Sometime near the end of 2020, legions of commuters, minutemen, and tourists will have the luxury of catching trains out of New York’s next great public space: Moynihan Station, currently under construction in an airy Beaux-Arts post office on Ninth Avenue. Until then, alas, riders will have to make do with the minimum security prison that is Penn Station, a windowless, police-filled holding pen where I recently watched a dapper gent sleep standing up while using an Xcelerator hand dryer. Noteworthy concessions include glow-in-the-dark pizza slices, Tasti D-Lite condiment buffets, Homewrecker burritos, pepperoni pretzels shriveling under yellow lamps, peppermint cake pops, Pret’s cryogenically chilled sandwiches, and, as of Saturday, some of the city’s finest fast food at Danny Meyer’s newest Shake Shack.
Kudos to Meyer for making the next four years marginally less worse. For Long Island Rail Road riders, at least.
Shake Shack has come a long way. Born as a humble hot dog cart in 2004, it’s since evolved into a billion dollar, socially-conscious burger chain that’s convinced scores of diners to shell out a few extra bucks for humanely-raised beef and better-paid workers. The New York-based company plans on opening 14 new locations a year, with outlets already scattered throughout major league ballparks, shopping malls, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and a dusty racetrack in Saratoga Springs, NY.
The Penn Station outpost belongs to the handful of Shake Shacks that offer breakfast, a service that it absolutely nails. In fact I’d argue that Shake Shack easily outpaces Taco Bell and McDonald’s in hawking what might be the country’s finest fast food breakfast; the bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich approaches the sublime versions sold from the city’s myriad bodegas. Pair that with a can of Stumptown Nitro Cold Brew and you’ve got yourself a strong dose of downtown cool in the armpit of Midtown.
The other breakfast-slinging Shacks, incidentally, are the ones at Union Station (DC), Fulton Center, Grand Central Terminal, and John. F. Kennedy International Airport. These are the Commuter Shacks. Unlike the Madison Square Park flagship, where part of the draw is the communal experience of waiting in line for an hour, or the Theater District locale, where the queue can stretch out the door close to midnight on a Sunday, the morning-friendly Shacks are venues where the act of getting food is, quite literally, trumped by the act of getting somewhere.
It’s inevitable that such "fine casual" outlets, as Meyer calls them, will lose a bit of their magic when they start popping up at transportation hubs like Penn, places where most of the people passing through wish they were elsewhere (this is why you don’t see a lot of tasting menus at train stations, and if you ever mistakenly order a multi-course prix-fixe at Agern in Grand Central, you’ll see what I mean).
But I’d argue that a bit of lost magic is a worthwhile tradeoff for something more important, which is Shake Shack transforming itself from an indulgent destination — the chief luxury being time — into a place where cranky folks who don’t read food blogs can swing by and find a touch of respite, nourishment, and caffeination (or inebriation) in 10 minutes flat. And since there are surely more train riders than gourmands in New York City and beyond, it’s the Commuter Shacks that Meyer & Co. really, really need to get right.
Breakfast is a meal that New Yorkers tend to take quickly, while standing up, and on the cheap. Accordingly, I’m happy to report that I’ve not waited longer than 4 minutes for an egg sandwich during the opening week of Penn Shack (the prime time burger waits are longer).
Keep in mind that Shake Shack’s breakfast program, which began at JFK in 2013, is still a beta offering. There are no biscuits, plastic-covered poppy seed rolls, English muffins, egg tacos, or pancakes. There are no hash browns at breakfast either, only $3 fries. The drip coffee, at $2.29, is more expensive than a hamburger at McDonald’s, located a stone’s throw away. Shake Shack, with its lofty ambitions, has never been about doing things as cheaply as the other chains, and proof of that is a $4.79 bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. Two Sausage McMuffins, by contrast, will run $4 during a current promotion. Feel like adding on a carton of milky cold brew? That’ll jack your meal up to $11.
Shake Shack’s breakfast menu, in short, is small and somewhat pricey. And that’s okay. Because once you order anything here, there’s no going back.
Here’s what’s on tap:
The BEC: Griddled, salted eggs with Niman Ranch bacon and American cheese on a soft potato bun. Yep, this is a breakfast sandwich on a hamburger roll, and it’s absolutely fantastic. The sweetness of the bread amplifies the natural sugars in the eggs and ultra-smoky, crisp (but not crunchy) pork belly. The only downside is that the eggs are hard cooked, meaning they don’t ooze and drip as they should. Add a few squirts of Sriracha for heat and acid. Cost: $4.79, or $5.99 with an extra egg (recommended).
The SEC: Same as above, but with a pork sausage that tastes like pork, and not like pine oil or a dirty dish sponge, which is how I’d describe the the competitors’ breakfast patties. Heck, Shake Shack could serve this as a legit burger throughout the day. Cost: $4.79, $5.99.
The EC: Like the BEC or SEC but without meat if that’s how you roll.
French Fries: No.
The Pie: Four & Twenty Blackbirds apple turnover sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. So good it was sold out on my second visit. Expect a soft, gently doughy crust with tender apples that have barely cooked just a few ticks beyond al dente — this is closer to a sturdier empanada filling than a goopy pie center. Spectacular. Cost: $3.49.
The Orange Juice: Fresh squeezed, which is why it costs $4. BUY.
The Hot Coffee: Stumptown, self-poured from a hot thermos. Won’t win any awards from the coffee cognoscenti, but the medium-bodied, not-too-strong, not-too-thin brew sure beats whatever’s passing as coffee at McDonald’s.
One last thing: Shake Shack is still reasonably young in the grand scope of things, but if it wants to be a true boon for commuters, it might want to consider all day-breakfast, which McDonald’s debuted last year, instead of ending the service at 10:30 a.m. And for those who miss a train in the later hours, a midnight close time, like in the Theater District, would be nice. But as a native Long Islander who's been stuck in Penn Station with drunken hordes migrating out East in the after-hours, I also understand the 11 p.m. closing time.
Shake Shack Penn Station is located across from the Long Island Rail Road ticket counter, near the entrance at 34th Street and Seventh Avenue.