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

République

The Place
624 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
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It’s hard to find two places more serious about brunch than New York and Los Angeles. Without getting tangled in the weeds about who does brunch “better” – God help us all if we go a-tumbling down that rabbit hole – République on La Brea will give you a pretty good window into how Los Angeles does brunch. Oddly enough, the mid-city/Miracle Mile area is kind of a perfect cross-section of the city. It’s the rare part of town that is just far enough west that the most intrepid west-LA types will venture over if the brunch is sufficiently alluring. And it’s just far enough east that Silver Lake hipsters will muster up a couple shits to give, throw on their circular-framed sunglasses and/or wide-brim hats and get out.

To the extent that you don’t see how mid-city itself can be that alluring, by now it should be pretty clear that République has established itself as being worth a trip from just about anywhere. An expansive space with a skylight ceiling, Walter Mantzke’s spot doesn’t look like much from the outside. The restaurant’s austere logo is painted onto the concrete in black and white. The only reason this place might catch your eye is that – especially on Sundays – there’s a hell of a line outside.

It’s also been held that République whips up a burger that is “criminally underrated.” Consider my interest piqued. McKenna and I went to check it out. Undeterred by her last encounter with eggs, she ordered a croque madame. Because I’m a colossal francophobe, I judged her aggressively and ordered a burger. We (okay, mainly I) aggressively judged people like this. Proper usage of the words “who” and “whom” was discussed – and when I say “discussed,” of course, I mean explained. By me. And this.

The Order: Dry-Aged Beef Burger, medium rare

The Price: $15

The Burger
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As I ate this burger, a couple things dawned on me. First, messy things are made more satisfying to eat by the very fact of their messiness. Now I see what those Carl’s Jr. ads are getting at (still no official word on why they exclusively feature sexually attractive, scantily clad women). Second – and more directly relevant here – I’m a real sucker for the classics.

Admittedly, a night watching YouTube videos with my friend Andy will reveal this penchant pretty decisively. I mean, in the past couple of weeks, I have sat in silent reverence and watched the music video to “Free Fallin'”. In its entirety. Without a scintilla of irony. Brief sidenote: if you understand why that’s funny, you’re almost undoubtedly more of an insufferable piece of shit than you realize.

I suppose that’s really neither here nor there. République is a “fancy” restaurant. Most “fancy” restaurants fall into the trap of unnecessarily embellishing their burgers in a “fancy” way. Oh, what? Yeah, no, that isn’t white cheddar. In the first place, it’s way too crumbly to be white cheddar, but it’s actually pule. Pule? You haven’t heard of it? Yeah, no, most people haven’t. It’s actually a Serbian cheese made from donkey milk. Yeah, it costs almost $2000 per pound. I know, that’s why we charge $57 for this burger. You’ll really like it. You know, if you can like, you know, appreciate it.

République sidesteps that problem pretty effectively by adopting a tried and true formula and not changing it. At all. In any regard. The focus is not on reinvention of the wheel for its own sake. Rather, Mantzke et al. emphasize execution. They want this burger to evoke memories of backyard barbecues, with bright sun, casually charred burgers, impossibly fresh garnishes, and an absence of pretension that emanates not from laziness, but from a joyful reverence for the classic formulation of the dish.

And that brings me back to the classics. See, kids? That’s called closing the loop.

What I really appreciate about this burger is that there is so little to tell. The beef is dry-aged and utterly astonishing (they recommend it medium rare – you should listen). The garnishes are of the highest quality and freshness, especially the indulgent, meaty discs of tomato. The bun is a sunny brioche peppered with poppy seeds – delicious, but it did not take very long for it to soak through and start disintegrating. The grilled onions add a creeping, silvery sweetness without dominating the flavor profile of the burger. The Thousand Island imparts a gentle, foundational buzz of tangy flavor to each bite.

The inspiration for this burger, pretty plainly, is In-N-Out Burger. And while it certainly goes blow-for-blow as far as freshness and ingredient quality is concerned, the patty is more massive and central. It’s got more thickness and heft than a Double Double, which means, the flavor of the meat overwhelms any pretreatment of the patty (whereas, at In-N-Out, the charred sweetness of the beef is complemented beautifully by the pre-grill seasoning).

It’s not entirely fair to compare République to In-N-Out in the way you might be tempted to do so. The different approach to patty structure alone makes the comparison a pretty fraught one. But the commitment to freshness, execution, consistency, and – above all – simplicity is the same. And its high praise to tell you that this burger, in those ways, evoked the Californian burger titan. But, I’ll be damned if it didn’t.

The Ratings:
Flavor: 9.70 / 10.00
Freshness/Quality: 9.70 / 10.00
Value: 8.90 / 10.00
Efficiency: 7.50 / 10.00
Creativity/Style: 7.20 / 10.00
Bun: 8.60 / 10.00
Patty: 9.30 / 10.00
Toppings: 9.70 / 10.00
Sauce: 8.60 / 10.00
Balance: 9.00 / 10.00

Total: 88.20 / 100.00