck. Let’s start with one of the best bacon cheeseburger concepts I have ever come across.

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The Vitals:
the burger: SmokeShack, a single patty proprietary beef blend burger topped with bacon, American cheese, Shack Sauce and a spicy cherry pepper spread on a Martin’s Potato Roll
the bucks: $6.84

Meet the SmokeShack, Shake Shack’s brilliant bacon cheeseburger. Now I call it brilliant because this is one of the few cases where choosing a bacon upgrade over an additional patty is an acceptable move. Your first bite of the SmokeShack starts off with a bang, well, actually a crack, thanks to this quality bacon being precooked en masse ensuring every SmokeShack is adorned with well crisped bacon. More important than the bacon(as impossible as that sounds) is the spicy red cherry pepper spread that is layered on the top bun. Like giardiniera on an Italian Beef, the burst of spice and vinegar makes the experience. The understandable conundrum with a bacon cheeseburger is that it is a triumvirate of meat/cheese/meat  overkill. Well, here’s where that spicy cherry pepper relish comes in, breaking up that triumvirate of glorious cholesterol with acid and heat. It may not be for everyone but the spicy cherry pepper spread brings balance to a bacon cheeseburger, and for well under $7 no less.

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The Vitals:
the burger: Shack Burger, a single patty proprietary beef blend burger topped with American cheese, green leaf lettuce, tomato and shack sauce on a Martin’s Potato Roll
the bucks: $5.29

Above is the burger most flock to when going to Shake Shack for the first the time: the ShackBurger. It just sounds like the right thing to order. What you may or may not have noticed in the SmokeShack is that it came with no fresh produce. One would be remiss to miss out on the fact that the Shake Shack serves a damn good tomato, and the green leaf lettuce they use is simply superior to Iceberg; that played out leafy option whose fibrous stem and bland leaf are the Achilles heel of many a burger hot spot coveted by many a well-heeled burger aficionado(can you say Pie ‘n Burger?). The single patty experience repeatedly reminds the diner that he or she is eating a burger on a Martin’s Potato roll: a small, soft, sweet and buttery affair of dough awash in a yellow gold hue. Between the easy like Sunday Morning give of the bun and the gooey layer of American cheese, you have the very burger that will solve the riddle of your picky nephew who sneers at any plate placed in front of him. This is the perfect after school cheeseburger experience. And much like the child’s play that ensues from 3pm and beyond, this is a burger that satisfies child sized appetites. To order just one single patty Shackburger, is essentially telling your dining companion that you will be eating a multiple course meal at Shake Shack because this burger, as perfectly tasty as it is, is not the one and done scenario that is tantamount to achieving Bang for your Burger Buck. It would seem that a double patty version of the Shackburger would be the path to Bang for your Burger Buck at Shake Shack. But this also meant getting close to the $8 mark for a flat stack griddled double cheeseburger. Almost $8 for a burger that could only be cooked to medium; as Shake Shack won’t cook their burgers to medium rare or under. That’s is a price to pay for a price to pay. My mind drifted back to the acidic spicy punch of the SmokeShack, I glanced at the menu and came up with this beauty instead:

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The Vitals:
the burger: Double Hamburger, two patties of proprietary beef blend burger topped with green leaf lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and shack sauce on a Martin’s Potato Roll
the bucks: $6.59

First off we need to talk about the Shack Sauce – that pink goop looks like Thousand Island dressing minus the relish and oh, wait a minute it’s missing the damn relish. The Shack Sauce is closer to aioli than Thousand Island, and there is a need to introduce some pickle punch into the mix. Enter Shake Shack’s pickles, another sterling example of their habit of sourcing quality ingredients and best of all: they are a free add on. Sliced white onion also got thrown into the mix to add just a touch of bitterness and spice. Now what you don’t see is that cheese. Yeah, I saved a buck right there as cheese is .50 cents a slice and the trend is to order a slice per patty. Going cheeseless was a gamble as my gut was telling me that achieving total Bang for your Burger Buck at Shake Shack was to let the beef do the talking, albeit with some complimentary topping add ons that push the savory and acidic elements. These choices also reflect old habits that die hard. Look, I grew up with onions on my burger and I know some won’t go for ’em, especially when raw, but at least go for the pickle, I mean McDonald’s uses pickles on the damn Happy Meal hamburger. At any rate, even with the extra patty, which pushed the potato roll’s capacity to the limit, we achieved a true one and done burger experience at Shake Shack for a grand total of $6.59 before tax. Commence your fist pumping. And we should be done right? Wrong. I told you I would go for 4 and here is the final of the Shake Shack Trials:

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The Vitals:
the burger: Double Hamburger, two patties of proprietary beef blend burger topped with one slice of American cheese, green leaf lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and shack sauce on a Martin’s Potato Roll
the bucks: $7.09

First off, it truly was a pleasure going the extra mile at Shake Shack. I happen to knock this version off immediately following a boot camp session, on my birthday, and man did I feel like I earned it. Nearly identical to the previous burger, save the addition of a single slice of cheese, it was surprising that my first bite of this burger drove me and my palate into a whole other direction: nostalgia. After recent adventures at Smashburger and P. Terry’s, I can now firmly come to the conclusion that the inclusion of American cheese on a burger brings back one’s childhood. Like Mac N Cheese from a blue box, hamburger graced with salty gooey goodness wins the hearts, minds and stomachs of American children and chances are if you grew up in the US, you too have a soft spot for a processed cheese cheeseburger. Burger legends have been built on this principle like the Big Mac and In-N-Out’s Double Double. In fact, the cheese is so instrumental in these burgers, to remove it would be to shatter the whole burger experience. But Shake Shack’s strength is not solely rooted in nostalgia. Sure the shakes and the stacked burgers certainly harken back to the era of a drive in style burger experience, but the proprietary beef blend? Their considerable effort to source better produce than the competition? The craft beer? Their menus reflecting regional culinary traditions? The Austin location I visited has a burger topped with a true Texas BBQ Sausage link from the Lockhart Mecca of Meat, Kreuz Market. That ain’t nostalgia my friends, that’s keeping up with the Joneses in our current Food Renaissance. The Shake Shack experience is about upping the ingredients, to the 9s, in a food stand setting. It’s about the beef. And as I have said many times, good beef don’t need cheese. It’s a pleasant distraction but a distraction nonetheless. Comparable beef and American cheese experiences can be had at cheaper prices, but none of the aforementioned burgers can match the beef quality at Shake Shack, therefore stick to the basics and save yourself the .50 cents.

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I’m sure Shake Shack loyalists will balk at my no cheese burger purist policy as In-N-Out loyalists will decry that burgers are meant to have cheese on ’em. For them, and any other topping loyalist, what is crucial to understand is the difference between a burger and a sandwich. A burger is about the main ingredient, the patty. What goes on top and around are supportive and complimentary in purpose, open to interpretation and ultimately defines the burger experience as fluid. A sandwich is a convergence of elements, uniform in importance, with the goal of creating something that exists in the diner’s mind as enduring, persistent. The In-N-Out double double is a sandwich, the Big Mac is a sandwich. In both examples, the toppings define the experience. In the case of Shake Shack, you have both sandwiches(like the SmokeShack) and you have burgers(the Double Hamburger, with or without cheese). If Bang for your Burger Buck is what you seek at Shake Shack, go with the flow and go for the double hamburger. Choose free toppings at your discretion that adorn the reason why you are there: the beef. And spend less than $7. And order it medium.

Here endeth the lesson” – Malone

Shake Shack is nationwide, though in select cities. All burgers were tested in Austin, Texas.

 

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