It’s hard not to think of Nighthawks when imagining an older New York, Edward Hopper’s timeless portrait of a diner on an empty Village street corner, with a counter worker tending to his patrons. That city of yore, of course, is long gone, and the contemporary tableau looks something like this: The umpteenth outpost of Shake Shack, a billion dollar burger chain, on the corner of Clarkson and Varick. Giant windows frame patrons as they punch in fast food orders on digital touch screens. Not quite oil on canvas material. At least not yet.
The Village is changing. Vacancies are plentiful. The local coffee shop on Carmine is one of 20 Bluestone Lanes. The local gelateria is one of 65 or so Groms around the world. The local salad spot is a Sweetgreen (duh). Joe’s Pizza down the block is still packed (thank god). But now, in the same space that once housed Thomas Keller’s innovative and critically-acclaimed Rakel in the 1980s, we have, somewhat appropriately, Shake Shack’s “Innovation Kitchen,” a hub for menu development at the global chain.
The location is currently testing out its first ever chicken nuggets.
My feelings about yet another chain restaurant in the city are complicated, especially when the tables are branded with “made from reclaimed bowling lanes” (lolz), but I’m obliged to report that the nugs, as we aficionados call them, are among the country’s best.
And yes, I have tried nearly all of them.
Culinary director Mark Rosati eschews the prevailing-style of fast food nuggets, those wonderfully spongy and squishy exhibitions of mechanically processed meat. Shake Shack goes for the Chik-fil-A style of mini-nuggeting, dicing up chicken breast into cubes, sous-viding them, and then finally deep-frying them in soybean oil.
The nuggets, however, are spectacular. The soft, juicy meat acts as a backdrop for the main event: a craggy, almost geological coating of golden breading. Sometimes the exterior collapses in the mouth with a welcome delicacy. Sometimes it delivers a serious crunch, especially after cooling for a bit (they’re served too warm). The batter, laced with lemon, garlic, and a heavy dose of black pepper, conveys an aromatic, lingering heat. Chik-fil-A fans might yearn for the subtle sweetness and peanut oil-fry of that chain’s nuggets, but make no mistake, the Shake Shake version is the closest a single bite can come to mimicking a larger slab of skillet-fried chicken.
And as much as New Yorkers are naturally suspicious of mass market food, it’s worth noting the following about the new Shack: It boasts a more diverse crowd and staff that any West Village restaurant I’ve visited as of late. And the space, bustling at 9:00 p.m. as the Yankees played on the flatscreen, felt a heck of a lot more additive to the neighborhood than at least one nearby (and very expensive) counter service spot that closes at 8:00 p.m.
The suggested pairing for these nuggets are a honey mustard or barbecue sauce, but the real pro will go for the bottle of hot sauce on the counter. They cost $4.39 for 6 pieces or $6.39 for ten pieces, and I’m rating them as a BUY — though we’ll have to see if this recipe can be replicated nationwide later this fall.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).