New Yorkers love their burgers and the Shake Shack, with its cult-like following, has become one of the most talked about and popular NYC burger joints. Burger lovers are happy to wait in line, even as long as an hour, for the chance to sink their teeth into one of the Shack’s masterfully blended burger feats.
As a Shack lover, I’ve introduced a number of friends over the years to their heavenly burgers and paid my dues in line at Madison Square Park countless times for the very worthwhile pay off at the end. But I realized I’d been slacking off and hadn‘t tried any of their other locations yet.
I’ve written about the Shack’s virtues before but was feeling remiss in my spotty coverage so when Tom Johansmeyer, fellow travel blogger, replied to my tweet about the opening of the fifth and newest Shake Shack on the Upper East Side, and we then came up with the idea of a Shack Taste Tour, I jumped on board immediately. Tough job I know, but in the name of research, a day spent eating Shack burgers and fries seemed worth it.
We dedicated a Saturday afternoon to conduct our “research” and mapped out our route over a glass of wine: we’d hit up the four Manhattan locations, foregoing the trip to Citi Field in Queens (for practicality, not because I’m a Yankees fan).
For consistency, I taste-tested the same thing at each place: single cheeseburger with everything and fries. I was judging how each location stacked up in terms of taste of course, but also ambiance, wait time and service.
Setting out at 4 PM, the plan was to start our tour on the Upper West Side, then walk across Central Park to the Upper East Side location, subway down to Madison Square Park and then walk up to the Theater District for the fourth and final stop.
We failed to recognize the enormity of the eating challenge we’d set for ourselves and as a consequence weren’t too smart about pacing our food intake from the beginning (we’d also had brunch earlier in the day which probably wasn’t the wisest move), so the walk across the park turned out to be a blessing for the opportunity to digest a bit. On the Upper East Side our big concession was to share fries. By the time we got to Madison Square Park we were full and nearing burger coma.
The long line at the Park barely put a dent in our digestive process and we were only capable of sharing one order. By the time we finished it was 9:00PM. We were five hours, 2 1/2 burgers and countless fries in, talking burger gibberish and unable to make it to the final stop that evening. We were officially stuffed, admitted defeat and finished the tour the next weekend. To be fair, since I was also clocking wait times, we visited the Theater District location in the early evening.
Judging all the Shacks on my four criteria: taste, ambiance, wait time and service, I have to say that despite the long waits at Madison Square Park, the flagship location is by far the best of the bunch.
The Shack has their own proprietary blend of beef, ground and hand mixed daily by butcher king Pat LaFrieda. The Black Angus burgers and whatever other secret ingredients they put in make for a quality, distinctive taste. Maybe it’s that they’re 100% natural or cooked on a griddle, I don’t know, but the taste is far superior to ground beef.
The melted cheese, crisp contrast of the lettuce, and grilled potato bun are the perfect compliments to round out the taste sensation. But for some reason this perfection is sacred only to Madison Square Park; the replicas at the other locations come close but fall short of the original location’s superiority.
The taste was so different on the UWS, I asked them if they used the same process and they assured me it was. Maybe it was an off day, but the taste definitely deviated from what I was accustomed to at the Park.
The fries were also crispier and better tasting at the Park.
The waits are longest at the Park, 2 1/2 to 3 times longer. I clocked it at 55 minutes from when we hit the line to burger in hand. The other locations are neck and neck at 18-22 minutes. If you’re looking for the quickest burger fix, the Park isn’t your best bet.
Service ended up not being a distinguishing criteria –the staff was friendly and service excellent at all locations.
Other fun Shack facts to consider when selecting a location:
1. If you want one of their famous shakes quickly, steer clear of Madison Square Park. The express lane, the B-Line, serves only custards and beverages. At the other locations, the C-Line serves all cold items, including shakes.
2. Believe it or not, if you want a seat, head to Madison Square Park. Despite the enormous crowds, you’re always able to find a place to sit once you get your order.
3. Take the sting off the wait at Madison Square Park with a cold ShackMeister Ale. Send someone in your group to hit up the B-Line for some beers while still holding your place in the burger line.
4. You can check the Shack Cam before heading to the Park to see how long the wait is.
5. A portion of the Park’s revenue goes toward maintenance and programs in the park.
6. Madison Park is open all year round and heat lamps provide warmth during colder weather.
7. Citi Field only serves vanilla custard; none of the other fun flavors.
8. Each of the four Manhattan Shacks has different Concrete specials but the Times Square location has “Jelly’s Last Donut”, made with doughnuts from the Doughnut Plant on the LES, YUM!
Of course you’ll have to decide if the wait at Madison Square Park is worth it — it is only a burger, but at the same time the taste and experience are far superior and you get the added satisfaction of keeping the Park well maintained and offering fun programs throughout the year.