AHT: New York

Burger reviews in the New York City area.

Milk Burger in East Harlem: No, This Is Not Shake Shack

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Milk Burger

2056 Second Ave, New York, NY 10029 (map); 212-360-1988; milkburger.com
Cooking Method: Smashed on a griddle
Short Order: A worthy if derivative Shake Shack clone
Want Fries With That? Yes, though don't believe what the menu tells you.
Prices: $4.25 and up for various burgers

Recognize that burger above? Sure you do, right?

Wrong. Do not adjust your monitor, do not refresh your page; this is not a Shake Shack burger.

That's right: The burger from Milk Burger, a new burger joint in Spanish Harlem, is a near clone of the Shake Shack burger.

Now check out their menu. It might be a good idea to open that one up in a separate window so that you can compare it side-by-side with the Shake Shack's menu.

Or how about I just make it easier for you. Here's their burger sections, side-by-side:

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Holy coincidence, Batman! Seems that aside from the inclusion of hormones and antibiotics (or at the very least the lack of express exclusion of the same)—a benefit for which Shake Shack customers pay a 25¢ premium over the Milk Burger regulars (Milk Burger has increased its burger prices by 50¢ since this menu was last updated)—the menus are pretty much exactly the same, down to the wording! Milk Burger's frozen desserts section is a little shorter, and they do chicken sandwiches instead of hot dogs, but other than that, it's a near word-for-word recreation of the Shake Shack menu.

That's a bold move, to say the least, and a bit mind boggling, don't you think?

But wait! The plot thickens.

Take a look at the photo on their website. I'll make it easy for you again. Here it is:

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You'll notice that I didn't include a photo credit under here, which is something we're very scrupulous about when borrowing images from other sites. Why no credit necessary this time, you might ask?

Because that photo was taken by A Hamburger Today Editor Robyn Lee. You can find it right here on her Flickr stream.

More astute readers may realize that the April 13th, 2007 date stamped on that photograph is a good four years before Milk Burger even existed. That's because it's not a Milk Burger. It's a Shack Burger. That's right. In what is perhaps the biggest facepalm moment I've seen in internet burger history, they put a picture (that they didn't take) of somebody else's burger on the front page of their website.

Seriously guys, what are you thinking?

Now that the ball-busting is over, I want to emphatically point out that we're not in the business of trying and run a new small business into the ground just because the owners happen to be a bit clueless of certain laws and rules of etiquette*—on the contrary, we'd like to see any place that serves great food succeed, albeit with a few changes to the look of their menu along with perhaps a photo of their real burger on their website instead of another restaurant's food (Milk Burger guys—if you're reading this now, you are welcome to the photo at the top of this article!)

* Though I'm sure the Union Square Hospitality Group might have a thing or two to say about them.

So the question is: How does the real burger compare?

We decided to do a side-by-side tasting to find out.

The Meat

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Both the Shake Shack and Milk Burger cook their burgers using the smash-and-scrape technique to build up a nice layer of browned beef on the exterior of the patty. If anything, I'd say that Milk Burger has a slightly superior sear on their patty, though the sear somehow tastes "dirtier," as if cooked on a griddle that's seen a few too many years of crusted on grease. The Shack's has a much cleaner, brighter flavor.

Both are cooked to medium (actually closer to medium-well), unless otherwise requested. Despite being just barely pink in the center, they are plenty juicy. One of the things that has always impressed me with the Shack Burger is the way in which the grease and juices are plentiful, yet they manage to stay put inside the patty rather than running out and saturating the bun the way it does in lesser burgers. It's a hallmark of well-ground beef, and impressively, Milk Burger's behaves in much the same way.

But the Shack's meat is tastier. Well balanced and robust, it's made from a blend of short rib, brisket, and sirloin. I asked the owner of Milk Burger what goes into his patties, and he said "Black Angus." When I asked him if he knew what specific cuts were used, he responded "um, I think it's choice."

Score one for the Shack.

Buns and Toppings

The buns are identical: Martin's potato rolls, well toasted on a buttered griddle.

For toppings, the Shackburger comes standard with a bright, fresh leaf of green leaf lettuce and two slices of Roma tomato. They're proud of their tomatoes, and rightly so. They aren't as good as height-of-the-summer sun ripened tomatoes, but they are consistent, flavorful, and never watery. Their by-special-request onions are sliced super thing (I like that), and their pickles are one of the best around—fresh and crisp.

Milk Burger's lettuce was green leaf, but it had seen fresher days. The tomato slices were not the worst, but clearly hadn't been sourced as carefully as Shake Shack's. Onions are fine—sliced thicker than at the Shack—and the pickles are just run-of-the-mill dill chips. Crisp, but not special.

Score two for the Shack.

The Sauce

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Here's where things get really crazy. While the Shake Shack has a ketchup and mayonnaise-based spread with a bit of pickle juice and a few other spices mixed in, Milk Burger's is mayo and mustard based, with plenty of pickle-y, herbal tasting green bits in there. It's actually really good, and a tough call for me deciding which is better.

Tie.

The Fries

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Although Milk Burger, true to its Shack-cloniness describes their fries as "made from Yukon Gold potatoes. 25% less fat than average fries," they are in fact regular old McDonald's-esque shoestring fries, which I personally prefer to the crinkle cuts from the Shake Shack. Two things are for sure: the Milk Burger fries are not Yukon Gold, and the don't contain 25% less fat than average fries, because they are average fries. Shake Shack's are below average.

Another bonus point for Milk Burger: Their cheese sauce actually tastes like real cheese sauce, unlike the flavorless goop at Shake Shack (I never understood why people seem to like it. Do you guys like it?). It's saltier, gooier, and a little spicier.

Score one for Milk Burger

The Milkshakes

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Shake Shack's concretes and milkshakes trounce the shakes at Milk Burger, which aren't bad, but the Shack's are great. More flavors, better ice cream, better texture, seasonal flavors, it's no contest.

Score three for Shake Shack.

So Is It Worth It?

It's no question that Milk Burger makes a great, if beyond derivative burger. That said, if you've got a Shake Shack near you, there's no reason to head out of your way to Milk Bar, unless you must have real honest-to-goodness shoestring fries with your burger our would like to try their mustardy sauce.

I spoke with the owner of Milk Burger for a while as I waited for my order to come out. I was the only customer at 4:30 PM on a Friday afternoon, so he had plenty of time. I specifically asked if he'd been to Shake Shack. He was surprisingly forthcoming with his response: "Yeah, we're basically exactly the same as the Shake Shack, except we've got chicken, cheaper prices, and we deliver. Same quality and everything." (I didn't ask him about the similarities in his menu and the Shack's or the ganked photo from Robyn.)

The space there is dark—very dark—a stark contrast from the bright airiness of most Shake Shacks, with white leather seats and a definite bar/lounge feel to it. There were a group of kids smoking a hookah at a table in the back corner when I got there, and a small stage intended for live music and DJs. The fully stocked bar indicates that they have every intention of turning it into a night club after hours. I'm not quite sure how that meshes with the burger joint concept.

The owner was a nice fellow who is clearly proud of his business, and it really seemed like an act of cluelessness more than spite or intentional food/menu plagiarism (if that's a thing). Milk Burger may not quite compare to Shake Shack, but it's certainly the best burger I've found in Spanish Harlem so far, and as far as I'm concerned, every neighborhood needs a good burger joint. I just wish they had their own personality.

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