320 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10016 (b/n E 38th and E 39th; map); 212-213-0043; blackshackburger.com
Cooking Method: Flame grilled
Short Order: At its best, the Black Shack offers a hand made rendition of the BK Whopper
Want Fries with That? Average, but serviceable.
Price: Hamburger, $4.50; Black Shack Burger, $5.25
Do you love the idea of the Burger King Whopper? The premise is compelling—flame broiled patties on seeded buns, slathered in mustard, ketchup, and mayo, and stacked with a vegetable garden's worth of rabbit food.
Despite the promise of having it "your way," a Burger King burger is not anything that a rational mind should consider ordering. Frozen commodity beef (sourced from as far away as New Zealand) is thawed out and put through a specially designed "flame" broiler. The desired evocation is obviously the backyard grill-out, where burgers are cooked over charcoal. (Rhetorical question to the next entrant in to the New York City Burger sweepstakes: Is anyone cooking burgers over hardwood?) The reality is that burgers at Burger King are anything but homespun—formed ahead of time and often precooked and kept in warming pens, they are invariably soggy disappointments.
But peel back the years to 1957 and the birth of the Whopper in Miami. Burger King was only 3 years old, but they had already adopted the Insta-Broiler that cooked burgers on both sides. I bet back then fresh American beef was used and that the grill marks on the patties were real. I bet it tasted a lot like the signature burger at Black Shack.
Black Shack is the vision of Jeff Maslanka, who you may be familiar with as one of the minds behind the laudable 67 Burger in Brooklyn. But 67 Burger was owner Ed Tretter's concept. Black Shack is Maslanka's longtime dream—an exulted version of the fast food joint.
While 67 Burger serves large burgers with a huge selection of toppings, Black Shack's burgers are diminutive in comparison—3 to 4 ounces versus the 7 ounces at 67 Burger—and the menu [PDF] is spartan. You won't find goat, Parmesan, or any cheese other than American, and the toppings are restricted to the rabbit food trinity of lettuce, tomato, onion. The most exotic topping options—barbecue sauce and fried onions—aren't exotic at all.
My first hamburger at Black Shack topped only with pickles and onions did not work. The skinny patty—unavoidably cooked medium given its lack of girth—was impressively striated with grill marks and came on a nicely toasted seeded bun, but the beef on its own was just not that interesting. Yes, it is fresh ground chuck, nicely seasoned and with a pronounced smoky flavor (I noticed that they cover the burgers as they cook on the grill to amp up the flavor), but it was not juicy, toothsome, or thick enough to go it alone. Yellow mustard and yellow cheese would have helped on top of the pickles and onion, but even with those I think the burger would still lack something. Black Shack is not the burger spot for the purist (or what some might call a meat-nerd minimalist). Compared to the Shake Shack—the undisputed King in the under $5 burger hit parade—you are not getting nearly the same value.
But at its best, Black Shack serves what I call a "synergy burger"—a burger that works because of what is added on top rather than just the beef and bun. The signature Black Shack burger topped with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, ketchup, mayo, and mustard is essentially a hand crafted Whopper. In terms of the beef-to-bun ratio, topping density, and flavor profile, the burger fulfills the Burger King ideal—it really is a perfect fast food burger. The tried and true Whopper architecture is bolstered not only by an added textural component (when was the last time anyone experience a crunchy bun or the snap of a grill mark at Burger King?), but also by the interplay of cool toppings and warm beef and bun.
Black Shack serves a better Whopper than Burger King. Rather than an homage or an interpretation, it is a perfectly executed copy. It is what a Whopper would taste like in a bizarro universe.