Shake Shack just delivered one of the best fast-food chicken sandwiches currently on the market. Trust me on this, I don’t throw around chicken-based praise lightly and I’ve been at this game for a long time (in internet years). I was there in the trenches during the insanity that was the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich rollout. I’ve tested and ranked the spiciest sandwiches to ever grace a fast-food menu board. And I’ve even started crafting my own chicken sandwiches at home.
What I’m saying is, I’m a (self-certified) chicken sandwich expert. So when I tell you that this thing is good, you can trust that I mean it.
But it’s also complicated — the centerpiece of Shack Shack’s “Korean-Style” menu, the launch of which surfaced some very legitimate concerns about cultural appropriation in food (especially during this independent-restaurant-obliterating pandemic). And as good as the sandwich is, those concerns deserve to be reckoned with. (Why oh why must chicken sandwiches be so problematic!?)
A little primer:
When Shake Shack rolled out the Korean-style chicken sandwich and its accompanying menu items, the company was criticized across the internet for what seemed like a shameless attempt to gentrify and appropriate Korean flavors. This comes on the heels of the chain accepting $10 million in COVID paycheck protection relief, despite being a billion-dollar nationwide food corporation. So the use of Korean ingredients (and co-opting of its sauces, etc.) by a national chain while mom and pop Korean restaurants struggle was impossible to ignore.
The conversation surrounding the menu also surfaced annoyance in the online food community about what makes a food “Korean-inspired” in the first place. In Shake Shack’s case, it seems to mostly mean Gochujang sauce and kimchi — which, many noted, felt lazy when you consider that we’re talking about a complex foodway with wide-ranging influences.
this is … so boring. yes, slap some gochujang on something and it’s korean. 🙄 this is just so lazy, i can’t even be insulted because that would be a waste of energy on my end. https://t.co/YVTRcFmEzQ
— giaae kwon (@gi_aae) January 5, 2021
Shake Shack’s inability to read a room will, unfortunately, hang over this menu like a storm cloud. This partially (and rightfully) obscures the fact that, as far as fast-food chicken sandwiches go, this thing is easily top tier. So while we don’t begrudge anyone eating this, we’d certainly encourage them to balance that out with more culturally authentic Korean fare from local, independently-owned restaurants.
The “Korean-style” Fried Chick’n sandwich — which should just be called the Kimchi Chicken Sandwich — was released alongside other “Korean-inspired” menu items, including a gochujang and mayo-based dipping sauce for Shake Shack’s fries and chicken nuggets, and a black sugar vanilla shake.
The whole line is available at every Shake Shack location from now until April 5th.
Least Essential Item — Korean-style Gochujang Dipping Sauce
It might be a little strange to kick off this ranking with a condiment, but considering Shake Shack’s Gochujang fries and chicken nuggets are just the Shack’s usual fries and chicken nuggets served with a side of dipping sauce — see what people mean about this menu feeling lazy? — the only new thing here is the sauce. So it’s really all there is to review.
From what I can tell, this stuff is a 50-50 blend of Korean gochujang and mayo. If you’re unfamiliar with gochujang — or just don’t know it by name — it’s a simple sauce consisting of a blend of fermented chili and soybeans, red chili peppers, and salt, with a distinctive bright red color and a potent umami flavor. It typically has a medium-to-severe level of heat, depending on the brand. Shake Shack adding mayo to it is perhaps the aptest metaphor one could imagine for this whole messy controversy.
As you’d expect, the gochujang spice is drastically mellowed by the mayo. But to its credit, it does retain that savory rich flavor that is so characteristic of the condiment. I wish they would’ve given us straight Gochujang, but flavor-wise this makes a great addition to the Shack’s roster of sauces and a great accompaniment to both fries and Shake Shack’s chicken nuggets.
Bottom Line: Ultimately uninspired, but pretty tasty when compared to fast food sauces.
A Twist On A Classic — Black Sugar Vanilla Milkshake
I don’t have a decent photo of Shake Shack’s Black Sugar Vanilla milkshake because being a food writer during a global pandemic means experiencing every meal in your car, and I live in Southern California, where a car parked in the sun gets hot enough to cook food, even in winter. By the time I got around to my milkshake — at the end of my meal, like a dessert — the shake’s thick custard topping drenched in black sugar syrup looked gross.
Why didn’t you just eat your food outside like a normal person?
Because, dummy, I live in Southern California, where 62 degrees is too cold to be eating food outside. Reminder to non-Californians: This is a Goldilocks state where no one is ever happy.
Anyway back to the shake. Despite its inability to retain its presentation in a hot Mazda Protege, it is good and offers some nice variety to Shake Shack’s usual shake roster. At Shake Shack, you can order vanilla, chocolate, mixed, strawberry or cookies and cream milkshakes. While my preferred flavor will always be chocolate, Black Sugar Vanilla would be my clear second choice.
This rich and luxurious handspun milkshake has all the properties of creamy and aromatic vanilla with a nice twist of buttery and deep caramel-like tones, courtesy of the black sugar syrup and additional black sugar mixed in (black sugar is just raw cane sugar without the molasses stripped out, FYI). It makes vanilla — a beloved but boring flavor — seem fun! I recommend skipping the custard, for what it’s worth.
Bottom Line: How exactly is this one “Korean-inspired?” Well, aside from Black Sugar syrup being popular in South Korean coffee houses… we. Have. No. Idea. But it is tasty as hell.
Could’ve Been A Contender — Korean-style Fried Chick’n
And now we come to the main event. From the moment I first heard the news of Shake Shack’s new Korean-style fried chicken sandwich to the moment I first unwrapped the thing, I never thought this had a chance of becoming fast food’s best chicken sandwich. All controversy aside, I’ve had Shake Shack’s “Chick’n” sandwich before and… it’s fine. Certainly not my first choice. I’ve definitely never opted for it over the burger when visiting the chain.
Between my previous experiences and the appropriation controversy, I bit into this thing full of skepticism. But that quickly melted away (with help from my hot-ass car) as my taste buds were awakened by an umami bomb of rich and complex flavors. (Disclaimer: Complex for a fast food joint, etc., etc.)
I feel that almost every chicken sandwich needs modification of some sort, but the…*sigh* “Korean-style” Fried Chick’n is superb exactly as is. It features a hearty piece of white meat chicken hand-breaded in the Shack’s sauce-absorbing batter, submerged completely in a subtly spicy and sweet gochujang sauce, atop a brioche bun covered in white kimchi slaw, and finished with a modest dusting of toasted sesame seeds.
The sesame seeds on the bun add a nice aromatic quality that tames some of the more pungent qualities of the kimchi slaw, which is made using Choi’s kimchi — highlighting a spicy mix of Napa cabbage, daikon radish, carrots, garlic, Asian pear, green onions, and sea salt. The slaw really pulls the flavors of this sandwich together and elevates the experience.
(See that Shake Shack? Choi’s Kimchi, A Portland-based company that grew organically out of the local farmer’s market scene, based on a family recipe that was founded and operated by actual Korean people, made your sandwich a winner. Cultural authenticity helps!)
Bottom Line: In October of last year, Shake Shack’s Seoul location dropped an iteration of this sandwich that we suspect has a stronger spice kick to it, as this recipe was a “slight variation,” according to Shake Shack’s press release. I want that sandwich.
Until then though, this is my top fried chicken sandwich in the whole game, warts and all.
So should you go out and buy it?
We don’t begrudge anyone for looking at this whole project sideways. And this is fast food — if you feel a certain way about it, definitely don’t bother with it. You’re not missing something life-changing.
If you’re don’t agree with the critique, live in a food desert, find yourself visiting Shake Shack anyway, or just want to taste the dang thing, well… divorced from context, this sandwich is delicious. We can’t deny that.
That said, I hope we can all agree that the pandemic is a crucial time for supporting local, independent restaurants. Post-pandemic will be a crucial time for that, too, come to think of it!