2/22/2012 UPDATE: I love the lively conversation Pete's review and our take on it has generated. Here's a few further thoughts from the Serious Eats overlord:
Having now re-read Pete's review a few times, I have come to appreciate a few of the more subtle nuances I missed the first time out. First of all, he concludes that in the end it is all about the communal experience at Shake Shack, and in fact he wove that thought throughout the review in clever ways. Secondly, as at least one commenter has pointed out, maybe Danny Meyer and his crew are thrilled that the Times first-string restaurant reviewer took the time to thoroughly and thoughtfully review Shake Shack and even awarded it one star. Maybe thrilled is too strong a word, given all the misgivings Pete had about the food at Shake Shack. Maybe ambivalent is closer to the truth.
Lastly, the biggest problem that Pete's review of Shake Shack has revealed is the seeming inconsistency of the Times' star system. Sam Sifton loved Motorino, a pizzeria, and gave it one star. Pete had real misgivings about some of the food at Shake Shack and gave it one star. How can readers and restaurateurs alike make sense of all this? We're going to try to the get to the bottom of this seeming conundrum. Stay tuned.
So my friend and former editor Pete Wells has committed what some would call burger blasphemy: He has dared to criticize certain items on the Shake Shake menu, including the until-now-sanctified burger, in his latest New York Times restaurant review.
First of all, I should say that there is no more thoughtful, fair-minded, and generously spirited food writer on this earth than Pete. That being said, I do take issue with some of his criticism while agreeing with him on certain other points. Not surprising, friends who write critically about the same subject are going to respectfully disagree with one another. That's why they call us critics and not sheep. So I hope what follows is in kind thoughtful, fair-minded, and equally generously spirited.
Pete's major problem with the Shake Shack burger is consistency: Sometimes his SS burgers were sublime, almost transcendent (my words, not his; he called it magnificent). Other times he found them insufficiently salted and cooked to a not-too-pretty gray. I have never had an insufficiently salted burger at Shake Shack, but I have on occasion had gray, mealy, dry burgers with insufficient sears. But as Kenji points out, "Because of the quality of the grind and the meat, even an overcooked Shake Shack burger is juicier than most other burgers on their best day." On those occasions the burgers were overcooked, salt, cheese, and Shack sauce almost always rescued the burger.
Pete loves the shakes, as do I, and I was glad he called out the Fair Shake, merely the finest coffee milk shake I have ever had. He didn't mention the seasonal toppings of the day, which can range from pretty good to transcendent (the rhubarb is to die for).
The hot dogs are also swell, but I have always felt there is too much bun for the dog in the center of it. But this is nit-picking, because these Chicago-style hot dogs are as good or better than all but a handful of Chi-town's finest.
Pete and I agree about the french fries at Shake Shack. I have written about these problematic frozen fries before. When I have questioned folks at Shake Shack about them, their response is, "We must be doing something right. People love our fries." Maybe so, but not as much as they would if they tasted like the sublime Union Square Cafe fries. And I would guess that the primary reasons people love Shake Shack Fries are that they are hot, crunchy, crisp, and salty, a combination of attributes no food enthusiast can resist.
The reason for the Shack's frozen fries are primarily logistical—there's only so much room in a Shake Shack, and they are designed down to the last straw. Fresh french fries require at least two sessions in the fryer with some cool-down time in between, making them labor and space-intensive. I am sure that figures into their thinking as well.
I've never ordered a 'Shroom burger, but I've had them at parties cut up in fourths, and I've never had any problems with them.
So what do I conclude? Pete articulated and defended his point of view well, Almost too well, as some of the most evocative descriptions were the punchy, poetic negative ones. But as someone who's written a few of those myself (minus the poetry), I can tell you that they take on a fun, satisfying life of their own. I'm sure Danny Meyer and his executive crew at Shake Shack are going to take some of the criticism hard, but as they always do they will take the ones they find valid and use them as motivation to improve.
In the meantime Shake Shack lovers will continue to flock to the Shake Shack nearest them and savor the entire experience, especially the waiting in line and those french fries. And maybe that's the point that has to be made. They come as much for the shared experience and the opportunity to connect with like-minded burger tribespeople as they do to sample the perfect burger and fries.
About the author: Ed Levine is the founder of Serious Eats.