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The Case Against Shake Shack

Chicago’s dining editor has her expectations shattered at the red-hot New York imprint.

ShackBurger at Shake Shack
ShackBurger at Shake Shack   Photo: Carrie Schedler

Shake Shack opened in River North (66 E. Ohio St., 312-667-1701) almost two weeks ago. I was not immune to the dancing in the streets that this momentous event caused. I read the blogs, scanned the photos, gasped at the long lines, and was enthralled by two- and three-timers fervid responses to the oh-so famous NYC patty. In the inimitable words of my oldest granddaughter, I decided I had but one course of action: “I do it myself.” So I did, last Sunday, around 5:30 p.m.

The line wasn’t too bad and it moved along briskly—much like the weather. It was good to make it inside the door within 10 minutes. I was impressed by the hospitality, speed, and efficiency of the whole operation. Somehow, by the time you get to the front of the line, you can find a place to sit.

This is what I tried:

  • ’Shroom burger ($6.90): This could not be less visually appealing. It looked like a small puffy flying saucer left a little too long in a deep fryer. Biting through the protective crust had an active crater effect, leaving a large mushroom all drippy with nondescript cheeses hanging in the balance. Hmm, now that I think back on it, where was the ShackSauce? I had to navigate the rest with a plastic knife, fork, and spoon. Not easy to mange out of a barely large–enough paper bag.
  • Flat top dog ($3): The wiener was well grilled and fitted nicely in its lightly toasted bun. The dog did not make the earth move under my feet, but it was fine for what it was. (My granddaughter prefers her dogs boiled, but I can’t hold that against the Shack.)
  • Single hamburger with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion ($3.95): I opted out of the SS sauce—maybe that was a mistake—but I just wanted to taste the burger. Bland, bland, bland. Lacked beefy punch and personality. Out-of-season tomatoes are never going to add much. It reminded me of McDonalds, back in the day.
  • Crinkle cut fries ($2.90): Meh. Not the least bit potatoey tasting. Pass the salt please.
  • My hubby and granddaughter drained their strawberry milkshake and orange float ($5.15 each) before I could undress my straw, so I am confident the frozen custard lived up to its reputation.

We bussed our space at the communal table and were in and out in 20 minutes.

Maybe I wouldn’t have been so disappointed if it weren’t for the hype and the fact that I had a Gruntburger at RJ Grunts (2056 N. Lincoln Park W., Lincoln Park, 773-929-5363) exactly one week prior to my Shack outing. At Grunts, I went with the classic half-pound of ground chuck and sirloin grilled to my specs (medium rare) and generously topped with blue cheese and fried onions—the entire basket overflowed with crispy cottage fries ($11.95). A jaunty dill pickle spear came along, which was immediately swiped by my grandson. This burger was a behemoth. I sunk my teeth through the sesame-seed-studded bun, and just kept going, the tender juicy meat mixing it up with the tangy blue cheese and onions fried to crispy perfection. I washed it all down with a hand-dipped vanilla milkshake ($6; low-fat yogurt is optional).

We sat in a comfy booth, which we were able to reserve, got waited on by an uber-accommodating staffer, and whiled away an hour wondering how embarrassing it would be to come back the next night.

The breakdown:

Shake Shack

  • Regular hamburger (topped with lettuce tomato, pickle or onion) with fries and a milkshake. Total: $12.
  • Upgrade: Regular double hamburger (same toppings) with bacon, cheese fries, and a shake or a float. Total: $15.70.

RJ Grunts

  • Gruntburger (topped with blue cheese and crispy onions) with cottage fries, a pickle, and a shake. Total: $18.
  • Upgrade: Yowza (peppercorn) Burger (topped with spicy ketchup, pepperjack cheese, smoked bacon, lettuce, and tomato) with cottage fries and a shake. Total: $19.

As my youngest granddaughter says: “Once upon a time . . . The end.”

You fill in the middle.

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