Monday, July 20, 2015

Shake Shack and the Failure of Europe's Burgers

"Sacred Cows make the tastiest hamburger." Abbie Hoffman
We are back in Hungary now, and the difficult withdrawal symptoms are just setting in. What is it with Europe? Why can't Europeans accomplish simple, good things? Why can't they park cars? Why can't they use closets? Why can't they cut an honest deal with Greece? Why can't they stand up to Putin? And most importantly... why the fuck can they not make a decent cheeseburger? The cheeseburger is, perhaps, the culmination of human gastronomic history. First came the mastery of agriculture, leading to the development of bread, lettuce, and tomatoes. Animals were domesticated, resulting in ground meat patties and - by carefully tickling their animal tits - dairy and cheese production. All the elements of a classic cheeseburger have been laying around for thousands of years, just waiting to be combined. And it was Americans who did that. Americans. Say what you will about the land that gives us Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Fox news, kale chips and the NRA, if you want a decent burger you will have to share physical space with those pitiful critters in a land where the toilets are like weird floating poop bathtubs and every family has, like, sixteen cars. It is a strange place, America, but you can ignore that if you really like good burgers.

Shake Shack Smokeshack burger. One Jew's personal "fuck you" to entering Jewish Heaven.
I have pretty much given up on hamburgers in Europe. I have eaten them on German hotel menus, in British cafes, and in several of Budapest's newly popular burger bistros. My local district - the 7th, the historic Budapest Jewish ghetto also known as the "party zone" - is full of them, and they all suck (OK. Black Cab Burger doesn't suck, but their buns need work.) But the "gourmet" burger is new to Hungarians, and Hungarian food blogs just love them: weird round meatwads dripping BBQ sauce and piled high with eggs, cheeses, slices of inappropriate vegetables, baconoid substances, and every condiment available, placed inside a sweet brioche bun or worst of all, an unforgiving ciabatta roll. These - like most European burgers - are planned and prepared by people who may never actually have had a real hamburger. Most Europeans assume that these are improvements on the thing they first encountered in a McDonald's or a Burger King. Citoyens du l'Europe! Ecoutez-moi! Those things are not burgers! Those things are not worthy of the name! In the states we call them by their brand names, as in "I ate a bag of McDonald's last night and got sick all over the weird, water-filled poop basin." Or "Me and my family took a few of our sixteen cars out to eat White Castles last night."

"Lord, save us from Sin and the Jalapeno Sliders of White Castle"
Not every meatwad is a hamburger, nor every hamburger a compressed extrusion of ex-cow. That pile of macerated cow protein, rotten moo juice, bun and special sauce have to earn the title. The latest news on the American burger front is that hamburgers have actually improved over the last decade. One reason is the influence of California's In-and-Out Burger and that company's refusal to open franchises beyond the oversight of the California based family that started the chain. Five Guys filled the gap, opening a chain of fresh made burger joints around Washington DC that soon spread up the east coast. I became a stalwart convert to Five Guys. The menu is based on the old style smashburger: burgers griddle fry and are smashed flat after browning, resulting in extra crispy beef crust while the meat inside stays juicy.

Actual human hands making actual Five Guys burger.
You can't order your burger rare or to taste at a Five guys (or at Shake Shack) because the beef mix is intended to be griddled to slightly above medium. You can choose any combination of toppings - mine are lettuce, tomato, jalapeno, and onion - take your number and wait. Yes, wait. This is not fast food. This is time to wait and learn to be humble in the face of mortality and the nature of eternity. But unlike mortality, at the end you get a huge sack of french fries! Five guys does its french fries from fresh potatoes - not always the best idea, but they seem to embrace the soggy locavore spud aesthetic by filling all the space in your brown paper burger bag with extra scoops of fries, and there is malt vinegar to pour on them fish and chips style. Malt vinegar on soggy fries may well be the only lasting culinary improvement to have ever come out of the British Empire.

Enough fries to feed an army of ... a lot of fries.
Yeah, it costs ten bucks, but it is better than almost any ten buck meal you will find outside of Chinatown. I thought Five guys was the best thing to happen to fast food: slow it down, use quality ingredients, treat the employees like human beings. When I did a Klezmer gig with Szalonna's Band at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival two years ago we did a late night stop at a Five Guys in DC afterwards. All agreed it was one of the best meals they had enjoyed in the USA on that trip (sorry, guys, I didn't take you to Dama's Ethiopian Restaurant in Arlington. Next time!) But wait... it gets better. I have been hearing about Shake Shack for years, ever since they opened their first burger stand in Madison Square Park in the downtown of Manhattan. Hotshot restaurant owner Danny Meyer wanted to expand from his successful Union Square Cafe, so in 2004 he opened a seasonal burger kiosk in little used Madison Park. Rather than use the usual leftover bits of cow that are ground into 99% of the hamburgers eaten in the world, Meyer asked his butcher, the now legendary Pat LaFrieda, to come up with a perfect hamburger patty. Better than Five guys? Better than White Manna? Are they cloning unicorns in Pat LaFrieda's basement? I had to try it.

The Original Shake Shack burger. Simple perfection.
You bite into a Shake Shack burger and it is like biting into a fine, aged steak... it has been years since I have actually had a religious epiphany occur in my mouth, especially since I had a bridge put in, but this was it. And they even had a portobello mushroom cap burger that not only pleased the perversity of the vegetarians who were with us, but was good enough to order on its own. And cheese fries! My life was complete... and I heard a small voice saying... walk toward the light, Bob...This was my first reaction to a Shake Shack bacon cheeseburger. Need I tell you that there were four more occasions to visit Shake Shack in the next month? And need I tell you that there is a Shake Shack inside departure terminal four at JFK airport? And what does Shake Shack use for a bun? The same Martin's potato rolls that I buy at my local supermarket, the same ones that are used at White Manna. Why? Because sometimes modesty and simplicity is better. Its something called "tradition."

We come in Peace, Earthlings, but do not resist us!
The whole epic story of the American hamburger's rebirth was just published in NY Magazine here, Meat Wizard Pat LaFrieda used actual marbled steak cuts to make his ground meat mixture, not just ground beef with fat added. The result is amazingly steaky good beef flavor. With beef prices soaring due to climate change affecting feed costs (in Quebec, for example, beef costs twice what it did last year) people will think twice about ordering at $79 rib steak at a restaurant and go for the flavor contained in a hunger satisfying $19 bistro burger. Or just get it for $6 at Shake Shack. And this is where Europe will always fail at burgers. There is almost no good beef produced in Europe. There are great dairy cows all over the place, but for quality beef - marbled fat beef - you need grass and for grass you need ranches, and for ranches you need land, and it looks like we are saving all that land for a football stadium for Putin's birthday gift. Europe gets most of its quality steak shipped in from Argentina, which is expensive. For the local burgers, we toss retired dairy cows into the burger bin.

We come for your cheese fries, puny Human!
Oddly enough, Hungary used to be famous for the quality of its beef, supplying the Austrian empire with free range long-horned cattle driven across the plains to the markets in Vienna. The good flavor of grass fed ranched Hungarian beef lasted until the end of communism. But when the beef ranch operations were de-collectivized, ex-members of the state farm took their shares and formed dairy farms that could be handled by a single family business. Efforts are being made to raise the old grey long-horned cattle again as a beef producer and "Hungarikum" ( the designation for any product uniquely, or puzzlingly Hungarian) but I expect to be eating the retired bits of Daisy the Milk cow for years to come.

Cevapcici: what the near future holds...
After next weekend, I will be traveling in Croatia... and I will not be lugging a laptop around with me, so don't expect much in the way of blog updates. I can not blog on a tablet. I am sure there will be offerings of burgers, but one of my jobs will be to order and eat actual nice foods provided by actual nice restaurants (my Significant Otherness is a travel writer too!) So the closest I will get to burgers will be pleskavica, the Balkan answer to the burger dilemma, and cevapcici, Bosnia's answer to ground meat nirvana. It will be a challenge, but I promise: I shall endure!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ketchup + mustard + special sauce + mucho extras > hamburger patty > cheap buns = Hungarian cheeseburger formula :(