Restaurant Reviews

Shake Shack Makes a Good Burger — and a Good Metaphor for Dallas Dining

Monday, 5:50 p.m. There is no line at Shake Shack. Only eight tables are occupied, six by people dining alone. I snag a parking spot right in front of the door.

Is Dallas coming to its senses?

We live in, probably, the burger capital of the world. There are dives with cult followings (Keller’s, JG’s, Dairy-Ette), clever upstarts (Off-Site Kitchen, Maple & Motor, ¡C. Señor!) and upscale places with glorious burgers (Boulevardier, The Grape, On the Lamb). There are all manner of chains, both native Texan like Jake’s, Whataburger, Hopdoddy and foreign imports like Smashburger and In-n-Out. But for the first few weeks, people were lining up around the corner at Shake Shack, on McKinney Avenue in the snootiest pocket of Uptown, as if it invented putting meat in a bun.

Now that the dust has cleared and the stampede of Instagrammers has moved on, I’m learning that Shake Shack makes a pretty darn good burger. The patties are thin, but manage to combine both a nicely seared exterior and a pink medium-rare center. Neat trick, that. Hopdoddy makes a thicker patty, but brown all the way through.

Also neat: the crispy, black-edged bacon on my Smokeshack ($6.84), the tangy Shack Sauce and, honestly, the burgers’ size. The burger at Off-Site Kitchen always leaves me wanting one bite more, and Maple & Motor can induce food-comatose regret. Shake Shack offers a Goldilocksian balance, provided I don’t look at the calorie count.

There is, however, the matter of fries ($2.99, or $3.99 with cheese). At a thick crinkle cut, Shake Shack’s fries are distinctive, and they come out crisp and salty. But, after a while, I found them getting boring. It’s like Shake Shack attempted to mimic the flavor of McDonald’s fries, but with a thicker, starchier cut and less addicting frying oil. I spent the rest of the night chugging pints of water.

Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. Now this is more like it. There’s a 10-minute line, and the restaurant is nicely buzzing with activity, including a few dozen patrons enjoying fall weather on the patio. Still, Dallas’ trend-hound diners aren’t mobbing the place. My tabletop says it was “handcrafted in New York from reclaimed bowling lanes,” which might be the most Brooklyn thing I’ve ever heard.

At the table next to me, a guy is telling his friend, “Last night I was drunk and I accidentally signed up to be an Uber driver.”

My Shroom Burger ($6.99) is an oddball. The portobello mushroom is fried fabulously and stuffed with a melty cheese mixture. Alas, all the cheese, congealed, falls straight out, splatting onto my tray. I spend the rest of the meal picking cheese goo up and re-burgering it. Another thing happens on that first bite, too: the bun squishes down into thin, foamy pancakes. It’s a little unsettling.

The Shroom Burger is small and devoured within a couple of minutes. I skip the fries this time; they’re a waste of stomach space. Shack Sauce really is terrific, though, a best-of-all-worlds mix of mayo with small amounts of ketchup, mustard, paprika and pureed dill pickles. It’s all the burger condiments, brought together Avengers-style to make CGI magic on my sandwich.

Sunday, 11:50 a.m. The line is a mere two minutes. When the clock strikes noon, it finally curls out the door, the first time I’ve seen a line out the door here, but still looks like a mere 10-minute wait.

In no time, then, I’m having my best Shake Shack meal yet. The Chicken Shack ($6.29) has an outstandingly flaky, crispy batter with good spices and thick pickles. It’s like Chick-fil-A, but open on Sundays and cool with gay people. The Link Burger ($7.69) has a thin patty with gorgeously molten cheese, but the scene-stealer is Pecan Lodge’s glorious sausage.

My peanut butter shake ($5.29) is so delicious I slurp every last drop without thinking. The Dallas Pie Oh My Concrete, a blend of frozen custard with a slice of Emporium Pie ($4.59), currently features the bakery's boldly spiced, not-too-sweet pumpkin pie. On the other hand, it turns out that adding cheese doesn’t make the Shack's dull fries any better.

I’ve told a friend about the opening-week crowds vanishing. He says, “Dallas is fickle, and we have a lot of burgers.”

That word fickle is coming up a lot lately. According to Leslie Brenner in The Dallas Morning News, folks in the restaurant business call Dallas diners the Fickle 500, after a group of trend-hounds who clamor to be seen at the hottest new openings, then move on to the next. Shake Shack? That’s so September.

I see two sides to that coin. Dallas has a hopping, ever-changing restaurant scene, and hundreds of enticing places to eat. There are dozens of high-profile places to which I haven’t been, and this is my freaking job. How can we keep up?

On the other hand, the Fickle 500 aren’t always adventurous gourmets. And, with Dallas chefs and restaurant-industry insiders worried about a dining bubble, the result is more conservative comfort foods. The business as a whole fears crashes in luxury dining and in real estate. Its response has created a genuine bubble in specific sectors, like burgers and “elevated Southern comfort food.” 

Maybe those foods are still profitable despite the glut. In economic crises, candy and alcohol sales do go through the roof. A good burger joint has more staying power than an adventurous place like Small Brewpub. Perhaps that explains why Shake Shack chose to open in a corner of Uptown where trust-fund kids get Belvedere bottle service.

Is the perception of a bubble bad news for gourmets? Sure. But there are steps we can take. We can keep trying new places with new foods, and reward creativity with our wallets. We can skip Uptown on Friday night, and spend brunch somewhere other than Bishop Arts.

Of course, while I say all this, I do plan to go back to Shake Shack many a time. The fries are boring, but the chicken sandwich, link burger and shakes are enough to make a fickle diner settle down.

Shake Shack, 2500 N. Pearl St., 214-983-1022. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday.
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart

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