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Shake Shack vs. In-N-Out: Which Burger is Better?

Pitting NYC’s burger icon against the king of SoCal


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Shake Shack was born in a New York manger in 2004. Instagram stars @maryandjoseph were there. Danny Meyer was, too, touching water and turning it into wine, which was in awe of him like the rest of us. Three hundred million wise men and women showed up bearing gifts of burger cash.

And now NYC’s most famous burger joint has arrived on the west coast. They are by all means a real-food outfit, sourcing responsible meats and cooking as much scratch as possible. Their food ethics are pure. Some gentry have treated it as an affront, especially since the official state flower of California is a Double-Double. We have animalled, we have styled, all our lives.

With a lifetime of In N Out experiences in mind, I visited the Shake Shack at UTC Westfield. Since In N Out hasn’t changed its recipe since the Civil War, I figured Shake Shack would be better. They are not shackled by their own history. Here’s what I found:

 

THE BUN

It’s perfect. The best part of the Shake Shack burger. It has the structural integrity of a cloud. Soon as you touch it, it squishes and condenses into a delicious crepe of glistening carbs. It’s no longer a bun. It is a tailored bread-suit for your burger. No matter what food snobs may tell you, there is a magic to Wonderbread. The way you can press both ends of the loaf and reduce it to the width of a postage stamp. Amazing. This bun has that squeezable, perfectly chewy charm. Yet, unlike Wonderbread, the Shake Shack bun has flavor—eggy, potatoey, buttery. They don’t make it, but buy the potato bun from Martin’s, an east coast icon. It beats In N Out’s bread by a mile. You could stick your child’s disappointing report card between this bun and it would taste delicious.

 

THE PATTY

It’s like eating braille—so much good texture. Shake Shack’s patty is a thin, crispy, fully caramelized disc, kind of like a beef frico (cheese crisp). Their method is to press the patty flat on the grill, and then scrape it up. The meat is a mix of chuck, butter, sirloin, butter, brisket, and butter. Unfortunately, when you smash and scrape a burger, you can’t get that medium-rare pinkness that In N Out gets. If it were a Game of Thrones character, it would be a Grayjoy. And that’s a minus. The just-cooked-enough pinkness is what satiates the ancient carnivore impulse, and that’s what makes In N Out’s patty superior.

 

SAUCE

Nothing beats animal style. Nothing. Not Lebron, not Russia, not Trump and Russia, not anything. But Shake Shack’s sauce is very good, a mix of mayonnaise, ketchup, Dijon, cayenne, and—what really makes it tart and special—dill pickle brine. With traditional Thousand Island, you get gemstones of pickles here and there. By using the brine, the Shack sauce has a bright, punchy flavor throughout. A palpable electricity. Which, of course, cuts through the fat of the burger, bun, and cheese. Still, not animal style. It’s more like stuffed-animal style—cute and lovable, but not as cool as owning a real bear. Edge In N Out.

 

FRIES

Upon ordering them, a Shake Shack staff member enters the company time machine and retrieves the fries from a 1970s roller rink snack bar. I’ve always felt the fries were the weakest part of In N Out’s game. Compared to these undercooked, bland potato-zippers, In N Out’s fries are the ne, the plus, and the ultra. Shake Shack’s fries are frozen and dropped in a deep fryer, and they taste as though they’ve been frozen and dropped in a deep fryer. Adding chili and cheese to them makes them taste like chili-cheese bad fries. To quote Dickens, it was the worst of fries, it was the worst of fries. As a burger restaurant, you have two jobs. Make a good burger and make a good fry. If you fail one of those two things, you should consider serving alcohol. Speaking of…

 

WINE AND BEER

They serve it and In N Out doesn’t. I’m an adult. I can have a beer with my burger and not permanently scar children in the general vicinity, I think. Point Shake Shack.

 

DAIRY PROGRAM

The chocolate shake at In N Out is legend. If you leave an In N Out chocolate shake in a room with a mixed-up Rubik’s Cube, you will return to find the Rubik’s Cube solved. The In N Out chocolate shake built the wall in China, and broke down the one in Berlin. It’s Luke’s real father. But that one shake alone cannot compare with Shake Shack’s bevy of frozen dairy options. The salted caramel shake, especially. Get it malted. It tastes like you won life. There’s also a coffee shake for the frilly-coffee-drink generation. The Hopscotch concrete—vanilla custart spiked with Guittard milk chocolate chunks, chocolate toffee, and salted caramel sauce—is also divine. Shake Shack wins the ice cream game in a rout.

 

There are many great things about Shake Shack. They will not put In N Out out of business. If I had to order a mix of the two, I would take the In N Out burger patty, place it on the Shack bun, with the Shack cherry peppers, the In N Out fries, and six or seven ice cream things from Shake Shack.

After an obscene amount of food, I asked my friend: “Which do you prefer? In N Out or Shake Shack?”

He paused a bit.

“Rocky’s?” he replied, referring to the famed burger joint in Pacific Beach.

Fair. And agreed.

A quick take on a few things we ordered:

 

SMOKESHACK

Grade: A+
The best burger on the menu, and better than anything at In N Out. It’s a regular burger, minus the lettuce and tomato, but topped with an incredibly delicious and spicy cherry pepper relish, and two slices of Applewood-smoked bacon.

 

 

SHACK STACK

Grade: A-
Second best burger on the menu. It’s their regular cheeseburger topped with deep-fried portobello, lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce.

 

 

SHROOM BURGER

Grade: D
You can make a lukewarm vegetarian option in New York, because they don’t have vegetables in New York. But in the farmapalooza that is San Diego, you have to season the portobello more aggressively, more inventively.

 

 

CHICK’N SHACK

Grade: B
A nice chicken sandwich. Crispy-juicy, with lettuce, tomato and a very good herb mayo. “It’s OK,” says my companion, “but I can’t say it tastes any better than one from Jack in the Box.” That said, Shake Shack’s is made with more wholesome, “real-food” than Sir Jack’s.

 

 

ROADSIDE BURGER

Grade: B+
This is catnip for meatlovers. Two patties, swiss cheese, Dijon mustard, and caramelized onions that have been simmered in bacon and beer. Pretty damn good burger.

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