Shake Shack vs. In-N-Out – it’s the classic conundrum. It’s also totally overused as an article topic. So of course, we had to get in on the action. We recognize that we’re not burger experts by any means. (Have you even read our other posts? They’re pretty much all about Japanese food.) On top of that, the closest burger chain to where we live is The Counter. Obviously, the price difference between these three burger chains is pretty large. So are their business models.
In-N-Out is the picture of efficiency and consistency, where every restaurant and burger looks exactly the same no matter where you got it from. Shake Shack is in many ways a modern take on In-N-Out’s formula and philosophy, though they have chosen to offer a more expansive menu and present a more modern facade with regards to their interior decorating (I doubt the LA and NY stores look exactly the same.) Finally, we’re going to add The Counter into the fray. If you’ve never been before, The Counter: Custom Built Burgers is a sit-down restaurant and offers the most variety when it comes to constructing your burger. Still, what matters is how the food tastes, and we decided to judge each of these establishments over the course of three rounds – burgers, fries, and milkshakes.
Shake Shack’s “Double Shackburger”, “Double SmokeShack”, and “Roadside Double.”
To evaluate Shake Shack’s motley menu, we tried three burgers over multiple visits. We also tried a variety of fries – classic fries, cheese fries, and bacon cheddar fries. For their milkshakes, we went with blueberry pie and peanut brittle – two seasonal specials.
Double ShackBurger: Two 4-oz patties, American cheese, lettuce, Roma tomato, Thousand Island-based sauce.
Double SmokeShack: Two 4-oz patties, American cheese, bacon, pickled cherry pepper, Thousand Island-based sauce.
Roadside Double: Two 4-oz patties, Swiss cheese, Dijon mustard, onions simmered in bacon fat and beer.
Mengsha: The beef patty is definitely the main attraction of Shake Shack’s burgers. When you bite into it and take a look at the cross-section, it’s very obvious. The patty is slightly pink in the center, and thicker than In-N-Out’s, though the diameter of the burger is about the same. The beef patty is also dominant in terms of flavor. Of the three burgers we tried, the SmokeStack was definitely the best. A burger needs something sharp to offset the richness of the meat and cheese, and the peppers definitely provide that acidic kick. The salty, crisp bacon is also a nice touch.
Sean: Both the Roadside Double and the Double Shackburger were underwhelming. When it comes to evaluating burgers, I think that balance is one of the most important criteria. By balance I mean that I want each and every ingredient to contribute a discernible share of the collective sum that is the burger. Each ingredient needs to have a purpose, a reason as to why they exist in a particular burger, but at the same time ingredients shouldn’t clash with one another.
And at the end of the day, Shake Shack’s burgers are 85% patty, with the rest of the condiments vying for the remaining 15%. Indeed, the grilled onions, cheese, and dijon mustard that were also present in my Roadside Double burger barely flitted around in the background as the patty made its bold entrance and never left. It was the same deal with the Shackburger: the large slice of tomato and leaf of lettuce make for a picturesque burger, but they contributed way too little when it came to the overall flavor profile. At least Shake Shack makes a good patty. It’s juicy, S, and has a consistent, slightly crumbly texture to it. If you love burgers because of their patties, then you may find Shake Shack to your liking.
The “Double Double,” by In-N-Out
The In-N-Out burger is now so ubiquitous that we shouldn’t even have to describe what it is. But we have to be fair to our non-West Coast readers – so here goes. The Double Double contains two 2-oz beef patties cooked medium-well, two slices of American cheese, iceberg lettuce, beefsteak tomato, onion, and Thousand Island-esque sauce.
In-N-Out allows a fair amount of customization with their limited number of ingredients (thus, the existence of the secret menu). You can get the onions raw or grilled, sliced or chopped. You can get animal-style sauce. You can make it a lettuce wrap. Etc., etc. We got ours with raw sliced onion, no extra sauce. Mengsha loves tomato; Sean does not.
Sean: Being a born-and-raised Californian, it comes as no surprise that I really enjoy In-N-Out’s burgers. I’ve had way more In-N-Out Double Doubles and cheeseburgers than any other burger during my short time here on this earth. However, for the sake of this post, it was imperative that I filter out as much bias as possible. That involved really drilling down and examining exactly what it is I enjoy about In-N-Out’s burgers, comparing those inferences with the inferences I drew from tasting other burgers, as well as recognizing the flaws in In-N-Out’s burgers (yes, I admit, they are not perfect.).
The most glaring flaw with In-N-Out’s burgers are the patties. They’re very thin, quite dry, and don’t provide much body. This isn’t surprising when you realize that each of their patties is just 2 oz, of meat, so you’re only getting 4 ounces in a Double Double. Despite this, they’re flavorful enough that they aren’t drowned out by the other ingredients. The other flaw with In-N-Out’s burgers is their size; they’re not very large. I always get two, but in my opinion the cheap price makes this not too big of an issue.
I have two reasons why In-N-Out’s burgers are the clear favorite for me amongst the competition: their balance and their onions. I don’t know what it is about In-N-Out’s onions, but I’ve never had onions that are this delicious on any other burger. They provide a substantial crunch as well as a wonderful spicy kick that lingers on after you’ve swallowed a bite of burger. I love the fact that the onions are at the forefront; I haven’t tasted any other burger where this was the case.
Mengsha: Sean is obviously an onion-phile. Throw onions on anything, and he’ll eat it.
Before Sean’s onion obsession scares you away, however, let me just say that the onions are not ~spicy~. They are mostly sweet and provide a much needed kick in the pants to this Thousand Island-drenched burger. Burgers, especially cheeseburgers, are meant to be rich and filling, and so as a rule need something to cut through all of that fat. That could be tartness (tomatoes, pickles), spiciness (jalapenos, mustard, or onions), or sweetness (pineapple anyone?) It’s nice to have a raw vegetable in the mix between meat and cheese to at least trick your brain into thinking that what you’re eating is good for you. That’s why we like keeping the onion raw. Nothing against grilled onions, but cooking the onion takes away that kick, and it’s the kick that’s lacking in a typical cheeseburger.
Sean: The real accomplishment of In-N-Out’s burgers is their balance. While the onions do provide a strong kick, they don’t overshadow any of the other ingredients. We get the refreshing crisp of the lettuce, the tanginess of the Thousand Island dressing, the unctuous umami of the meat, and the creamy savoriness of the cheese. Every component is felt in the final product, and every one of their contributions to the overall taste and texture is appreciated.
“Old School,” and “Bison is Gouda” by The Counter
The Counter’s biggest draw is their build-your-own business model. However, if we were able to tailor our burgers to our preferences, it wouldn’t be fair to the other two contestants. So we went with the Old School burger as the closest match to a classic cheeseburger.
The Old School burger comes with a 7-oz. beef patty (⅓ lb after cooking), tillamook cheddar, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, pickles, relish, and a brioche bun.
Bison is Gouda has a bison patty, smoked gouda, bacon onion marmalade, sunny side up egg, baby spinach, scallions, thousand island, and a brioche bun.
Mengsha: The biggest difference between this burger and the others is size. Patties at more “high end” restaurants tend to be thicker, and you get to choose how you want your meat cooked. We opted for medium rare. That thickness, plus the thickness of the brioche bun, makes for an extremely tall burger. That makes it messier to eat, because you have to squash it to fit it into your mouth. Another big difference is the quality of cheese – cheddar instead of American. The addition of pickles also makes this burger stand out from the others. Can I also just say, thank goodness there’s no Thousand Island dressing?
To be honest, after all those burgers, I’m just craving salad. If I could just get grilled pineapple, sprouts, red onion, and jalapeno on my burger, that would be great. However, we had to do the unbiased thing. Sigh.
Everything about this burger was great – except for the patty. Maybe I should’ve gotten it cooked medium, but at medium rare, a patty this thick was getting tough on the outside and was still dripping pink on the inside (and making the bun soggy.) The patty is also unseasoned, so everything depends on the toppings. American cheese is an abomination. Praise God for cheddar. Still, I was eyeing Sean’s Bison is Gouda as I ate.
Sean: The bison burger I got was pretty good. It was definitely a very large and in charge burger, though to be honest, if no one told me that the meat was derived from bison, I would not have assumed it was anything other than a normal, though good quality, beef patty. This particular burger had very little to quell the rich savoriness of the bison and fried egg, and while I’m not as sensitive to umami overload as Mengsha, I do appreciate it when thought is put into harmonizing a burger’s overall flavor. Yes, it had spinach and onions in it, but both of these ingredients did not adequately present themselves.
The Burger Winner: In-N-Out. Burgers had the closest contest by far, but In-N-Out gets an A+ for simplicity and onions. 🙂
In-N-Out: Original Fries
Mengsha: Sorry to any of our readers who love In-N-Out’s fries, but they suck. They’re typical fast food fries, but that’s not the problem. They’re inconsistently soggy and crunchy, too salty and flavorless, and just generally bleh. In-N-Out’s serving sizes are small, yet we can never finish one order of fries between us. After two Double Doubles, the fries are a disappointment.
Shake Shack: Original Fries, Cheese Fries, Bacon Cheddar Fries
Mengsha: Shake Shack serves pre-made, frozen, crinkle cut fries. Before you judge, they switched to freshly prepared fries in 2013, but brought the frozen fries back due to popular demand in 2014.
These provide a really nice contrast to the texture of the burger. The “crinkles” in the fries are crispy and the insides are still soft. The crinkles also provide a handhold for ketchup, which helps remedy the fact that the fries are not salted.
The bacon-cheddar fries are nicely flavored, but if you’re slow in eating them, the fries get soggy. By this point, I’d had enough of meat and cheese and all things greasy. Bacon cheeseburger and bacon cheese fries? It tastes like a food coma feels. All things in moderation, please and thank you.
The Counter: Shoestring Fries
Mengsha: The Counter’s fries were definitely the best of the bunch. They were evenly and adequately salted, crispy all the way through, and came with garlic aioli. Who needs ketchup? Their parmesan fries and sweet potato fries are also both amazing. It just goes to show, sometimes salt is not enough. Sometimes you need garlic. Or rosemary. Or horseradish. Just make those fries interesting, darn it!
The Fries Winner: The Counter. It’s like snacking on potato chips. We could eat these all day.
In-N-Out: Neapolitan Shake
Sean: In-N-Out’s neapolitan shake really is as run-of-the-mill as you can get. This is by no means a bad thing. Their shakes are a great accompaniment to a meal of fries and a burger or two. But at the same time, there’s nothing special about it because it’s too safe.
Shake Shack: Blueberry Pie Shake, Peanut Brittle Shake
Sean: Shake Shack offers some pretty novel shake varieties. After all, they started off offering only shakes and hot dogs when they first opened. Both of the ones we had were flavor of the week creations, but they also offer vanilla flavors for when you aren’t feeling too adventurous (vanilla of course being one of those vanilla flavors). The blueberry pie shake had bits and chunks of pie mixed in, which definitely upped the shake’s novelty factor, but also meant that its texture was less smooth. The peanut butter shake was similar in this regard; it was punctuated by peanut-y nuggets. Personally, I like having some stuff to chew on when I’m in the middle of drinking a shake, but not everyone likes this.
The biggest issue we have with Shake Shack’s shakes is a bit more meta. The fact that the burgers are so rich means that when it comes time to choosing a drink to wash the burger down with, a shake would not be our first choice. You’d typically want something refreshing and acidic to cut through all the meat juice and grease from the burgers; a shake has provides neither of these traits. If you’re coming to Shake Shack for something less rich than one of their burgers, or if you’re just getting a shake on its own, this issue is mostly mitigated. In our case, though, the shakes didn’t help alleviate the feeling that our mouths were coated in grease after our meal.
The Counter: Nutella Salted Pretzel Shake, Chocolate Cherry Pinot Noir Shake
Mengsha: I appreciate some saltiness in my desserts. I grew up loving all things sweet, but as an adult, my sweet tooth has receded. Partly it’s because I’m super sensitive to the sugar crash. The Nutella shake was great, with pieces of pretzel offsetting the creaminess and sweetness, but my favorite was definitely the Pinot Noir Shake. I’m surprised that alcoholic milkshakes aren’t more of a thing at other restaurants. This part of the menu changes pretty often – I’ve had also a peach bellini shake that’s now off the menu. You’re not getting much milkshake when you order this, but just think of it as your alcoholic beverage, and that’ll justify the price. It had bits of cherries and chocolate, and just generally was perfect for my maturing sweet tooth.
The Milkshake Winner: The Counter. The Counter had the most complex shakes, with a level of sweetness that’s suitable for a beverage rather than a dessert, which was the case with both In-N-Out’s and Shake Shack’s milkshakes.
For a meal of a burger, fries, and milkshake, each of these restaurants has their high points. They lie on a continuum, with In-N-Out on one end and The Counter on the other. For more money, you get a bigger burger and more options. If a regular old cheeseburger is what you’re craving, In-N-Out does a great job, and the meal will cost you less than $10. If you have vegetarian friends and need those options, or if you just want a beer with that burger (or some dog treats for your dog), Shake Shake will set you back around $20 for that meal. If your taste buds are of the daredevil variety and you want a crab cake patty with dijon balsamic sauce and alfalfa sprouts, with a side of deviled eggs, The Counter has you covered.
As for us, we will probably continue to patronize each of these restaurants. Except for Shake Shack. Drive all the way downtown for a burger? Sorry Shake Shack, it’s not you, it’s totally us. ❤