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Food critic reviews Shake Shack's new Korean-inspired menu

The Korean Fried Chick'n sandwich at Shake Shack.

The Korean Fried Chick'n sandwich at Shake Shack. Credit: Newsday/Scott Vogel

Not since McDonald’s put Szechuan sauce in happy meals for a "Mulan" promotion has a chain’s attempt at marrying Asian flavors to fast food prompted such a swift backlash. The offending entity this time: Shake Shack, which earlier this month introduced Korean Fried Chick’n sandwiches at eateries nationwide, a limited-time offer that left some accusing the company of cultural appropriation and others wondering what’s Korean about chicken spelled without an e.

One way of viewing the $7.89 sandwich, whose notable features are a gochujang glaze and thin layer of kimchi, is as Shack-style thank you to South Korean people. Just a few months after the country got its first taste of the chain in 2016, a Seoul Shack quickly became the company’s highest grossing restaurant in the world. Thirteen more Korean Shacks followed, each following the same recipe for success: long lines + people fainting + news stories about people fainting in line = a hit.

Another way of looking at it: the chain is desperate to get noticed in an increasingly crowded chicken sandwich market, even if that means reducing an entire nation of 50 million people to gochujang sauce and kimchi, and even if Korean Fried Chick’n bears little resemblance to the sticky-crunchy-sweet article for which it’s named.

I couldn’t resist a quick peek inside the bag after getting one to-go, and what I saw truly impressed. Protected by a thick cardboard box and encased in wrapping paper printed with Shakesplaining messages ("kimchi: tangy, crunchy, napa cabbage, daikon, fermented") was an unassuming potato bun atop a solid slab of breaded chicken slapped red with sauce and nested in a pungent slaw. My sandwich’s aroma filled the car as I drove home, stoking fond memories of a long ago 30-minute layover at Incheon Airport.

Whether due to reckless driving or reckless condiment use by Shack's kitchen, my sandwich proved a squeamish traveler, however. By trip’s end, sauce had shot all over the box. Post-reconstruction, however, I found much to admire about it, from the tenderness of the Shack’s sous-vide-before-deep-fried chicken to its head-clearing kimchi, to its sauce’s mild heat.

Also new are Korean Chick’n Bites, in which six of Shack’s justly celebrated chicken nuggets ($5.49) are accompanied by a special gochu-mayo dipping sauce that I tried and failed to procure during two separate trips to Shack Garden City. Twice I asked employees for the sauce, twice they said it was in the bag, and twice it wasn’t. Odd.

A final foray into Korea-ishness is the black sugar vanilla shake ($5.99). "Koreans seek solace in their sweet tooth amid rising stress and economic pain," wrote the Korea Times of the pandemic-driven popularity of black sugar, which is essentially cane sugar before it’s refined and stripped of molasses. The substance possesses totemic power in some circles, however, where it’s touted as a cold remedy that also eases symptoms of PMS.

And so, not for that reason, I had to have one. Swirling through the shake in syrup form, the black sugar signaled caramel and smoke, like fire breaking out in a praline factory. Verdict: the custard base was wan, the whipped cream excessive, the rivulets of dangerously sweet syrup inescapable, and never were 960 calories consumed faster.

I was, you know, seeking solace..

Shake Shack’s Korean-inspired items are available at all Long Island Shake Shacks for an unspecified limited time. shakeshack.com

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