Shaking Up Japan’s Burger Market

Shake sign.JPG

In my continuing search for Tokyo’s perfect hamburger, I recently made a few visits to the Yurakucho branch of New York’s Shake Shack. The chain started out in Manhattan in 2004, after beginning as a hotdog cart in Madison Square Park and later evolving in to a permanent kiosk. Today it has more than 100 outlets in the U.S.A. as well as locations in 16 countries around the world. Shake Shack straddles the line between fast food and casual dining, albeit leaning decidedly toward fast food.

It took me awhile to get to Shake Shack, which launched its first Tokyo branch in November 2015. That’s because early on the lines had been long and the indoor seating sparse. Although I had heard raves about Shake Shack from my New York friends, I am not keen to stand in line for a hamburger (or anything) and I wasn’t inclined to eat that burger outdoors in inclement weather. It seemed like every time I tried to visit the Shake, it was cold and rainy and the lines were way too long.

The Yurakucho branch, near my office, on the patio of the Tokyo International Forum (an excellent location) has plenty of indoor seating and well-managed order and delivery system that makes your wait brief (about 10 minutes). Apparently, all the food is made to order, which puts it in competition with Japanese chains such as Mos Burger and Freshness Burger. The similarities end there.

Shake SmokeStack burger.JPG

In three visits, I tried the SmokeShack and the Shack Stack burgers. The former is a winner. The latter is a dud. What puts the Shack, at least in flavor, above those earlier mentioned Japanese brands is the quality of the beef, which tastes and feels like real beef rather the cookie cutter discs of meat found in most fast food chains. According to Shake Shack’s website, they use freshly ground, all-natural 100% Angus beef devoid of hormones and antibiotics. You can definitely taste the difference.

What made the SmokeShack sing for me was the dressing, featuring chopped cherry peppers and the signature sweet and sour ShackSauce, which is mayonnaise based. The combination of the cherry peppers and the ShackSauce gives the burger a surprisingly spicy, electric zing in every juicy bite. The sandwich also features a generous slice of “applewood smoked” bacon and cheese. As the spicy dressing reached a delightful harmony with the smoked bacon, my taste buds were applauding for an encore. What doesn't taste better with bacon, anyway?

On the other hand, the Shack Stack, a combination of the vegetarian ‘Shroom Burger, which features a “crisp fried Portobello mushroom filled with melted cheese” on a regular cheese burger. This one was near tasteless, as the frying and the cheese totally cloaked any flavor the mushroom may have had and killed the beef. With no flavor strong enough to solo, the chorus was unremarkable. My advice, go with the SmokeShack and prepare to be moved.

The crinkle cut fries, made from “Yukon potatoes” are very good, but I suggest avoiding the cheese topping option.The cheese sauce was bland, stiff and did nothing to enhance the flavor of fries that a little ketchup couldn't do.

In the beverage department, there are a wide range of shakes (of course), floats, bottle and draught beers, wine and a real treat for this American—bottled root beer. However, for some reason there’s no hot coffee (Outrageous!).

Nonetheless, I am a fan. Next time I go, I would like try out one of their “Flat-Top Dogs” or pork sausages, as long as I am hungry enough to combine it with the beloved SmokeShack.

Menu & Access to the Yurakucho Shake Shack