In the modern, food-conscious world (especially that of New York!), we think to celebrate organic food, local food, slow-cooked and hand-crafted food of all cultures and kinds. But today, we throw all that back in Mayor Bloomberg’s face, because today is National Fast Food Day! Try as we might, Americans will never escape their fast food history: designed as restaurants that can serve easily prepared and/or ready-made food really quickly, especially for automobile travel, the fast food restaurant has been an integral part of the American lifestyle since 1921, when the first White Castle in Wichita, Kansas, was born. Ever since, we’ve been obsessed with food that we can get the moment we order it, from fast-food restaurants to automats to the rise and fall of the drive-in. There are countless fast food chains in the United States–regional, national, and international chains–catering to every food whim you could possibly have. The most visible and popular are fast food burger joints like McDonald’s and Burger King, but pizza, fried chicken, ice cream, and food of almost any ethnic culture can be just at the other end of the food court. Never before, in any civilization currently known to history, has food been so readily available to a mass populace as the fast food revolution.
But that, of course, brings a bit of controversy. We’re getting our food fast and tasty…but at what cost? There are a ton of concerns when eating fast food often and in abundance, including health issues, animal cruelty, worker exploitation. The growing obesity epidemic in the United States is–no surprise–linked to the ubiquitous nature of fast food in today’s world. With the banning of trans fats, the posting of calorie counts on all menus, and the upcoming ban of large sodas, New Yorkers know all too well that fast food plays an important role in the health of the city, and that the very issue can cause lots of cultural and political division.
But what old Bloomie may not realize is that New York City has a deep history when it comes to fast food joints. Some claim that the origin of the fast food restaurant doesn’t start at the creation of White Castle in 1921, but in the development of the Automat in New York City. In 1912, a cafeteria with walls lined with coin-operated machines opened up in the city, offering prepared foods like hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and sandwiches to anyone that had the change. They were most certainly the origin of the modern vending machine, but back in those days, there were far more selections than a bag of Doritos and a candy bar for lunch. My mom remembers the Automats fondly when she was a teenager, and there was a small resurgence in 2006 when Bamn! automat opened on St. Mark’s Place, but as a whole, the days of the automat are over, and long forgotten.
That’s not our only connection to the fast food culture: many national and international fast food chains had their start in New York City. T.G.I. Friday’s, that garish red-and-white themed flair restaurant that take up premium space in Times Square, originally came from the other side of the city–on 1st Avenue and 63rd Street. Alan Stillman, looking to create a friendlier restaurant atmosphere for young women, built the restaurant and its idea of casual dining and drinks has skyrocketed in popularity, becoming an international success. There are now two T.G.I. Friday’s locations in Manhattan, but not at the original location. There’s also the suburban mall pizza staple Sbarro, which started as a family-owned salumeria founded by Gennaro and Carmela Sbarro in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 1956. The first mall location was also in Brooklyn, at the Kings Plaza Shopping Center. You can still go to Kings Plaza and visit the original Sbarro and get yourself an opulent–if not New York style, lol–slice! And, of course, anyone who’s been down to the Coney Island boardwalk in the summer knows all about Nathan’s Famous, the world-famous hot dog restaurant that started as a 5-cent stand in 1916 and has become one of New York’s, if not the world’s, most popular fast foods. New York’s got fast food history written all over it!
One of the most well-known modern New York fast food chains, however, is still in its infancy–so to speak. Shake Shack has only been around since 2004, with its first and most famous location in the heart of Madison Square Park, but it’s developed a cult-like following in only eight years, with people waiting in line literally hours to get their grilled-to-order hamburgers, fresh French fries, and specialty milkshakes. They’ve grown to open over 7 locations in New York City alone, with 7 other national stores and even a store in Dubai! Whether you’d wait in line that long for just a burger, or you think that their malted shake and fries are heaven on Earth, you can’t deny that Shake Shack has become synonymous with 21st-century New York fast food–and it still has a long way to go!
“From its origins as a hot-dog cart that the restaurateur Danny Meyer set up as a kind of art project in 2001, Shake Shack has become one of the most influential restaurants of the last decade, studied and copied around the country. Its legacy can be seen not just in the stampede of good, cheap burgers, but in the growing recognition that certain fine-dining values, like caring service and premium ingredients, can be profitably applied outside fine dining all the way down the scale to the most debased restaurant genre of all, the fast-food outlet.”–The New York Times
“The Shackburger, on the other hand, is a marvel of beefy engineering. The flavor and texture of the beef patty is second to none, with an intense beefiness and cooking method designed to maximized browning, and thus our carnal pleasure. Yes, their toppings and bun are great, but at the Shack, it’s all about the beef.”–Serious Eats
“The Shake Stack was fantastic. One of the best burger I’ve had in awhile. In fact, it probably rivaled the burger I had at Peter Luger, but definitely behind the Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern. The crispy fried portobello mushroom was just amazing, it definitely enhanced the flavors of the burger. The French Fries looked pretty ordinary, but was a lot better than I expected. Fried to a nice crisp, I definitely enjoyed munching on them. I came here for the concrete, and I went with the one with the ingredients I liked. Caramel, chocolate, and toffee. Sign me up please! I had debated on getting a shake instead, but I went ahead and ordered both. I enjoyed the malt chocolate shake, but if you’re only allowed to choose one, I’d go with the concrete. In the end, it was a bit too much food for an army of one. However, I left stuffed, happy, and ready to visit Shake Shack again when I’m in New York City again. I have much love for In-N-Out, but I did like Shake Shack just a tiny bit more. So I guess I’ll be eating here again in a month!”–Kung Food Panda
“Shake Shack may have locations as far away as Dubai, but they add a little local flavor by incorporating local artisanal foods into their menus. The BK Shack uses Mast Brothers Chocolate and Early Bird Granola in their Concretes (‘dense frozen custards blended at high speed with toppings…’), and all the New York spots pour a special brew from Brooklyn Brewery called the ShackMeister Ale. They make most of their sauces in house, and the pickles are from another local favorite – Rick’s Picks.”–Nona Brooklyn
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Being from California, I have to do the inevitable In-N-Out vs. Shake Shack comparison. Here’s my take: The Shake Stack is hands-down the best fast-food burger I’ve ever had! If it were a straight burger vs. burger comparison, In-N-Out wins, but the Shake Stack, with it’s deep fried, cheese stuffed mushroom has a HUGE advantage.”–Terry N.
“The burgers: simple yet complex. Fast food, but almost gourmet. There’s something special about the meat: crumbly little morsels and flavorful. Juicy at every bite. The potato buns ensure softness and a little sweetness, toasty. If you’re game, get the Shack Stack; it’s a heart attack waiting to happen, but almost worth dying for. Almost. It’s been compared to Five guys, In n Out and Corner Bistro, but come on….Shake Shack wins. Hands down.”–Huong V.
But one of the regional fast food chains in New York City is one you may not think of right off the bat…actually, you might not even know it exists. But it’s one of the most popular among city locals…especially on the warm summer nights! Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices isn’t some watered-down knockoff brand of the Italian Ice cups you see in pizzerias. Similar to spumoni, Italian Ice is a cool, smooth cup of flavored shaved ice, and its most popular flavors are cherry, lemon, and the mysterious “rainbow.” But Ralph’s Ices, established in 1928, makes just about any flavor you could think of: cotton candy, passion fruit, mai tai, strawberry margarita…not to mention the creamy sherbets, with flavors like Java Chip Jelly Ring and Chocolate Macaroon. This Staten Island institution can rival any ices store in the other boroughs. One of my college roommates was from Staten Island, and she introduced me to the wonder of the original Ralph’s Ices location: people lined up in the summer like they were a Shake Shack, waiting patiently for their special combination of shaved ice. The best part about this fast-food place is that the water ices are non-fat and cholesterol free–see if you can find that in a Shackburger! Still a family-owned restaurant, Ralph’s Ices can be found in 5 locations on Staten Island, plus a ton of ices stands dotted throughout Long Island. If you’re ever taking a stop in Shaolin, this is some “fast food” you’ve got to try for yourself!
501 Port Richmond Ave
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“I prefer the water ices to the creme ices, but everything I’ve tried has been great and there are so many options to choose from. The flavors are much more complex and “fresh” than any Italian ices I’ve had prior. And the best thing? They’re cheap as hell! I find that the medium for $2.50 is pretty much the perfect size, and I usually get two different flavors to try whatever sounds good at the time (rainbow is by far my favorite though, so it usually ends up in my cup).”–Stanley K.
“I grew up on a dead end street a few blocks away and while the sounds of “The Entertainer” made us come running for our Bomb Pops and Strawberry Shortcakes, the best nights were when one of our parents would accompany the group down to get a water ice. Parental accompaniment was necessary, minors really shouldn’t handle weapons which is what you generally need in Port Richmond once dusk settles in. Pineapple, Root Beer, Cherry, Bubbegum. Now they even have fancy-dancy flavors like Malibu Bay Breeze and Strawberry Margarita. I ALWAYS get lemon, I can’t remember the last time I got anything else. Besides that being my favorite flavor, Ralph’s does their version so perfectly that I can’t bring myself to get another flavor.”–Mandy O.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!