New restaurants break into established food genres all the time: It’s not like opening an Italian bistro or a new Mexican fusion joint isn’t going to put you into competition with multiple existing spots that are doing the exact same thing you are.
But when you’re talking about breaking into the burgers- and-custard arena in Madison, it’s a different story. This is territory that has been owned by Culver’s (a regional chain) and Michael’s Frozen Custard (a local chain) for decades.
A new challenger approaches: After months of fanfare and pandemic delays, Shake Shack (a national chain) has opened its first outpost Madison at Hilldale Mall on the city’s near-west side. This is Wisconsin’s second Shack, as there is also one in the Third Ward in Milwaukee.
The Madison Shack is camped in what you might call a sweet spot—next to a Gigi’s Cupcakes and a newer spot that hawks sweet bubble teas. It will be interesting to see how willing Madison mallgoers will be to embrace the sugar rush of all three businesses.
It will also be interesting to see if it this restaurant ends up growing its menu. Shake Shacks are known for having individualized menu items—the one in Milwaukee offers a brat burger, for instance. At this point, Madison’s menu lacks that uniqueness, and it’s missing a lot of the bedrocks of other Shack locations (no chicken nuggets, no concrete custard mixers, etc.). Maybe once the pandemic lets up a little, that will change.
Shake Shack leads with its burgers, so let’s start there. To be honest, they don’t look like much when you pull them out of the bag. Even the more ornate options on the menu, such as a Shroom Burger ($7)—featuring a grilled, breaded portabella mushroom instead of meat—are smallish and might have you questioning the upscale price point. That feeling disappears the moment you take a bite. The beef patties are tender and flavorful, and in most cases, they are amplified by the accoutrements.
Take the SmokeShack Burger ($7), which saves its heat for the third or fourth bite when you’ve ventured deep into the sizable pile of cherry peppers and spicy ShackSauce that lurk within. The heat kicks the bacon and cheese on the burger to the backseat, but that’s OK—the whole thing is a flavor carnival.
Shake Shack began life as a street hot dog cart in New York, and dogs are still a key part of the mix—even if they’ve since been eclipsed by the burgers and chicken sandwiches in the menu hierarchy. Both the Vienna beef dog ($3.50) and the potato bun that houses it are split and charred on the grill, adding a crispy vibe to the experience. The Chicago dog and chicken dog that are common at other Shake Shacks aren’t on the menu here yet.
Crinkle fries are served five ways: straight up ($3); with a light dusting of cayenne and guajillo pepper ($3.85); doused in ShakeShack’s American/cheddar cheese sauce ($4); doused in cheese sauce and cayenne ($4), or doused in cheese and bacon ($5). The fries themselves aren’t really that remarkable—they certainly don’t touch the flavorful fries at a burger chain such as Five Guys—so you’d be advised to opt for some toppings to punch things up a little. This is particularly because the serving size isn’t that big.
All this spice, salt and heat on the menu is, naturally, designed to induce you to reach for a shake or one of the Shack’s other beverages to cool the conflagration. The signature pink lemonade ($3) is eye-catching and deliciously sweet, and the floats, made with custard and Abita root beer, are great choices if you don’t want to take on the weight of a full-on, frozen-custard drink.
Then again, aren’t the shakes what you’re here for in the first place? The Shack’s custard-based concoctions are thin but quite flavorful, and each one can be topped off with a mountain of whipped cream or made with malt powder, which is a nice touch. The range of flavors pales in comparison to what’s on offer at Culver’s or Michael’s—no branded candy confections here, kids—but there’s plenty to satisfy most palates, including the flavors you’d expect (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry) and a few that stretch the boundaries and pique interest, such as cookies and cream.
The Black and White shake ($5.29), a mix of vanilla custard and fudge sauce, is chocolaterian bliss—in addition to being freaking delicious. If sipping your custard through a straw isn’t your thing, you can order it straight up in a cup ($3.69), but only in chocolate or vanilla.
Accessing the food is easy. Passersby can walk in and order from the counter or, as the copious signage suggests, order food in advance using the ShakeShack app. A pickup shelf is currently located right outside the confines of the Shack’s modest lighted patio. My order was delivered promptly at the exact time the app had specified—and that’s notable, given it was put together in the middle of a dinner rush.
Dog-lovers have an additional reason to give the Shack a try—a bag of baked dog treats ($8) to bring home to your favorite canine. If nothing else, it can be a good way to distract your beast from trying to score a bite of your SmokeShack burger.
It’s still way too soon to say whether Shake Shack will make a serious dent in the custard empires Culver’s and Michael’s have cultivated. For now, there’s plenty of taste and novelty here to make trying something new and different a worthwhile adventure.