Originally posted 4th April 2015
For all the wonderful efforts made by the chefs, restaurants and the miracles worked by their serving staff — all over the damn world, let’s not regionalise this — sometimes you just have to shun the lot of them, because we all have times where basic human interaction is a source of personal fear, and attempting to converse with anyone, aside from friends, who understand the grunts and nods, is more difficult than changing bedlinen with one hand. Trust me, I’ve tried. I was on the phone, in case you were wondering.
At the end of last year, I was Christmas shopping in Dubai Mall. Joining me was my workmate, and about three million other people. A month back, I was there again, this time engaging in the mother of battles with a raging hangover, after a night-out which ended with me smoking cigars (my new personal bellwether of a heavy night). I was being pulled around shoe shops by my two less-hungover friends. On both occasions, I was feeling hungry, decidedly belligerent and unsociable.
Shake Shack is a new favourite drop-in centre when I am feeling this way. I like it a lot, because the stodgy offering is kindred to the taboo that is fast food, but not quite, merely by virtue of a actual, real menu upon your arrival, and a little more care taken in the kitchen. And yes, you pay more for the privilege. They’re damn quick places to get fed, and for the folks like me who simply cannot tolerate the plastic bucket chairs, formica tables and gherkins-on-the-ceiling yobbery1 of other quick-fire burger joints like McDonald’s or the mighty B.K., Shake Shack gives the discerning greasehound wooden tables, space, thoughtful interior design in general and, when it’s in front of you, tearfully good-looking food, the burgers teasingly poking out from their wrappings like models in bikinis, rather than shrouded in ill-fitting boxes and wrappers like the heffalumps served up at the Golden Arches. The concept is surprisingly different, and Shake Shack is doing rather well out of it, growing from their fast food cart, established in 2000 in New York City’s Madison Square Park (it was never intended to be a chain), gradually growing within the U.S., reaching even London (I tried on numerous occasions to get in there, but the queue was simply stupid), and then Dubai as its first international location in 2011 (there are a few in Dubai now, the one at Dubai Mall opened in 2014). The company was floated as ‘SHAK’ on the N.Y.S.E. in January this year.
The whole Shack experience is as easy, relaxed and natural as the growth of the entire company. The Dubai Mall branch, on the first floor by the waterfall (giving the diners a lovely aroma of chlorine as they pig out), seamlessly spills from inside-dining to thoroughfare-side ‘al-fresco’ (or as al fresco as you can get, inside the world’s largest shopping centre), forming a colossal seating area divided by glass, its territory marked by the rough-and-ready seating of the IHOP next door.
There is often a queue — it is often a part of the experience, especially on Friday evenings here — but the time can be used to scope out the menu. Though it seldom changes (a few seasonal specials are thrown in from time to time), there is a lot of choice, but diners are essentially limited to burgers, hot dogs, fries, milkshakes and things called ‘concretes’, which are not drinkable, more like thick slush, deeply favoured with various cholesterol-riffic ingredients.
I tend to order the signature SmokeShack, a burger which, despite being made with veal bacon in these parts, is utterly filthy like the best things in life often are. It’s simply a bacon-cheeseburger, with peppers and ‘ShackSauce’, a kind of vinegary, peppery, wonderful mayonnaise that can be ordered separately to dip fries in, or just to drink in lieu of a milkshake, I guess. The burger glistens with grease and drips with cheese, but that’s a good thing. Just double up the perfectly moist patties and everything seems more balanced and better. I also order Cheese Fries, which are half-arsed, just fries with burger cheese poured over them. Shake Shack actually have pretty awful fries to be honest. They’re crinkle-cut, which is never a good place to start, and have a taste similar to when I came in pissed from Rubix at university and attempted to make oven chips. With one hand, again. This time, the other one was usually holding on to the kitchen counter.
You could survive on the burgers and the milk shakes alone, and leave the fries. I guess I order them as a habit. The milkshakes (I always choose chocolate) are creamy, and thankfully served in moderation, as they’re a dessert in themselves. They’re usually room-temperature, this making the taste somehow more memorable, deep and um, like drinking a hug, which was what I was desperately in need of on both occasions I visited.
Getting all this stuff on a tray in front of you is easy, quick and done with the minimum of fuss, but don’t think for one moment the staff are clueless or curt. A team member walks the queue and counsels the line about the ordering process and fields questions about the menu. Once, a diner in front of me asked what a ‘burger’ was, so they must have patience of a saint. The individuals taking orders and payment at the ludicrously high counter (I can barely see over it, and I’m six-three-and-a-half) are friendly but fluid, and they deftly take your Dirhams and pass you a bleeper, which you take with you on your way to find a table. You’re bleeped to collect the food after a mere five minutes or so, just enough time to raid the condiment bar to make bastard concoctions of mustard and ketchup, to grab a straw or two (the milkshake often destroys one straw from your laboured sucking) and napkins. You’ll need a ton of napkins. Unlike changing a bed or cooking oven chips, eating a Shake Shack burger requires both hands. And concentration. And a bib.
My workmate/friends and I would eat in silent appreciation, every mouthful ever-more calming us down and cheering us up. My hangover disappeared. My Christmas shopping angst evaporated (for a quarter of an hour, at least). Shake Shack is by no means a healthy option (I’ve felt bloated and a bit gross after each visit), but you knew that, I knew that, and all is forgiven for the speed, calmness, quality of meat and that ‘hug’ factor. Who could resist coming back? Well, if you’re looking for this kind of food, the Shack is the start and end of the search in Dubai. Unless Five Guys comes to town. Oh wait… they are… here in the Dubai Mall… next month…
1This may be a reference to my behaviour in the Cheltenham McDonald’s about fifteen years’ back. I observed that the gherkin was stuck up there for months.
Comfort food at Shake Shack, Dubai Mall
A milkshake, burger and fries will cost no more than 100AED (c.£eighteen as of 3 April 2015)
shakeshack.com | +971 (0) 4 419 0370 | Dubai Mall, First Floor (near the Waterfall)