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Shake Shack Makes a Damn Fine Chili

Eater NY’s chief critic says it easily trumps most diner varieties

When Anderson Cooper, on a recent episode of 60 Minutes, asked Danny Meyer why he doesn’t consider Shake Shack to be fast food, the hospitality guru responded rhetorically. “When did you ever go to Shake Shack and find the experience to be fast?”

Indeed. The billion-dollar chain is almost as famous for its long waits as it is for its beefy, made-to-order burgers. This isn’t so much a problem for destination diners, the folks who make an evening of queuing up at the original outdoor Shack in Madison Square Park. But anyone who’s ever been to the Shake Shack Penn Station knows that ordering a fried chicken sandwich 15 minutes before a train is cutting it close. Even the mobile app can require ordering 30 minutes out.

So here’s a simpler way to get in and out of Shack Shack fast: Try the chain’s newest dish: chili. It doesn’t need to be fried, sauced, or built. It just needs to be poured into a cup, after which it will light your soul ablaze. It’s available in New York — and across the country — until February.

A view of Shake Shack in Penn Station as commuters rush by
Shake Shack in Penn Station
Nick Solares/Eater

A Shack employee served the fiery stew to me in about two flat minutes last week. With apologies to Danny Meyer, I’m reasonably sure that qualifies this chili as “fast food,” or at least “fast casual,” the prevailing jargon for counter-service fare that’s a touch more ambitious — and expensive — than at McDonald’s.

Ordered by the cup, it runs $5.49, and it’s easily one of the country’s better fast-food chilis. If that praise sounds a bit too heady, consider that the most prominent nationwide competitors here are Wendy’s and Sonic, both of which serve very good versions as well.

Shake Shack smokes its angus beef over hickory and braises it with a fiery mix of chile de arbol, chipotle, ancho, and jalapeños, resulting in a supremely tender stew with a complexity of heat rarely seen outside of an ambitious restaurant. It is best consumed on its own and topped with scallions, but it’s also available over burgers, hot dogs, or fries.

The inspiration here is surely Texas Red, a style of slow-cooked chili that’s little more than meat, dried peppers, and braising liquid. It is the official dish of the Lone Star State, as established in a 1977 proclamation that quoted President Lyndon Johnson as saying “chili concocted outside of Texas is a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing.” It most certainly does not contain beans, and neither does the Shake Shack version.

In New York, chili doesn’t generally command the religious-like reverence of Texas barbecue; no one is lining up around the block in Brooklyn for it. Chili, in the Big Apple, is pub food, diner food, nacho-topping food. And it’s often not very good.

With respect to the late president Johnson, most New York chili isn’t so much a weak, apologetic imitation of the Lone Star version as it a weak, apologetic imitation of the Springfield, Illinois version. That Midwestern city is famous for forging its own fine chili with ground beef, suet, kidney beans, powdered chile, and tomatoes. In a Manhattan diner, that combination typically results in a cloying mess of cumin-heavy slop.

Wendy’s chili is a better hat tip to the Springfield variant, while Sonic’s bean-free variety is closer to the Detroit Coney style (minus the beef hearts), where the stew is frequently slathered over hot dogs.

Shake Shack chili dog
The chili dog
Ryan Sutton

Shake Shack’s Texas-leaning variety is still somewhat of a rarity in the tri-state area, which is what makes it so exciting. (April Bloomfield used to sell a killer version at Salvation Burger, which closed earlier this year.) And yes, it’s better than most New York chili.

None of this means Shake Shack’s chili is perfect. The chain goes a touch overboard on the braise, resulting in a somewhat softer texture than is common with any type of chili. The result is a product that’s slightly soupy, but the beefy flavor and round, stinging, mouth-filling heat is never not apparent. In fact, the heat lingers for well over a minute after the last bite and fills the stomach with a gentle warmth.

The chili is fine on a hot dog, laced with cheese, and those who crave Sonic’s chili tater tots should be reasonably satisfied with the fry-version at Shack. But again, if you want to appreciate this chili for what it’s worth, order it by the cup.

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