When I heard that Shake Shack was making a black truffle burger, my heart leapt, but then I became skeptical. Would it be made with the awful artificial truffle oil used on french fries and in mac and cheese? That sad imitation tastes nothing like truffles, which have a subtle, woodsy aroma.
I needn’t have worried about the oil, because I soon learned the stunt was being done in association with NYC’s Regalis Foods, a purveyor of truffle oil made from actual black Spanish truffles. The burger would be available during the month of December, only at the branch across the street from the Natural History Museum on Columbus Avenue and at the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park.
I phoned a friend and we were soon in his car one frigid evening headed up to the Upper West Side. The museum loomed as we pulled up on Columbus Avenue, and we had no trouble parking adjacent to its massive grounds. The Shake Shack across the street was mainly dark, illumined with pools of light; bicycle deliverers lingered by a back door, waiting disconsolately for their orders.
The restaurant interior had the eerie air of a science-fiction movie. As we filed in the front door, an employee, sitting on a stool, took our temperatures and asked if we were dining indoors (we were not).
Had we said yes, our info would have been recorded on a chart before we were pointed toward an order screen at the end of the room, which looked like Big Brother in 1984. Once having ordered, the diners choosing to eat indoors were conducted downstairs by a black-masked employee. It seemed like a journey with no return.
As we waited for our turn at the machine (the other ordering stations were turned off), employees darted here and there executing various tasks, while others cooked in the open kitchen, trying to keep up with the online orders. A special window on one side was ajar for customers who came to the location to pick up their fast food.
We stood in the drafty main hall of the restaurant and waited 15 minutes, worrying about how many viruses we were inhaling. A guy with bushy hair kept sticking his head through the open window, while a short child had to stand on tiptoe to have his temperature taken.
Finally, we got our bag of burgers, and not wanting to eat outside in the stiff wind, we perched in the car as we opened the bag with hands trembling — not from anticipation, but from hypothermia. We wanted to try all the variations, three in number: black truffle burger ($8.89), black truffle ’shroom burger ($8.89), and black truffle ShackStack ($11.89).
We positioned the three cardboard boxes on the gear-shift console and flipped open the lids. All burgers were wrapped in glassine paper sleeves, and they were visibly greasy in the inimitable Shake Shack manner. We shuddered at the thought of the film of oil that was creeping across the car’s interior and the difficulty in handling juicy burgers whose melted cheese — in this case French gruyere, a fitting companion for truffles — had only just begun to solidify.
We cut each burger in half with a kitchen knife I’d brought along and tasted the signature, a glistening single beef-patty burger with a dark sauce in addition to the cheese, and an unexpected bonus of deep-fried onion shreds on top. One greasy bite and we were hooked!
The sauce was much subtler than artificial truffle oil, so that the flavor whispered in a toned-down conversation with the onions, cheese, and meat. The truffle flavor shone, though, and I felt like a truffle pig in France or Italy who had just picked up the scent and was rooting around under a tree to find the prize. The slipperiness, however, was something of a problem; in fact, you should don gloves and eat this burger on a very broad plate, lest it slip off, hit the floor, and slide several feet.
In quick succession, we tried the burger made with a mushroom patty. It imparted the musky truffle flavor, but it was even more slippery than the meat version. The added breading around the “shrooms” provided a welcome crunch that echoed eerily inside the car. And the mushroom version had an alarming amount of cheese, which flowed out of the side of the bun.
The hybrid ShackStack? It really was too much, teetering in its box. The breaded mushrooms warred with the meat patty, like a loud argument between a vegetarian and a carnivore. My advice: Get the black truffle burger and you’ll be mightily satisfied, though the dystopian rigmarole you have to go through to get it may be daunting.