NYC Burger War: Shake Shack vs. Umami Burger

Photo Jun 27, 2 08 55 PM

NEW YORK

Hamburger perfection is served in a vinyl red tray, and only available in five states.

In-N-Out Burger is the alpha and the omega. The North, South, East and West. It’s the beginning and end of the discussion on fast food burgers. No one who has experienced it can deny this fact.

Virginia-based Five Guys Burgers and Fries, while more widespread, is good…great even,  but it simply does not exist in the same universe as In-N-Out (the fries, though, are another story).

McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, do not register in this conversation because nothing about their menus speak to quality food. Whataburger seems to do well in Texas, but they average about two customer shootings per year at their stores (a Google search for “Whataburger shooting” returns 164,000 entries). If Chick-Fil-A is known for good chicken and a gay-hating owner, Whataburger is famous for the fact that you may be shot while waiting for your order.

New York’s fast-food burger options are plentiful. They have about 20 Five Guys stores in the five boroughs. They also have Shack Shack, a 10-year-old chain with stores throughout the city. In 2013, Manhattan got its first Umami Burger, the Los Angeles-based darling that is sprouting nationally (Las Vegas, Chicago and other NYC sites are coming).

Nothing would make me happier than to say that the $21 chargrilled burger with Roquefort at The Spotted Pig is the best in town, or that the half-pounder from Peter Luger was life changing. But, when you just want a burger, are you really going to drop $21 and hours of your life waiting for a table? Are you really trucking to Brooklyn for a burger that begs for a dress code?

Of course not.

So for you, dear reader, I added two notches to my burger bedpost.

Photo Jun 27, 2 01 43 PM

Shake Shack

Location visited: Madison Square Park, the original location
Other outlets: 10 throughout NYC, including JFK and Citi Field, plus stores in Saratoga Springs, Westbury, Philly, Miami, D.C. They have also gone international.
I ordered: Single Shack Burger ($4.75), fries ($2.85), and the house beer.
The menu is: Extensive. What started as a hot dog cart has led to burgers, frozen custard and private label beer and wine.
The fries are: Ordinary. Crinkle cuts that are also available with a cheddar-American cheese sauce.

Photo Jun 27, 2 20 53 PMWhat about the beverages: Custard-based shakes make up the entire center part of the menu. Coke products, Abita root beer, homemade lemonade and iced tea make up the everyday stuff. Brooklyn Brewery makes a pale ale especially special for the Shack, while Napa Valley vineyard Frog’s Leap bottles a red and white.
What’s the wait: We stopped by at 1:30 p.m. and waited 25 minutes to order. It took another 20 minutes to get food.

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The  rest of the story: Simply put, this is an amazing burger. The meat tasted like beef, not the grease on the grill. I would put it on par with In-N-Out. The fries were meh. The kitchen is a study in controlled chaos with not nearly enough space to crank out the volume demanded. Luckily for them, the city approved a renno plan to expand their space.

Photo Jun 28, 12 16 15 PM

Umami Burger

Location visited: The Hudson Eats food court at Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan.
Other outlets: Greenwich Village and soon in Williamsburg. Also throughout L.A. and Northern California. Expansion plans include Chicago and Las Vegas.
I ordered: The Original ($12), truffled fries ($6.50), and fresh brewed green tea ($3.50).

Photo Jun 28, 12 19 51 PM
The menu is: Interesting. Lots of truffles. If I wasn’t here for a burger, I would have chosen the pastrami patty with caramelized onion, dill pickle and mustard.
The fries are: Boring and awesome all at the same time. The shoestrings are yawners on their own, but the Umamified version with truffled cheese and truffled salt make them a force to be reckoned with.

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What about the beverages: Mexican Coke and Sprite, plus Abita root beer, and a beer list that blends city brews with well-known West coast brands like Rogue.
What’s the wait: Less than 10 minutes.

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The  rest of the story: Umami Burger is fast casual, so think more Panera than McDonald’s. Attitude reigns here. The guy at the counter seemed as if he had better things to do than answer my questions and no one on staff appeared to be happy, or happy to be there.

Photo Jun 28, 12 24 50 PM
The Umami Burger Original features a 6 oz. burger mixed with house spices and sauces to build that umami flavor (think soy, seaweed and fish sauce). It was served with shitakes, roasted tomato, caramelized onions and a parmesan crisp. It was a good burger. Nice and rich with fat without being greasy. But, for some reason, it falls apart easily. You expect a burger to hold up and not feel dry and crumbly.

It was also expensive. A $12 burger plus $6.50 in fries is not at all reasonable for fast food or fast casual conversation.

Verdict

A $5 burger at Shake Shack plus $3 in fries is closer to that fast food burger I was hoping for. That the beer I ordered ($5) cost as much as the burger. That it was was superior to a $12 burger says something. One must consider the location in which we ate, and where Umami sets up shop, but there is a lot to say for the Shake Shack. 

And for Umami as well. It’s damn good, if not damn pricey, burger.

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