The “Bill’s vs Shake Shack” debate is all the rage in hamburger circles, especially in light of New York’s review of the newcomer this week. I was enthralled by Bill’s burgers the first time I ate them, and I still am. The combination of the loose, juicy meat with a salty lace-like crust that extends like an Elizabethan collar beyond the soft white bun…to me, that’s pure burger porn. I’m sorry. But the Robs point out that that crust comes at some cost: “While decidedly a great burger, and already one of New York’s best, it’s not as juicy and cohesive as its Shake Shack rival, and its construction can err, depending on the night and the cook, on the wrong side of floppy.” On the other hand, Bill’s features a white enriched bun, rather than a sweet potato roll, a Shinto touch that speaks to my purist’s eye. But the fact is that only a madman could expect a true hamburger-lover to choose between these two soul-enobling sandwiches. We are blessed among nations to have both the Shake Shack and Bill’s. And the reason both burgers are great owes less to Danny Meyer or Steve Hanson than to our country’s great burger-smashing tradition.
The grilled burger is a thing of the past; no serious chef should ever cook one again, for any reason. The fastest-growing fast-food burger in the Western states is Colorado’s Smashburger, whose name says it all. The fastest-growing fast-food burger in the Eastern states? Five Guys, made with an identical technique. The more recent shared ancestor of both Shake Shack and Bill’s is Steak ‘n Shake, which was itself the inheritor of the basic “smashing” technique pioneered by White Castle founder Walter Anderson, the inventor of the hamburger as we know it. Says Shack czar Randy Garutti, “We didnt invent it. This is what we believe the classic roadside burgers stand did a long time ago. It was the only way for us to go.” Garutti points out that making a smashed burger isn’t just a matter of handing some ape a spatula and telling him to squish meat. It’s an art, and one the Shack has a major head start on. “There’s a fine art to it,” he says. “The way a great barista understands the tamping of an espresso, a great grill person perfect amount of pressure. and that’s different for every blend of meat.” B.R. Guest corporate chef Brett Reichler, who oversaw the creation of the Bill’s burger, agrees. “You have to balance the crust with the juiciness, and you have to it exactly right every time. It’s a huge challenge, but we’re up to it.” Adam Kuban has weighed in on the supremacyof the technique, and when I asked George “Hamburger America” Motz about it, he pointed out that 96 of the 100 restaurants profiled in his national hamburger guide use the griddle-pressing method. The Shack and Bill’s are both drawing on the main spring of hamburger greatness; and by uniting the technique, in one or another form, with far better meat than White Castle ever dreamed of, they’ve raised our great American sandwich to unprecedented heights. (The LaFrieda boys, reached for comment on the respective blends of the two restaurants, offered a terse “no comment.”)
Bill’s or Shake Shack? The answer is simple: go to both. If they keep smashing, I’ll keep eating.