Sandwich of the Week: Which is Better, Shake Shack or In-N-Out?
Living on the East Coast means that ever since I first tasted In-N-Out's glorious Double-Double Animal-Style, for the past decade, anytime I'm remotely near In-N-Out I make it my mission to get my fix. In San Francisco on vacation? In-N-Out. Vegas bachelor party? In-N-Out. Wedding in Los Angeles? In-N-Out. L.A. eating tour? In-N-Out (twice, once on the way to LAX). But the last few Double-Doubles have been followed or preceded by eating Shake Shack's Double ShackBurger, and after all these years, I'm in a strange predicament: trying to remind myself what the fuss was all about.
Fact is, it's not even a close call. Quality-wise, taste-wise, Shake Shack is better. The burger is better. The fries are better (stop with this talk about In-N-Out's "well-done" fries animal-style or not beating out Shake Shack's — it's patently ridiculous — they're woody duds). And the shakes are better. The only thing In-N-Out has that Shake Shack doesn't is the reach (259 locations to the Shack's 13), the history (est. 1948 vs. 2004), and of course, the "secret menu." (Though, funny enough, you could argue Shake Shack kind of has its own versions of a secret menu: special items, those available at different locations, and the rotating custard calendar.)
This will be sacrilege to some. In-N-Out acolytes and West Coast denizens will declare it insanity. Call it uninformed, incomprehensible — East Coast bias. They'll cite the simplicity of In-N-Out's menu, the freshness of the meat. and the crunch of the hand-picked iceberg lettuce. They will note the vibrant red tomatoes, the crisp, vinegary pickles, the toasted bun, and the inexpensive price. (At right, In-N-Out's Animal-Style fries well done.)
In-N-Out's advocates will remind you that the chain doesn't even need to advertise. "I can't explain why it's so good," they'll say, "It just is." They'll note the creativity of how you can order In-N-Out burgers, earnestly recreate them at home, regale each other by writing about, reviewing, and breaking down the "secret menu" and the fabled 100x100 no matter how many times these things have been written about (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2011...). They'll proudly document ordering the entire thing in one go (even though that's been done too).They'll also wax poetic about and sing paeans to that Holy Grail of this hallowed chain: Animal-style.
That's cool. Like I said, I dig In-N-Out — participated in furthering its reputation by recommending it for years. And like I said, for 10 years anytime I was close, anytime there was a remote chance, even if it meant almost missing a plane, I found a way to get my In-N-Out fix. I've watched their eastward expansion patiently as they've opened locations in Utah, Arizona, and now, Texas.
Last April Fool's Day, against better judgment, even though you knew it was a prank, I let myself believe for 15 minutes that In-N-Out might actually someday open in New York City. Because as far as fast food burgers go, it's been a favorite from first bite. No question. And that devotion, that mission to visit the closest In-N-Out won't falter. But that doesn't change that it's not as good as Shake Shack.
Last Monday it seemed the universe was sending a sign to confirm this when at RUB BBQ Chef Scott Smith's weekly special burger was an homage to In-N-Out's Double-Double Animal-Style. If you haven't sampled Smith's Monday burger in Chelsea you've missed one of New York City's most underrated burgers. (Serious Eats even used to run a "Today's Special Burger at RUB" feature.)
Having a Double ShackBurger with onion and pickle and following it with Smith's homage (above, left) was as close as you could get in one day to doing a side-by-side comparison in New York. The verdict? Scott's burger is better than the original at In-N-Out (his wet burgers are his best, and this one was wet with a slight wonderful char absent at In-N-Out).
Many won't have tasted Shake Shack and will declare the mere thought that the fabled burger is anything but top dog a sham. To those who haven't tasted Shake Shack: bite your tongue. This isn't about hating In-N-Out. Bide your time, try the Shack, then weigh in. Consider the following and look at the components side by side.
If you've tasted both iconic, ultimate burgers from the respective chains: the Double-Double Animal-Style from In-N-Out and its equivalent, the Double ShackBurger from Shake Shack, you'll likely come to the same conclusion: Shake Shack doesn't need a gimmick like a "secret menu." Why? It tastes better. (Let's not even get into the added bonuses at Shake Shack: salted caramel Concrete, Shack-Cago dog, and Shack Stack)
Agree? Disagree? Take a look through the components from both burgers in the following slideshow. Vote in the poll on the Eat/Dine page. As for Five Guys? Pssh, that's for people who haven't tasted Shake Shack, as the good folks in D.C. should discover in June.