Has Shake Shack arrived too late to the burger party in London?
I still remember my first and only visit to Shake Shack‘s New York outpost a couple of years ago very fondly. The signature ‘Shack Burger’ was a revelation for something served by a fast food chain: a good patty, cooked to order, juicy pink medium rare and full of flavour, housed in a compact puffy bun and topped with dirty cheese, crisp lettuce, juicy tomato and the famous flavoursome house ‘shack sauce’. It wasn’t the best burger I ate in NYC – that honour goes to Le Parker Meridien’s Burger Joint – but it was a very solid effort and knocked the socks off pretty much anything you could get in London at the time. But that was then.
In the proceeding two years since that visit, London has become flooded, nay, besieged with dozens of places serving up very, very good burgers: running the full spectrum from refined gourmet interpretations, to American-style, gloriously dirty ones. What began slowly with a few pioneers like Hawksmoor, Goodman, MEATwagon and the imperious Bar Boluud, quickly snowballed into a full on saturation point by the start of 2013.
Curiously, it’s at this point that Danny Meyer and his Shake Shack crew have finally decided to head across the pond, pitch up in Covent Garden and belatedly muscle in on the action. But will the city’s burger aficionados welcome them as the long-awaited guests of honour, or are they just too late to the party? If my visit at lunchtime last week was anything to go by – and I don’t count myself as an afficionado here, merely a big fan – the answer is, sadly, the latter.
Before my visit I had already heard worrying rumours of the Shack’s general decline in the US – overcooked patties and a marked decline in the quality of ingredients apparently the main culprits. And having been regularly spoilt by the array of good options London now offers, I was already steeling myself to be a little underwhelmed by the experience, as I waited, pager in hand, (this is how they alert you when your burger, cooked to order, is ready to collect from the serving hatch) to reignite my relationship with the Shack Burger after more than two years and thousands of miles apart.
Despite initial concerns that it could fall at the first over-cooked hurdle, the Shack burger’s patty was pinkish and moist enough to pass as perfectly acceptable. That, depressingly, was about as good as it got though. The meat, like everything else in the burger, was woefully under-seasoned. It tasted of absolutely nothing. The trademark house sauce didn’t seem to possess the same bite as it’s US counterpart (though you’d assume it’s exactly the same stuff). The tomato was a solid, flavourless wedge of pointlessness. And the bun was genuinely unpleasant to eat. It was thick and dense and had the mushy consistency of a savoury doughnut, sticking to the roof of my mouth with every bite, the dirty cheese acting as some sort of super-strength bonding agent to make sure it stayed there.
The Shack Burger was even more disappointing than I had feared it might be. I won’t be returning for another one any time soon. Not when there’s so many tried and tested options elsewhere.
Thinking about it now, although I do feel that some of the original quality has definitely been lost in translation, I suspect my memories of my first encounter with Shake Shack in New York back then were a bit rose-tinted, and proclamations of greatness exaggerated, such was the dearth of any half-decent options in my hometown at that time. I’d waited so long to eat a burger approaching anything near passable, that the Shack Burger felt like one of the best I’d ever had. But now I can see, it’s just a regular old burger. Below average at that. The whole thing reminds me of Eddie Murphy’s cracker analogy.
A good burger really is a thing of beauty. And we in the UK should rejoice that we finally have ones beautiful enough to win any pageant. We don’t need American imports like Shake Shack anymore to save the day, especially if they’re going to turn up two years late, half-arsed, and without a hope of winning any prizes.
By the way, if you’re in search of the ‘Britain’s Next Top Burger’, Marini O’Loughlin has handily listed some of the UK’s current shining lights in The Guardian, and, it turns out, she gives Shake Shack a bit of a shoeing too.