The NYC Burger Battle Pt. 1: Shake Shack, Five Guys and Pop Burger

Remember that episode of How I Met Your Mother where Jason Segel’s character sends the gang all over the city looking for the “best burger in New York”, which he claims to have had on his first night there and has been unable to locate again since? No, you don’t watch that show, and you thought that last sentence ran on too long? Never mind, read on anyway.

Everyone knows a good burger joint in New York. The word ‘famous’ gets thrown around rather liberally when it comes to such places, but there are a few patty-slingers that have garnered a solid reputation.

As I am nothing but an iconaclast, I’ve tried some of New York’s truly “famous” to see if they match the hype, and to pit them against each other in a “Battle Royale with Cheese”. This week, it’s the growing juggernaut of Shake Shack versus the slider-slingers at Pop Burger.

Shake Shack

Shake Shack has become as famous for its lines as its burgers.

Even though it only opened its first location in Madison Square Park in 2004, it has quickly become something of a New York institution, with punters willing to line up for an hour to get their chops around a Shackburger. In 2005, New York Magazine also gave the restaurant the title of ‘Best Burger’.

The Shake Shack legend has grown from there. There are now six locations across New York City, and last year the company expanded outside of the city, opening five new interstate restaurants. The chain was also the subject of some appallingly obvious and repeated product placement in the appallingly obvious and repetitive Something Borrowed this year.

I eschewed the Madison Square Park location (which has a line so long that the restaurant has set up a webcam for customers to check online) in favor of the recently-opened Battery Park City location. I still had to line up for ten minutes just to order, and opted for the basic ShackBurger and Fries. It took another ten minutes for my order to come up.

It’s inevitable that a 20 minute wait is going to build anticipation, so I was expecting big things. The meat was indeed succulent, the sauce wasn’t overpowering (I hate a burger where you can only taste the sauce) and the vegetables crisp and fresh. In all, however, I didn’t get that struggling-to-fit-it-all-in-my-mouth, sauce-dripping-through-my-hands moment that I’ve had with great burgers. There’s something a bit unsatisfying about a burger you can eat with one hand.

I also finished it comfortably and wished I’d gotten something else to help fill me up. The ‘double’ may be a more satisfying option, but it’s a bit expensive at $7. The fries were good, though I was glad I’d grabbed some extra salt.

Judging it on its own merits, it is a great burger, but it’s not the unforgettable burger that many make it out to be.

Verdict: A solid burger that does not justify the wait.

Pop Burger

The Pop chain is a slightly more upmarket option with three locations across Manhattan. It’s more of a restaurant/bar than a fast-food burger joint, but a ‘counter menu’ is on offer for those looking to eat on the run (or just somewhere else).

I was told that the ‘Pop Burger’ sliders were the specialty of the house (as well as its namesake), and so opted for them at a tidy $7.75.

I’m still not sure about the whole ‘slider’ trend. Clearly there is a school of thought which holds that foods tastes better in miniature form, and mini quiches and mini pizzas seem to bear this theory out. But I’m just not sure about ‘mini burgers’ (let’s call a spade a spade). They might work as finger food or canapes, but are they a meal?

The answer in the case of Pop Burgers is ‘no’. There’s something aestheticaly pleasing about a neat little burger you can eat in two mouthfuls, sure, but it’s not something that’s going to hold you over past 4pm. I could have gotten fries to bulk things up a little, but that would have pushed my costs into double figures.

For what they are, these sliders are very tasty. I could find no fault with the flavor, only the portion size.

Verdict: Delicious but ultimately unsatisfying.

The winner is… Shake Shack.

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