A Contrarian’s View of Steak N’ Shake
I grew up in the Midwest, in a flyover state not worth visiting or mentioning. And I grew up eating Steak N’ Shake. I indeed have fond memories of the place – I recall post game celebration dinners with my Little League team, and daring friends to eat the little sport peppers from the condiment jar and the like. But then as my taste buds matured, I visited less often, finding the burgers to be overly dry and the fries to be lacking. Since I moved away and grown into what I’ll freely admit, a food snob, I haven’t looked back.
I can understand the excitement that this place drummed up when it first opened. There were those that shared the same nostalgia for the chain, those that were genuinely curious, and those that bought into the hype. Early reviews have been positive – Rachel enjoyed her meal here (it would have been better without the wait), and the hamburger mavens at Serious Eats seemed to love it. But my visit last week was vindication for my dislike of this chain.
I ordered the original double double with cheese ($3.99), which comes with a small order of fries. The burgers are cooked using the griddle and smash method, which will theoretically trade off a bit of juiciness for a nice crust of beef. Any self respecting diner will use this technique, and even Danny Meyer looked at Steak N’ Shake’s cooking method as inspiration for Shake Shack. But whereas Shake Shack’s burgers are a triumph, Steak N’ Shake’s burgers fell completely flat. On my visit, the burgers were grainy and horribly dry, with no distinctive crust or beefiness. In fact, the only thing I could actually taste during each bite, were the pickle and onion, which overpowered the limp little beef patties.
If the burger was mediocre the fries were terrible. As you can see in the photo, they managed to be simultaneously burnt as well as mushy and wilted. And as a commenter pointed out, they were a wreck of salt. I could understand such a fry failure if the turnover was slow – but on my visit there were was a steady line of customers, which should have resulted in fresh product.
The chili ($2.29 for a cup) didn’t win Steak N’ Shake any favor points with me – I found it to be too sweet, with odd notes of cinnamon and cardboard.
As much as it pains me to admit it, though, it’s more than a fair deal. Outside of a lunch from Wendy’s or McDonalds, it would be tough to find a burger, fries, and side for six dollars and change. And the burger, while no match for a Shack or even Schnippers and Five Guys, is easily better than something you’d get at McDonalds for about the same price.
When writing a review, especially a negative one, I make a point to try the food as many times as I can before laying down the hammer. However, these guys don’t get a free pass from me just because they’re new and working out opening kinks. They’re a publicly traded chain with 487 locations, which means they’ve had that many tries to get it right. And I’ll admit I walked into the restaurant with a chip on my shoulder – I have no love for fast food or for chain restaurants. It’d take a miracle to get me to like a chain restaurant that serves over-processed, fattening, race-to-the-bottom foods catering to the lowest common denominator. I know I’ll get plenty of flak from this post, however I simply think that New York deserves better than this.