Shake Shack

The Place
Shake Shack
8520 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

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If you never caught the new (like, that new new) Star Wars movie, then you missed out on Kylo Ren, the most angst-addled villain to grace the silver screen in quite some time (you may know him better as the darkest-skinned – but still white, of course – person on Girls).  See, Kylo Ren is angsty because he wants very badly to be compared favorably to Darth Vader.  He wants to be the next Darth Vader.  So he acts and talks the part.  He commands with unforgiving brutality.  He wears the mask that changes his voice, even though he doesn’t need it.  Think of his relationship with Darth Vader as being kind of like Rivers Cuomo’s relationship with Buddy Holly.

And much like Cuomo, he just isn’t quite as special as his idol.  Deep, withering suspicions – that he’s ultimately just a pale imitation of the thing he strives to be – roil in him.  They consume him.  And most of all, they make him hate the character in the film who he recognizes as truly special, truly significant.  She achieves everything he’s worked so hard for, and she doesn’t even have to try.

It’s a common trope in our world and our folklore: the figure who longs to be a feature of history, but really is just a footnote.  These are people with lofty aspirations to emulate and evoke truly monumental figures, but ultimately, they are undone by their inability to recognize that the mere imitation of an act or a sound may not – and probably will not – capture the subtleties and complexities that exist beneath it.  What I mean is, Kylo Ren choking a person out as part of his WWDVD? mentality is quite different from what animated Darth Vader – namely, living at the nexus between guilt and doubt and rage.

Similarly, putting together a burger that features some of the same ingredients as those featured on the best chain burger money can buy doesn’t guarantee that you’ll best In-N-Out.  And so, in a swaggering and expansive outpost on Santa Monica Boulevard, Shake Shack joins the ranks of these reductive imitators, clamoring for attention and plaudits, begging for favorable comparisons to a great institution.

Shake Shack is the latest in a long line of burger chains that demand to be compared to In-N-Out.  It is a chain that builds buzz via sophomoric articles like this.  Never mind that the two are in no way comparable.  The one is an international chain with an expansive menu (including three different burgers, seasonal/weekly/monthly/whateverly flavors of ice cream, bespoke craft beer, Abita root beer on tap, Cold Stone Creamery style concretes), the other is willfully limited.  The one is surprisingly expensive, the other almost guilt-inducingly cheap.

But the comparison is being made.  So if you drive by Shake Shack, you will see crowds of impossibly cool West Hollywood types: New York imports with trendy haircuts; t-shirts featuring a sneering slogan or maybe a reference they only almost understand; shadowed and lined eyes drooping under the weight of their contempt for the world, smiling with half their face as they post a link from a blog about an article they haven’t read about a study they haven’t read but which reinforces the fact that everyone who disagrees with their particular opinion on their particular cause celebre du jour (based on exhaustive review of numerous blog posts like this) is ill-informed and probably malicious.

These are people bound together by fibrous, almost extant strands of supercilious energy, people who are fueled not by the Krebs cycle like the rest of us, but by the knowledge of their superiority.  And even for these walking superlatives, the need to know if Shake Shack really is better than In-N-Out is so pressing, so dire, that it can wrest them from the urgent business of being better than you.

I went with my parents and Kelsey.  Because while I may not be cool, I am the purveyor of a publication about burgers in Los Angeles, so I’m drawn to trendy burger spots like a fly to a turd.

The Order: Shack Burger

The Price: $5.29 (not including fries or drink)

The Burger
Roughly speaking, I think there are two types of people who might argue that Shake Shack is better than In-N-Out: the first are the reflexively contrarian naysayers.  These are people who don’t have particularly strong or well-developed feelings about In-N-Out (or any alternative), but dislike its ubiquitous appeal and enjoy the idea that their opinion is challenging and controversial.  Then there are people who need New York to be better at everything (rather than just better at being bigger and smellier).  I’ve talked about this phenomenon at some length before.

The goal of this piece, though, is not to take up the issue with either group.  In point of fact, I prefer not to entertain the comparison at all.  As I mentioned before, these restaurants are different enough that the comparison itself is more than a little spurious.  Shake Shack is a peri-industrial hipster chic millennial iteration of a soda fountain, whereas In-N-Out begins and ends as a burger stand out of time, a relic of its founding age.  Another reason behind my rejection of a comparative discussion – and I smirk as I type this – is that these two products are not in the same league.

Shake Shack’s offering features an oversalted, overcooked patty, watery tomato, heat-wilted lettuce, and insipid Thousand Island (Shack sauce) between two feeble, infirm, too-doughy potato buns (this actually surprised me, because I remembered the buns being much better when I first tried Shake Shack in Washington, D.C.).  The entire presentation is a pittance, a burger so small it barely qualifies as a burger.  You will not savor every bite, and after you finish, you will wonder why you waited in line for so long with all those impossibly self-obsessed trendchasers and paid more than double the cost of a Double-Double for it.

If in Shake Shack you were hoping to find The Chirping Crickets, you’ll have to settle for Raditude.  If you were hoping for Luke’s father, you’ll have to settle for Leia’s emo brat.  Shake Shack talks the talk.  It’s high on swagger and hype, but it’s little more than a well-appointed disappointment.  This restaurant doesn’t deliver a product worth mentioning in the same sentence as In-N-Out, let alone comparing to it.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.40 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.90 / 10.00
Value: 7.60 / 10.00
Efficiency: 6.90 / 10.o0
Creativity/Style: 7.50 / 10.00
Bun: 4.90 / 10.00
Patty: 7.20 / 10.00
Toppings: 6.50 / 10.00
Sauce: 6.50 / 10.00
Balance: 7.00 / 10.00

Total: 70.40 / 100.00

The Independence

IMG_3209There are a few major gripes people have with Santa Monica. First, parking is hell. Second, it’s not really close or on the way to anything (except, like, Malibu). And third, when you go out, you kind of find yourself running into the same kind of person over and over again. Like, I get it. You went to [insert Pac-12 school here], and were in [insert Greek organization here]. Yeah, no, I’m sure it was an awesome experience. And yeah, that’s a sweet button down. It definitely looks better on you than it did on the last three guys I saw it on. In this bar. Sure, I’ll wait here while you go talk to that girl. Yeah, no, I’m sure you “crush all kinds of ass.”

Okay. Maybe I’m getting a little bitchy. But prides of snowflake-unique bros and lady-bros aside, no one should be heard to say Santa Monica’s food scene isn’t absolutely killer (and also in the process of exploding), because it totally, totally is. Even if burgers aren’t your thing, you can go have some southern-kissed French food at Kris Tominaga’s up-and-comer Cadet (get the rabbit and thank me later). Go to aestus and learn why all the patrons at the Royce miss Alex Ageneau. Or go to what is now an old standard, Rustic Canyon, and be assured that yeah, Jeremy Fox still has it. Or just go to Sidecar Donuts (soon, my little ones…soon) and reflect – with warming self-satisfaction – that everyone waiting in line at Dunkin’ Donuts is as idiotic as they seem. And then eat some fried dough and forget what you were thinking about.

That brings me to The Independence. It’s a trendy new spot in Santa Monica. Located at the corner of Broadway and Second (right where the incalculably sacrilegiously monikered Buddha’s Belly used to be – good riddance), it’s a sprawling, modern restaurant-bar with all the touches one would expect of a spot this hip – one wall is plastered with violently colorful murals, and another consists entirely of windows. It’s bright and fresh, and just trendy enough to make you feel cool but not out of place. Vibe aside, it’s got plenty of culinary cred; Tom Block manages the menu (you might recognize the name; he was the creative nucleus over at BLT Steak too).

As new on the block as The Independence is, the burger has already generated considerable buzz. So obviously, I was drawn there like a carnivorous moth to a delicious, umami flame. Tessa, Alexandra, and Julia made me look really good while I ate it. Which reminds me: if this review seems a little less detailed than usual, it’s because I was really busy being mortified at the terrifying, occasionally scatalogical text messages Julia and Tessa sent from my phone. Don’t ask. It’s personal.

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah, the burger.

The Place
The Independence
205 Broadway
Santa Monica, CA 90401

The Order: Angus Burger, medium rare

The Price: $16 (before tax)

The Burger
At the risk of being way, way, way too meta, the burger here kind of reminds me of the guys in Santa Monica that I was bitching about earlier. It was an imitation of something else. At its core, it lacked identity. For a restaurant called The Independence, I was stunned by how much this burger seemed to be trying to emulate one of its Santa Monica counterparts (rivals?). Of course, that’s not an indictment in and of itself. Imitation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love it, for instance, when H&M imitates my favorite designers for a fraction of the cost. Or when LL Cool J imitates a naval criminal investigator. Or when Demi Lovato imitates a musician. Okay, so I actually only like one of those things.

Sorry. Got a little sidetracked there. I was talking about the imitation game that The Independence play with their burger. It’s not a photocopy, by any stretch, but the inspiration of Father’s Office is clearly present in this burger.

Background for the unschooled: Father’s Office is the most famous burger in Santa Monica (and Culver City, for that matter). The citizens of that fine town will cite that burger as one of the crowning virtues of their city. Father’s Office, they will assure you, is the best burger in Los Angeles. Who cares that it’s cramped? Who cares that there is no actual wait staff? Who cares that you have to hover around people’s tables like hyenas waiting to steal fresh kills? Not Santa Monicans (Santa Monica-ites? Santa Monicansans?). They will stand by that little shop on Montana so fervently that they won’t even go to the one in Culver City (which, parenthetically, is way bigger and way less frustrating and way easier to navigate and also identical from a quality standpoint).

Suffice it to say, it’s hard to blame them. But this isn’t a review of Father’s Office. The point is, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the new kid on the block (which is funny, because Tom Block…get it?…never mind) is trying to get a foothold by way of imitation. Like I said before, this is no culinary Xerox; there are enough differences between this burger and the one at Father’s Office that no one could accuse The Independence of straight-up pilfering someone else’s idea. But the inspiration is clear. It’s kind of like when bands put stickers on the cover of their record saying, “If you love [insert impossibly popular band here], you’ll love this!” They wrote their own songs, sure, but they stepped into the stylistic shoes of another artist. This burger clearly was designed in the tall shadow of the Office Burger.

Okay, I think I’ve established where I think they were coming from in conceiving this burger, so let’s talk about the burger itself now. There is complex, nutty gruyere delicquesced atop (not within) the harshly charred Angus patty. A coppice of bitter arugula sits in a thick bed beneath the beef, concealing a den of slithering French onions. The bottom onion bun is coated with what they call an herb aioli (but which, really, is pretty much just mayonnaise).

The flavor profile of this burger is odd. It hits hard with bitterness on the front end. The sharp cut of the arugula dominates early, and bleeds into the harsh grill-char of the patty. That bitterness gives way not to the soothing nuttiness of the gruyere, but rather to the sharp, soupy onions. Whatever complexity (not very much) is in the aioli is lost behind that dominantly bitter front-end. The cheese and interior of the patty save the finish; earthy gruyere melting into the tender, juicy Angus. The burger leaves the palate much more gracefully than it enters. The finish was good enough to make me forget that harsh introduction and keep on eating.

Holding everything together was that onion bun, which was an interesting choice given the flavors at work in the burger itself. While I’m all for using non-traditional buns, I don’t know if I back this choice. I think a chalky ciabatta would have neutralized things well. A brioche would have been even better, offering a complementary buttery sweetness that was conspicuously absent from this burger’s flavor profile. The onion bun, though moist, was kind of redundant from a gustatory standpoint. It was a dim echo of the bold French onions that were so present. In one sense, you could make the case that it was consistent with the rest of what was happening in the burger. I don’t really see that as a virtue, though. It didn’t add anything, even though it really could have.

This burger skewed too far toward the brash, bitter end of things. It lacked balance. It’s a rare example of a situation in which the execution actually was superior to the conception. The idea was brought to fruition pretty much perfectly…it just wasn’t a very good idea. It did too much of the same thing – here’s something bitter, then here’s another thing that’s bitter, and then here’s something that’s sharp but not acidic enough to complement the bitterness. Then cheese.

To the extent that The Independence is seeking to emulate Father’s Office, they aren’t doing a bang-up job. They’re incorporating some of the same stuff (gruyere, arugula, beef), but they don’t seem to realize that those are dangerous tools to work with (okay, maybe not the beef), tools that require judicious balancing and careful maintenance. The Office Burger isn’t good because of the ingredients; it’s good because the ingredients are well-harmonized and purposefully proportioned. That wasn’t the case with this burger. This burger felt like someone ate Father’s Office and said, “Yes, that’s good and seems easy; I too will use those ingredients and make money.” Sadly, it’s not easy. The Independence would have been well-served to live up to their name a little bit more. They’re losing the imitation game.

The Ratings
Flavor: 7.90 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 8.70 / 10.00
Value: 5.80 / 10.00
Efficiency: 9.00 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.10 / 10.00
Bun: 7.30 / 10.00
Patty: 8.00 / 10.00
Toppings: 7.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 7.40 / 10.00
Balance: 7.60 / 10.00

Total: 76.50 / 100.00