The burger: I spent a few days in New York City this week, and since my hotel was a three-block walk from Madison Square Park, I decided to make a Burger Friday stop at the Shake Shack.
Restaurateur-to-end-all-restaurateurs Danny Meyer launched this fast-food phenomenon from a hot dog cart, and it had been a few years since I'd experienced its charms. (Meyer's empire, which has amassed a staggering 25 James Beard awards over the past 24 years, started a few blocks away at the Union Square Cafe in 1985). After several headed-to-the-subway walk-bys, I wasn’t surprised to discover that the Shake Shack – which is located in the southeast corner of what is easily one of Manhattan’s prettiest parks – is as popular as ever.
It was easy to discern the fool’s errand-ness of a drop-by during peak lunch and dinner hours, so I opted for a mid-week 3 p.m. plan instead. Silly me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, upon arrival, I found 97 people queued up, a figure that eventually translated into a 43-minute wait. Fortunately, it was a spectacular spring day, and, as previously mentioned, I was standing in a supremely appealing urban setting.
I probably owe Apple a note of thanks, because when I got in line, the battery on my iPhone was reading 4 percent. Annoying, yes, but a nearly-comatose phone has its benefits. For once, my eyes weren't glued to my phone. They were where they belong: on my surroundings.
There was certainly plenty to take in. For starters, the park is ringed by a hefty number of architectural landmarks. Architect Daniel Burnham’s iconic Flatiron Building (pictured, above) has been dominating the park’s southwestern flank for 112 years. The park's eastern border is graced by the former Met Life complex, including its 700-foot tower (the world’s tallest when it opened in 1909), modeled after the Campanile in Venice. Architect Cass Gilbert’s 1928 New York Life Building, with its distinctive gold-gilded pyramidal cap, anchors the view to the north. The neighborhood's most notable newcomer is super-skinny One Madison Park, a glass-clad slip of a 60-story tower housing 53 luxury condominiums (media mogul Rupert Murdoch purchased the four-story, 10,000-square foot penthouse a few months ago for nearly $58 million).
The park itself is a flat-out knock out, a series of lawns and gardens bisected by walking paths, monuments (my favorite is sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens commanding memorial to Admiral David Farragut, he of "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" fame), a fountain and a playground. I can recall when the park was a derelict mess, but a multi-million dollar fix that began in the late 1990s has meticulously restored its formal, late-19th-century splendor.
Tulip season was in full swing, and the park’s 10,000 bulbs dazzled, as did the many flowering trees, all decked out in their lush, Technicolor-soaked splendor. A different kind of scenery, no less watchable, was the never-a-dull-moment aspect to New York City people-watching. Long story short, it was a not-unpleasant wait. Neither was the 15 minutes that lapsed from when I handed over my credit card to when I was eating.
Given the competition, I wasn’t sure if I was going to secure a table. The outdoor-only restaurant has a relatively large seating area, sheltered from the sun by some of the park’s many leafy Sycamore trees. Fortunately, I lucked into one right away.
As for the burger, it definitely occupies a berth on the upper end of the fast-food bell hierarchy. The patty was fresh and sizzling hot (the kitchen grills to a uniform medium) and spilling out from a soft, eggy bun. Plenty of melty American cheese was insinuating its way into the beef, the tomato slices actually boasted some flavor and juice (and a pleasingly deep red color) and the lettuce leaf was crisp and garden-fresh. The swipe of "Shack sauce" -- a proprietary concoction of what I'm guessing is some combination of ketchup, mustard, mayo and seasonings -- added rather than distracted from the overall taste sensation.
Yes, a fine fast-food burger, although that's a generous use of the word fast. I'm not quite sure how to weigh the effects of that lengthy wait on my appetite. Did my innate Lutheran common sense dictate that I muster a greater appreciation for the burger, given my hour-long time investment (and my ever-growing hunger)? Or had the Space Mountain-like line annoyed me to the point where the world's most impressive burger wouldn't have impressed me? Hard to know. But I can say this: Next time -- and yes, I'd definitely return -- I wouldn't hand over a precious hour of New York City time for a Shake Shack burger. A half-hour, maybe.
Price: $4.75 for a single patty with cheese, proof positive that eating well in Manhattan doesn't have to be an expensive proposition.
Fries: Extra. After watching them come out of the fryer -- and getting showered by some pretty serious salt action -- I regretted not ordering a basket of the thick, crinkle-cut fries ($2.85). Next time, right? Speaking of that sometime-in-the-future visit, I’ll gauge the potential wait – or lack thereof – by logging on to the handy web cam that’s aimed at the ever-present queue.
Wisconsin terrritory: The shakes of the restaurant's name are crafted from the kitchen's own vanilla frozen custard. It's a Culver's-like product, only richer, milkier and less sugary. I indulged in the coffee version ($5.50). It was a wickedly creamy delight, and each slurp brimmed with a dark-roast bite.
Wouldn't it be nice: Since opening in the park in 2004, the Shake Shack has sprouted an additional five Manhattan locations (none come close to the original's sublime setting), along with three in Philadelphia, three in Miami, three in Washington, D.C. and one in suburban New Jersey. A Texas outlet (in Austin) is planned for this year, and the company also operates a dozen overseas branches.
A part of me would like to see a Shake Shack energizing a Minneapolis park -- Loring, maybe? -- but in the end I'd prefer to see a local operator in that position, following in the successful footsteps of Sea Salt Eatery, Sandcastle, Bread & Pickle and Tin Fish. Perhaps the powers-that-be behind the Mall of America’s $325 million expansion can latch onto the company's growth curve and lure the Shake Shack to the megamall. Can someone get on that, please?
Address book: Madison Av. and E. 23rd St., New York, New York, 212-889-6600. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
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