Review: Shake Shack's New Hot Menu Brings Tears Of Joy And Pain

Shake Shack's Hot Chicken is back for its fourth go-around and this time it's brought a full Hot Menu with it — not to be confused with its fondly missed Hot Ones menu in collaboration with First We Feast. The much-loved limited-time offering returns with a burger and fries in tow, which the intrepid tongues at Tasting Table got to try.

Quick rundown: The picante here is a slow-burn simmer like you've never had, and we ended up requesting a shake to tame it. It's not that it's the hottest heat you'll ever eat; in fact, the first thing you'll notice is that the burn is somewhat mild and never strikes the way most Scoville heroes do. Instead, it builds up and then maintains a peak without cresting too high. But something sticks in this proprietary pepper blend, and your stomach will be tingling with butterflies all day as these eats continue to roil in your digestive tract. It never hits your tongue above a 5, but the burn has legs for days, and you might start sweating without ever feeling the pain. Frankly, we're curious what peppers Shake Shack found to create such an effect.

So should you bother? Well, it's a complicated yes or a very simple no, but let's get into the details with our complete guide of what's on offer, what it costs in dollars and calories, and whether you should go in on these.

What you need to know about the spicy Hot Menu

While this is the fourth outing for Shake Shack's extremely popular Hot Chicken, this will be the first time it's joined by the new Spicy Shackmeister Burger and Spicy Fries in a thematic team-up. Shake Shack's spicy Hot Menu debuts Friday, September 8, nationwide, though true devotees can unlock the two sandwiches (yes, a burger is a sandwich, deal it with), through the Shack App starting Tuesday, September 5. If you're the type who keeps their phone running light on apps, you can still get your fix of Shake Shack's proprietary double-pepper spice blend shaken onto your fries, available right now. You may even be munching on some happily as you read this.

The menu is very fairly and affordably priced. The Hot Chicken sandwich starts at $8.39, while the burger begins at $7.99. Fries are $4.09, and you only pay just a dollar more for cheese sauce. Considering what you'll pay for a sloppily thrown-together burger of dubious quality at other fast-food spots, we consider this a good value for a desirable meal.

The nutritional information for Shake Shack's Hot Menu

Given how luxurious the items on Shake Shack's spicy Hot Menu are, it's surprising that they come in relatively low-calorie — at least, low-calorie as far as cheeseburgers and fried chicken go. The Hot Chicken is a normal meal of 570 calories, thanks to lean chicken breast, and mostly pickled veggies for toppings. The Spicy Shackmeister Burger, which adds fried onions to the fattier ground beef, naturally comes in a bit higher-cal than chicken, at 660 to 880 calories, depending on whether you stack that Shack.

It's the Spicy Fries with Shack Ranch Sauce that might surprise you. A basket of those crispy, crinkle-cut taters seasoned with the menu's hot pepper spice blend will ding you 630 calories, or 870 if you opt to get them with cheese sauce. The good news for heat lovers is we feel the better experience for tasting the pepper blend lies in the Spicy Fries, even if the cheesy version's fat and tempering effect might be more fulfilling outside of showcasing the unmitigated heat flavor.

Taste test: Is Shake Shack's Hot Chicken good?

Familiar to menu devotees who have to catch 'em all, the Hot Chicken is a frequent flier on Shake Shack's LTO (limited time only) menu. The fried cutlet here is all-breast meat tossed in a house-developed blend of two kinds of pepper. The potato bun is slathered with Shack Ranch Sauce. Sour cucumber pickles bring a vinegary tang to the richness, while a cabbage coleslaw brightened by cherry peppers ably bridges the cool, creamy ranch to the crunchy, cukes and heat of the chicken.

As is expected, the chicken is perfectly breaded and fried, with crunch that makes it hard to eat slowly. Unlike Nashville hot chicken, with its deep-red sauce, this Hot Chicken drives forward on the dried-pepper dust alone. While the cherry peppers do add small spikes of heat, they're much more prevalent for bursts of sweetness and the fruity note they lend to the sandwich.

Unlike the Spicy Shackmeister Burger, heat stands right in the forefront here. This is the sandwich that made us sweat in the tasting, and actually got our tongue tingling hard enough to make discerning individual flavors more of a challenge.

It's extremely well-balanced, but also a recipe for heartburn, if you're susceptible to such things. We find it worth the price of admission but be warned, the fried food, triple-heat combo, acidic condiments, and serving of sugar are all potential triggers for a lot of burping in sensitive stomachs.

Taste test: Is Shake Shack's Spicy Shackmeister Burger good?

The Spicy Shackmeister Burger builds on both the classic Shack Burger and the previous permanent addition the SmokeShack's honeyed cherry peppers. Crispy onions top this burger as well, which Shake Shack's executive chef and VP of culinary innovation, John Karangis, reveals to us are lightly pickled prior to frying to goose a brighter flavor out of them amid all this fat.

The hot pepper blend is incorporated into the meat grind to thoroughly flavor the beef with the thematic taste, not just sprinkled on as an afterthought post-cook. Beyond that, it's the familiar Shake Shack terrain of keeping it simple and letting the hormone/antibiotic-free beef speak for itself: kosher salt, black pepper, and American cheese on a lightly toasted and buttered potato roll.

Throughout this meal, the burger's heat is a mild presence gently building. Karangis says the cheese sauce tempers it a bit, something we also observed in the fries. "We don't want to knock you over the head with it," he says of the very pleasant spreading heat.

The excellent balance of crispy onions also brings this burger to its full potential. Karangis says the chefs weren't sure the spice mix would work with beef at the early development stages, but once the right toppings entered the composition, it really connected the meat to its garnish. "The ShackSauce and peppers and onions all temper the burger," he says.

Taste test: Are Shake Shack's Spicy Fries good?

Shake Shack's classic crinkle fries get tossed in the ubiquitous pepper blend, much as we saw with this winter's White Truffle Menu. This time around, though, there's an option to combine the LTO with the cheese sauce Shake Shack serves year-round.

In our opinion, the cheese, spice mix, and ranch are all somewhat at odds with each other, and you should just pick one flavor to go with. If it's ranch, get regular fries. If it's heat, get the plain Spicy Fries. If it's cheese, go with the always-available cheese fries — though if you want complexity, the Spicy Cheese Fries are your best bet. This is the one among all the possibilities where the two toppings get along the best. It's possible to detect both heat and cheese, even though the latter diminishes the spice's biggest punches.

We also found Spicy Cheese Fries to be the preferable of the two limited-time offering french fries. Neither one was particularly improved or embellished by dipping them in the ranch sauce. They had enough going on with spice dust and cheese. The good news for you there is you can enjoy these without adding calories in the rich form of the buttermilk Shack Ranch Sauce.

Is Shake Shack's spicy Hot Menu worth it?

Our final assessment is that the sandwiches are worth it while the fries are negligible, though if you really want to taste the essence of the two-pepper spice blend that unites this menu, the fries are the best blank canvas to showcase its flavors. The chicken sandwich takes the excellent ranch and cucumber flavors familiar from the regular menu and adds a little pop, plus a fantastic coleslaw that unifies the entire affair and would be worth ordering year-round as a side ramekin.

The burger's softer heat is also very friendly to those who enjoy the heat but want to taste every element of their meal. "People I know are asking for spicy food," says Karangis. "America loves spice." He says that Shake Shack looks for thoughtful ways to deliver flavor and visual presentation without simply tossing capsaicin onto existing recipes. This mindful approach makes the Spicy Shackmeister the order to get if you want to try something new but don't want the heat to hit too hard.

That said, we really have to iterate the burn is a marathon, not a power lift. If you have a digestive condition (GERD, IBS, dyspepsia, Crohn's) or even just a sensitive stomach, we say to skip this outing or just try a bite of someone else's sandwich. What might be a pleasing heat for someone else will likely just be a full day of distress for you. Everyone else: Try that burger.