It looks like the fried chicken wars of 2020 are set to continue long into 2021. Earlier this year, Shake Shack fired a huge shot over the bow with the announcement of a trio of Korean-inspired dishes – namely the following new menu options:
- Korean-style Fried Chick’N Sandwich, $7.49
- 6 pc. Korean Gochujang Chick’N Bites, $5.29
- 10 pc. Korean Gochujang Chick’N Bites, $7.49
- Korean Gochujang Fries, $3.49
The centerpiece of the update is the Korean-style fried chicken, a hugely popular dish, one with some subtle dishes from American style fried chicken. This NY Times article sums up the core differences in American vs Korean fried chicken.
With the Shake Shack release departing so wildly from the regular fast food chicken updates of late, I was very eager to dive in and see what the chain was cooking up. I ordered all of the new 2021 Shake Shack items – here’s the full scoop on what to order, and what to skip.
Korean-Style Fried Chicken Sandwich
The brand lists the new chicken sandwich as a “spicy-sweet Gochujang-glazed crispy chicken breast over white kimchi slaw featuring Choi’s Kimchi and toasted sesame seeds”.
The sandwich comes boxed, and in a wrapper detailing all the elements inside. It’s nicely put together and certainly a step up from some of the slapped together sandwiches we often encounter at fast food outlets. Here’s a run down of the whole sandwich in pictures first:
The first notable item is that the chicken is 100% noticeably real chicken. Note how the breast pokes out of the sandwich in awkward fashion. This is in contrast to competing chicken sandwiches that roundly fit the bun. This is a piece of real chicken and it shows.
The chicken’s coating is more thin glaze than crunchy coating with the sweet components thoroughly dominating the spicy. It reminded me of generic supermarket Thai-chili sauce more than anything else; the spice levels are very mild and most will be fine. The thin glaze gives way to the juicy chicken which is the star here. For a fast food chicken sandwich, this is really good stuff in my opinion; just don’t expect huge crunch or crisp.
The accompanying kimchi slaw is a very sedate version of the Korean staple. There’s some minor fermented funk but it’s muted, obviously intended to welcome people to Korean flavors; it’s very mild, and I don’t think will scare anyone away.
Oddly, the toasted bun was buttered, which I found incredibly off-putting; if I ordered this again, I’d request no butter, it doesn’t work at all with the other flavors. Another issue is the sandwich is one of the smaller ones out there too, do be aware.
Korean Gochujang Chick’N Bites
Next up the new, or what I thought were new, Chick’N Bites. Actually these turned out to be Shake Shack’s regular chicken nuggets with a side of a new Gochujang-mayo sauce. Here they are in pictures:
These are actually great chicken nuggets, again using identifiably 100% real chicken meat. The batter is thin, has a decent crisp, and the chicken is fantastically juicy and enjoyable. The result is a much more light chicken nugget than the greasy heavy-fried variety; you won’t feel sluggish afterward. These might be my current favorite nuggets out there in fast food world.
The flip-side is the let down that these were just the regular nuggets albeit with a new sauce. The Gochujang-mayo mix is fun enough, at least for fast food land where the options don’t usually get too far away from honey-mustard BBQ and the like. Aficionados of Korean food will cry of course, this is closer to Russian dressing than it is to any authentic Korean dish or sauce. It’s fine enough in its own right, a creamy and mildly spicy mix with slight acidic tang – but I found myself enjoying the nuggets plain rather than sauced if I am honest.
Korean Gochujang Fries
Lastly, and in a similar vein to the nuggets – the fries. Again these were just regular old Shake Shack fries with the Gochujang-mayo side:
The Shake Shack fries are nothing really to write home about. They’re mediocre crinkle cut fries with a slight chalkiness to them, and vaguely neon-yellow coloring. I wouldn’t go out of my way to order these ordinarily (I’d much prefer a side of nuggets) but the sauce does help proceedings here.
Overall, these three new items are a fun addition to menu boards, especially in an industry that doesn’t usually take bold leaps. Not that these are particularly bold additions in a broader food context; indeed Shake Shack have taken a lot of heat for the trio of releases, many expressing cultural appropriation. For their part the brand are keen to state this isn’t Korean food, merely food inspired by Korean-flavors. The debate rages online still.
My take – if you’re looking for a new chicken sandwich option to brighten your week, I’d definitely check out Shake Shack’s new release; it’s an enjoyable sandwich, and one better than most – but you’d be hard pushed to call it Korean food.