About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.
I may be called out for being totally remiss in my duties as a burger writer for admitting this, but here goes: I've never been to a Steak 'n Shake before. I have many excuses—I had no idea they were so popular! I didn't grow up in the midwest! But I don't like steak in my burgers!—but let's be honest, none of those excuses are any good, particularly not after having read Nick Solares' glowing review.
To say that the Steak 'n Shake has a cult-like following would be like saying that Mr. Wizard knows a bit about science. It's like the In-N-Out of the midwest, and ex-pats in New York have been waiting a long time for this day to come.
With its head office located in Indianapolis, it's fitting that the brand new location is at 1695 Broadway, immediately adjacent to Hoosier-boy and self-proclaimed Steak 'n Shake lover David Letterman's Late Night theater.
Doors officially open tomorrow (thursday, January 12th), but a couple other burger fans and I were afforded a sneak peak at the new facilities on tuesday.
Having never had a Steak 'n Shake steakburger before, I can't comment as to how it compares to the other locations (from what I gather, it's pretty much identical), but what I can tell you is that what I tasted is a burger that seems poised to give even our beloved Shake Shack a run for its money.* The classic burger is made with a blend of chuck, brisket, and ribeye steak and gets cooked via what I'm going to call the Massive Smash technique. That is, it starts as a 2.2-ounce puck of beef that gets smashed into a 6-inch circle resulting in a burger that more closely resembles a two-dimensional plane of meat**, fully optimizing the amount of crust formation.
*I'm sure Danny Meyer's quaking in his boots, ha!
**As Nick Solares eloquently describes it.
It's crazy juicy and good and comes served on a buttered and toasted soft bun. I was happiest with just plain onion and pickles with a swipe of mayo, forgoing the distractions of lettuce and tomato.
New and exclusive to the New York location is their Signature Steakburger, made with organic beef that includes both strip and ribeye. The menu says it comes cooked medium-well, but I was happy to find mine was nicely pink and juicy inside. Rather than smashing, this patty gets pattied in a mold and cooked without pressing, giving you an entirely different experience. It's tasty, but I prefer the crust-to-interior ratio of the original burger.
Fries are also unique to the New York location. Rather than using the frozen fries of their other locations, NY's Steak 'n Shake cuts and fries their potatoes on premises. If the fries I tasted on Tuesday are an indication of what they'll be like on a regular basis, I can honestly say they are some of the best in the city at any price. Thin and perfectly crisp, they're cut from Burbank russets, rinsed, blanched, par-fried in cottonseed oil, cooled, then finally refried to order, all in view of the customer. Thinner than McDonald's fries but thicker than the shoestrings at The Spotted Pig, they have a great crisp-to-fluff ratio. Fans of really potatoey fries may be disappointed, but if you like yours thin and crispy, you'll be pleased.
Other changes you might notice from the originals: no waiter service and a much smaller menu. Burgers, fries, shakes, and a hot dog here along with wine, beer, and a Coke Freestyle machine make up the entire roster. Seems like perhaps the bigwigs at Steak 'n Shake central took a page out of Danny Meyer's Shake Shack playbook and understood that in a city with this many options, simple = better.
The most insane part of the deal? Their prices are identical to the prices of their franchises all across the country, which in New York = insanely cheap. You can get a double cheese burger with your choice of toppings (onion, pickles, lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayo, and ketchup) and a side of fries for $3.99, or their 6-ounce Signature Steakburger with fries for $5.99. Prices are guaranteed to stay the same for at least one year after opening. You can't find a better lunch deal in midtown.
Value for dollar, this is easily the best burger in the city, and makes a strong case for best burger at any price. It's not big, it's not fancy, but it's the quintessential American burger. Beefy, greasy, cheesy, and salty, it goes down easily, and packs a huge amount of flavor into a single, one-hand-held package.
Peep through the slideshow for some behind-the-scenes looks at how the burgers are made.