What Boston may lack in parking spots, it makes up for in burgers. They’re absolutely everywhere. They arrive on puffy kaisers at no-nonsense pubs, dabbed with truffle mayo at spiffy bars, or preciously presented in grass-fed wads at conscious counters. This must be a lousy place to live for someone who dislikes burgers. Suffice it to say, that person is not me.
As a beef-oriented fella on the go, I eat burgers all the time: coming home from the gym, before a long night out, for lunch, for dinner (a few times for breakfast). I like ’em cheap, expensive, grilled, griddled, ironic, ambivalent, and, in darker times, when a McDonald’s is my only option, platonic and artificial all at once.
Defining the best burger is bound to be a highly individualized pursuit, with lots of passion and little consensus. And with three promising new entries on the scene — the Danny-Meyer-helmed New York import Shake Shack at Chestnut Hill, the fast-spreading Washington, D.C.-based franchise Five Guys, and local burger-done-good (but never well done) Tasty Burger — the task only gets more diffcult.
In an attempt to find my own favorite burger in town — one that does its job and does it well — I’ve opted to hold this new crop to those most primary standards of the fast-food offerings they aspire to upgrade: speed, portability, portion, and general satisfaction.
Given the joints in question, this approach feels fair — as does the word “joint.” While Tasty Burger, Five Guys, and Shake Shack offer an ostensibly elevated burger experience (at a price point that might have prohibited Wimpy from falling so deeply into his cycle of freeloading), all three are attempting to stay true to both halves of the “fast food” distinction.
We rookies are still at a point where the line that snakes around the new Shake Shack in Chestnut Hill signals its newness. In New York, where the chain’s Madison Square Park mothership offers a webcam for customers to estimate their wait in advance, the ever-present queue is a sign of its alpha-burger status. Indeed, the Shack, an extension of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, has become, since its 2004 appearance, the stuff of legend, or at least some substantial burger buzz, with nearly 20 locations along the Eastern Seaboard, and international plans in London, Istanbul, and the Middle East.
And while we were excited to test it out, to be honest, after 30 minutes in line, we were prepared to eat our pager to make the next 20 minutes of our wait feel more engaged. With one of our criteria (speed) already out the window, we found ourselves in the vulnerable position of potentially being satisfied by anything.
And certainly the SmokeShack ($6.25, a hormone-and-antibiotic-free Angus cheeseburger with Niman Ranch bacon, chopped cherry peppers, and a lively ShackSauce) was a pleaser — if a little well-behaved. Served in a cute little baggie (points for portability) and paired with some crinkle-cut cheese fries (a cut I struggle with; great for cheese retention, but often too floppy under their own weight when served bare), Shake Shack’s burgers were well-prepared, flavorful, and a little too petite. I should have ordered my ShackBurger ($4.75, cheese, lettuce, tomato, ShackSauce) as a double ($7.30), as it felt just north of a slider.
As might have beeen gleaned from the name, much of what happens at Shake Shack in the burger department seems like a prelude to the Shack’s signature frozen custard options: the namesake shakes, cups, cones, and “concretes” (cough, Blizzard, cough). But while the peanut butter custard in a cup ($3.25) was sturdy, sweet, and enjoyable, and while my cohort settled on “mature” to describe his milkshake’s chocolate ($5), the texture and pull of the shake was weak. (I prefer a shake thick enough to force a little fish-face.)
In the heart of a city, in a beautiful park, as a way to upgrade my lunch hour to a double, the Shack’s demands and rewards make sense. As a destination burger, it’s a go; as a burger of convenience, it’s a no. 49 Boylston St., Chestnut Hill, 617-651-3406, www.shakeshack.com
FIVE GUYS BURGERS AND FRIES
Launched in 1986 out of Arlington, Va., Five Guys has fast amassed a devoted cult following, opening over 1,000 locations since 2002, with over two dozen franchises in Massachusetts alone. Frill-free, its walls tiled in white and red, adorned with news clippings from distant papers and cheap foam-core signage blasting its awesomeness, Five Guys hangs onto its surly family-biz charm while sneakily foregrounding some of its smarter, foodie-bait features. Its butch feng shui, for example, is largely created by stacked sacks of potatoes (cut on site for regular and Cajun fries that could stand a lot more spice) and vats of peanut oil. The message: no trans fats. They also forbid freezers.Continued...