Review: Shake Shack vs. 500 Degrees

New Yorkers are pretty blessed with a freakin’ amazing upscale burger joint in the Shake Shack. Spread across 4 locations in Manhattan (the original at Madison Square Park, my favorite location on the Upper West Side at 77th Street, and two new locations in the Theatre District at 44th Street and – finally! – on the Upper East Side at 86th Street), the Citi Field kiosk in Queens, and stores in Miami and Saratoga Racetrack, Shake Shack provides yummy, top-notch burgers, fries, and shakes at an affordable price. It’s a great way to sample some of the best of New York’s eats.

Philadelphia, I found out, had a similar place in their Rittenhouse Square section. Philadelphians were forced to settle for the Washington, DC transplant, Five Guys (which since has come to New York, and while I haven’t had a Five Guys burger yet, I hear it’s pretty good) until the debut of the burger at Rittenhouse Square restaurant Rouge. With onions, Gruyere cheese, and pommes frites on the side, it became a Philly hit, earning the title of Best Burger in Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly awards.

It led to Rouge owner Matthew Levin, sensing the upscale burger joint rising in popularity, to spin off the burger into a new store, 500° (pronounced “five hundred degrees”, I assume for how much the burger is heated when well done). Having loved my experiences with Shake Shack (five so far), I decided to make the ten-or-so-block trek from the Rosenbach Library and Museum (which is another post) to 500° to compare.

500° has a scaled-down menu – just burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Their specialty – “the 500” – is a bit similar to the ShackBurger, with Bibb lettuce, tomato, cheddar, bacon & special house sauce in place of Romaine lettuce, tomato, American cheese, and special “Shack sauce”. (The 500 is also a dollar more than the ShackBurger, $5.75 to $4.75.) Unlike the Shack, though, 500° charges $.25 apiece for toppings like onions, along with things Shake Shack doesn’t have, like jalapeños, mushrooms, and bacon, and 500° doesn’t even have pickles. (No pickles?!) However, I had a combo (another thing I wish the Shake Shack had – value combos) of a hamburger, with lettuce and tomato, with a side of spicy French fries (they offer regular, spicy, and truffle fries, all with an accompanying fry sauce that’s basically chipotle mayo with a hint of cilantro) and a black & white milkshake.

I’m going to compare 500° to Shake Shack in those three categories: burgers, fries, and shakes. (Shake Shack has a few more items, like hot dogs, floats, frozen custard, and my beloved Concretes, along with alcoholic drinks; both 500° and the Shack have sodas (Shake Shack also has lemonade and iced tea, along with Arnold Palmers, things 500° doesn’t have), but I don’t think that’s worth your time to review.) As comparison to my combo, I’ll counter with a single hamburger with the works, cheese fries, and a chocolate Concrete with chocolate truffle cookie dough (my favorite mix-in), Varhana chocolate crunchies, and bananas. (And a single dip of basil custard, which sounds pretty interesting, but that’s besides the point.)

Burgers:

500°: The meat was kind of hockey-puck sized, but was juicy (even though I waited about half an hour to eat it) and flavorful. Even when well-done, it was a flavorful burger. The lettuce and tomatoes were integral additions (even though they were $.25 to add, ugh), but the unsung hero was the bun, a wonderful brioche bun. It soaked in the flavor of the burger while having flavor itself. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as the Shack hamburger (or, at its final price of $5.50, as valuable) but I will say that it has competition if one moved to the other’s turf. Rating: 4/5.

Shake Shack: Not the best burger I had at Shake Shack. That’s largely due to the fact that I was running a bit late and had to order things to go (and was forced, as you’ll read on, to eat my ice cream quickly and before the burger, messing with the cycle of things), so by that point, most of the flavor of the patty seeped into the potato bun. It was still fantastic: the beef was still high-quality and very flavorful, the veggies brought something to the table, and the bun perfectly complemented things (though it eventually absolutely disintegrated on me – reason being I didn’t eat it quickly enough; that’s not unlike the second hot dog I had two weeks ago at Nathan’s). Rating: 4/5.

Fries:

500°: Simply put, 500°’s  fries sucked. The spicy fries were basically their regular thin, stringy fries with a smaller amount of oil drizzled on and paprika and cayenne pepper thrown on it. There was kick, but there was no flavor in the fries. The fry sauce – basically chipotle mayo – was its saving grace, making it at least somewhat palatable, but it still wasn’t very good, and certainly not worth its $2.50 on the menu. Rating: 2/5.

Shake Shack: Man, those were quite possibly the best fries I ever had. The cheese sauce (which, since I ordered to go, was on the side in a cup – regularly, it would be slathered on the fries, making the pitchfork I got useful instead of useless) was a fantastic cheddar melt, and went perfectly with the thick, crinkle-cut fries. The fries held onto the cheese perfectly, and the just-right texture worked well with the just-right taste. Verdict: Shake Shack owns in terms of fries. Rating: 5/5.

Shakes:

500°: The black and white was a classic milkshake, using milk and vanilla and chocolate hard-serve ice cream from local ice cream maker Bassett’s. It was cold, it was sweet, it was thick, and it was tall –  four things you want a milkshake to be. However, it just isn’t worth the $5.00 on the menu, especially compared to a concrete. Rating: 4.5/5. (FWIW, if it was $3.00 instead of $5, it would have been a perfect 5/5.)

Shake Shack: First things first: my basil frozen custard.

It was fantastic. Like a pesto smoothie. It melted like crazy, largely because I ordered everything together instead of my original plan to order my burger, fries, and Concrete and get my basil custard on the “C” line (“C” for custard, or cold food, either way – fact is, it’s the express line for people who just want ice cream, drinks or some of the “Chic Shack” apparel), but it was absolutely incredible. Quite unique – they really should make this a full time flavor; maybe they should make some sort of basil custard and pasta sundae. That would be awesome. Bonus points: 3.

Now, onto the Concrete. By the time I got to the Concrete, it had reached just under milkshake consistency (instead of its regular soft-serve-ish consistency), so I just kind of chugged it. The bananas do a great job of getting their way into the Concrete, giving it a great chocolate-banana shake. The consistency made the chocolate truffle cookie dough kind of funky when I got to it, but by that point I had reached the frozen core of the shake. It was pretty great – very chocolatey – but could have been better. Rating: 4/5.

Bonus Points:

500° loses a point due to slow service, even though there were only three other orders on the courseload. Perhaps because it was a Saturday, or perhaps because they’re new, they only had three people on staff (one working the register, one working the burger grill, and one making the milkshakes) and it took about ten minutes to fill my order. In spite of a line almost out the door, Shake Shack had a wait time of about five minutes on the Upper West Side (wait times are about half an hour at Madison Square Park), and my order was filled in that time. However, they gain half a point by having combos, which makes things slightly cheaper.

Shake Shack gains half a point by having their triple-filtered water being supplied free (it cost a nickel at 500° – it’s not a matter of the price, it’s the principle of the thing), half a point for including the sales tax in its price (rather than tacking it on), and half a point for actually having pickles; but loses half a point for not doing what 500° does: filling the ice-cream part of the order before the real-food part of the order (by the time my order was filled, my basil ice cream was starting to melt, and my Concrete was about a quarter of the way to milkshake soup).

Both have good locations and clean facilities (though it seemed that 500° had a few more places to sit than Shake Shack), so both gain an extra point.

Bonus Point Subtotal: 500°, 0.5; Shake Shack, 5.

In the end:

Shake Shack didn’t put in their best performance I’ve seen them give, but rose to the occasion against 500° with a solid burger, an above-average shake, and the best fries I’ve ever had – that was the deciding factor in all of this; while 500° had a great burger and a solid shake (actually edging out the Concrete on its own, though the basil custard added some insurance points for the Shack), the fries were simply not very good. Final score: Shake Shack, 18; 500°, 11. 

500° is located at 1504 Sansom Street (Sansom Street next to 15th Street), Philadelphia, PA, 19102. You can call them at (215) 568-5000, but they do not deliver. Shake Shack currently has 5 New York locations (Madison Square Park, near Madison and East 23rd; 366 Columbus Avenue at 77th Avenue; 691 8th Avenue at 44th Street; 154 East 86th Street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues; and the kiosk in the Taste of the City food court on the Field Level of Citi Field, at 123-01 Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing), with one more on the way at 102 North End Avenue in Battery Park City, along with locations in Miami, FL (1111 Lincoln Road at Lenox Avenue, on Miami Beach) and Saratoga Springs, NY (267 Union Avenue, at the Saratoga Racetrack). You can find out more information here.

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