W hen you step up to the counter at Shake Shack to order an Elm City Coffee Break “concrete,” you’re not just ordering a cup full of creamy vanilla frozen custard with bits of coffee cake, marshmallow sauce and pecan-shortbread cookies, all whirled together in a high-tech blender; you’re also ordering a donation to Solar Youth, a New Haven nonprofit dedicated to “empowering youth through environmental exploration” and community service.
Downtown’s newest burger-and-shake joint donates five percent of sales, roughly 30 cents per large, of the speedily swirled soft-serve to the worthy organization. The cherry on top: Shack staff also volunteer at Solar Youth events like after-school tutoring and outdoor hikes.
Surely, there are those who disdain the notion of a chain restaurant occupying prime Chapel Street real estate—in the reputed birth city of the hamburger, no less. But the Solar Youth work is just one example of how the second Connecticut location of the cult-ishly popular New York City-based, self-proclaimed “modern day roadside burger stand” chain, opened nearly six months ago with lines out the door following Westport in 2011, is signaling its respect for New Haven.
Even the most protective Elm Citizens can get behind locally-sourced treats like pies from Milford’s swoon-inducing Scratch Baking, which are mixed into concretes, and bottled root beer from New Haven’s fabulous, family-run Foxon Park. The restaurant’s wooden walls are made from recycled Yale Bowl bleacher seats, which—along with a cozy fireplace (a design perk exclusive to the New Haven Shack) that glows warmly all winter, a wall of windows providing a panoramic view of the New Haven Green and al fresco sidewalk seating during warmer months—offer a welcome place to hang for town and gown alike, with free Wi-Fi and computer recharging stations to keep customers comfortable and connected.
Unique, New Haven-specific merchandise and menu items are named to please. Nods to Yale include a t-shirt that boasts a playful twist on two well-known, Yale-inspired Latin phrases: In Shack Veritas and E Burgerus Unum, which loosely translate to “In Shack There is Truth” and “Out of Many, Comes One Burger.” Exclusively available in New Haven are Boola Boola Blue, a concrete featuring vanilla custard mixed with blueberry jam and chunks of Scratch Baking’s lemon pie; Skull & Cones, chocolate-vanilla custard mash-up with bits of sugar cone, peanut butter sauce and chocolate truffle cookie dough; and the Handsome Dog, a flat-top (“split and griddled crisp”) Vienna hotdog topped with cheese sauce and crispy onions named after Yale’s official, longstanding bulldog mascot Handsome Dan.
Yale’s top dog isn’t the only one who gets thrown a bone: the “Woof” section on Shake Shack’s menu includes treats for our four-legged friends, like the “Bag of Bones”—gourmet dog biscuits made at New York City’s Bocce’s Bakery—and the “Pooch-ini”—dog biscuits topped with peanut butter sauce and vanilla custard. (So far I haven’t spotted Yale’s current reigning Handsome Dan XVII, a.k.a. Sherman, digging into either one. Perhaps he gets undergrads to fetch them in discreet doggie bags?)
As much as Shake Shack has been inspired by New Haven, it’s brought along plenty of house recipes, too. The star of the show: first-rate burgers made from natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free Angus beef, ground daily. The ShackBurger is the simplest but arguably the best. It comes with lettuce, tomato and “ShackSauce” (kind of like a spicy Russian dressing), but you can get it topped with everything from natural Niman Ranch smoked bacon to chopped cherry peppers. My personal fave is the ’Shroom Burger, a vegetarian pick that starts out innocently enough with a slow-roasted, whole portobello mushroom and winds up deliciously crisp-fried and oozing with melted muenster and cheddar cheeses (dairy-dodgers beware: there’s more cheese than ’shroom). It’s unlike any veggie burger I’ve ever tried, and worth standing in line for.
You can also choose from five different flat-top hotdogs, including one made with chicken-apple-sage sausage. Toppings abound, from “Shack relish” made by Rick’s Picks (which, along with onion, tomato, cucumber, pickle, pepper, celery salt and mustard, makes the Chicago-style, “Shack-cago Dog”) to crispy “ShackMeister Ale”-marinated shallots.
While the Yukon potato crinkle-cut fries are fine if not particularly remarkable on their own, upgrade to the cheese fries—topped with the Shack’s incredibly tasty blended sauce of American and cheddar—for something approximating a Michelin-star experience. You can worry a little less than usual about calories, by the way—the fries at Shake Shack are cooked so that less oil is absorbed, resulting in 25 percent less fat than typical French fries.
Between hand-spun shakes (Vanilla, Chocolate, Caramel, Strawberry, Peanut Butter, Fair-Trade Coffee, Malted), floats (Root Beer, Purple Cow, Creamsicle), that Foxon Park Root Beer, fountain sodas and freshly made lemonade and iced teas, the Shack has the burger stand essentials (and then some) for washing it all down. There’s also beer, including the aforementioned ShackMeister Ale (brewed especially for Shake Shack by its hometown staple Brooklyn Brewery), and wine (from Napa Valley’s respectable Stag’s Leap) by the glass or bottle.
Chocolate aficionados can splurge on a very special, but pricey ($9), dark chocolate bar made for Shake Shack by Brooklyn artisans the Mast Brothers. Or they can sip the Mast chocolate in the more affordable form of Hot Chocolate, made with a soothing, rich blend of bittersweet chocolates, milk and cream. Frozen custard lovers will love that flavors vary monthly and reflect seasonal tastes; recent favorites included a salted caramel and a boozy banana bourbon for the 21+ crowd. A calendar is posted on the website so you can plan your visit around the flavor of the day.
Now that St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner, look out for seasonal Irish Fries, topped with horseradish sour cream, crispy smoked bacon and scallions, as well as beer specials (natch!). Given how hard Shake Shack is working to earn New Haven’s embrace, here’s hoping the staff take a moment to relax and enjoy a round, too.
986 Chapel St., New Haven (map)
Written and photographed by Kathleen Cei.