Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
Ask even the most educated New Yorker to identify the center of the universe and he'll answer, "New York City, of course."
I learned this lesson the painful way as a freshman in college at a Midwestern university where my college dorm was populated disproportionately by New Yorkers -- and loud ones, at that. They couldn't believe that I had never traveled to New York City because, really, hadn't everyone been to New York City?
Everything was better there. The bagels ("It's the water, stupid!"), the pizza, the culture, the shopping, the . . . everything. And it wasn't "New York City," it was "the city." Because, really, is there another city?
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Of course not.
And so it comes as no surprise that New Yorkers are emphatic that their burger joint, Shake Shack, is far superior to any other burger joint -- namely In-N-Out Burger. Clearly, Shake Shack has momentum on its side, starting as a wildly popular hot dog cart and morphing into a semi-behemoth with outposts in five states and some international locations too.
It's classic East Coast vs. West Coast geocentrism. And given that I'm married to a Jersey girl, a recent spring break pilgrimage to visit family on the East Coast afforded me the chance to finally check out Shake Shack.
I cannot qualitatively say that it's "better" than In-N-Out, though it's a damn good burger. It's just that they're really not even comparable. In-N-Out has mastered the art of consistency. Locations are immaculately clean, burgers are virtually identical not just from location to location but within the same location. Their cooking method is precise and seemingly infallible. They've even got quotes from the Bible printed on the bottom of the cups!
I once said that if you could personify the brand, In-N-Out would read the Bible and Five Guys would read Hustler. Shake Shack falls somewhere in between.
The burger was truly fantastic. I tried a Shackburger single and double, fries, a hot dog, three different flavors of shakes, and a root beer float. The burger was well seasoned, the cheese gooey, and the bun robust. But Shake Shack has a serious issue with consistency; burgers varied from medium rare to well done, and no one ever asked how I wanted it cooked, anyway. Some had crusty edges, a la Smashburger, and some patties looked more uniform.
Hot dogs, split down the middle and grilled, were clearly very high quality and a great alternative (albeit a pricier and less convenient one) to the myriad carts on the street. And the shakes didn't disappoint either. Given that they're part of the restaurant's name, they shouldn't.
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By comparison, Shake Shack makes In-N-Out seems almost clinical, uptight even. The experience at Shake Shack is typical New York; chaotic, disorganized, and cramped. It's awfully self-aware, too. Tables, made of reclaimed wood, prominently state that they came for a former Brooklyn bowling alley. Employees were surly, which will either piss you off if you're used to the polite and straight-from-church-youth-group employees at In-N-Out or endearing if you're partial to New York City's "charm."
And so it boils down to personal preference. It's just a matter of time before Shake Shack pursues its manifest destiny and expands westward. I can't see myself making a special trip to Shake Shack next time I'm there but, then again, why would I?
The East Coast also has White Castle.