If you love America, you have to eat at The Zack Shack. And I don’t mean that in a divisive, jingoist, flag-in-the-back-of-your-pickup-truck way. And I don’t mean it in a socially progressive, Bernie-Bro-where-a-bird-alights-on-the-podium kind of way, either. This is a truly non-partisan issue. This is about American infrastructure, American sensibility, and a shared philosophy of convenience. It transcends politics. I don’t care who you are, you have to acknowledge that a few, a very few things, unite us. And I believe the hamburger drive-in is one of them.
The Zack Shack is run by a local family. It’s in its third season of business. It is located on the side of a busy road. It’s smack on Route 1 USA. The place is not picturesque. That is not the point. You could take your food, contentedly folded into a brown paper bag that starts to streak with grease, to a prettier spot. You could go to Harbor Park or Lucia Beach. But it’s more honest to stay right there on that wasteland concrete slab. Sit at one of the four ample picnic tables, interact with the exhaust and noise and opportunistic seagulls, a little too far from the ocean.
Malcolm: There are a couple of ways to do food in Midcoast Maine. You’re either fully capitalizing on your scenic location, and often making the food a secondary attraction because your business is made mostly of one-off visits from visiting tourists who don’t much care that their lobster meat is frozen, as long as they’re looking at a lighthouse while they eat it. Or you’re catering to locals, offering inexpensive, quality product at high volumes from a concrete slab, that consistently gets good press and good feedback from the people who live there. It’s firmly in that second category, then, that The Zack Shack plants its flag.
I briefly dabbled in vegetarianism in my early teens. But after a lot of years of duplicity and denial, I’m fully on board the meat train. New York Strip steak, rack of lamb, salami, and a classic burger are at the top of my list of favorite foods. All pizza, Nutella, basil, roasted cauliflower, and Tom Ka Gai are also in there. I don’t mind a fancy burger. Burger with a runny egg, bloody mary brunch burger, everything at Umami. But it’s that classic Americana version I am looking for, chasing almost constantly.
You know the kind of burgers I’m talking about. The kind that was aped and mass market commodified by McDonalds, the kind that we love from Harmon’s and Fat Boy, the kind that the biggies of fast casual burger chains are all trying to emulate or make in their own image. The Zack Shack deserves a rightful place in this pantheon. The white cheese isn’t so much melted as adhered, becoming one with the patty below. The meat and bun do not meet, but are separated only slightly by that holy combination of condiments. And here is where I don’t get too fussy or pedantic. And neither do they.
Malcolm: But oh, these burgers. Stacked in singles, doubles, or triples, with your choice of toppings, all delivered for around five bucks. After a few rounds of trying to build ridiculously over-the-top burger creations that would please even the most jaded Instagram followers, I’ve learned the simple truth that at The Zack Shack, less can definitely be more. I’ve settled on a cheeseburger, maybe some sautéed onions, a little relish, a little ketchup. You have to eat it fast, before the bun melts and disintegrates into the meat and cheese, forming a mass of beef, rendered fat, and sugar that burrows into your brain and triggers an instant craving with every followup trip down Route 1.
Unlike certain iconic joints slinging burgers in this world, The crew at the Zack Shack don’t care what you put on your burger. They know it’s none of their damn business. They’re also not all, “have it your way, snowflake.” They’re like, give us dollars for burgers, thanks and bye. (Which isn’t to say they are rude; nothing of the sort. They are pleasant and accommodating and accept compliments gracefully.) They just don’t want a role in your life. Add sweet relish, mayo, tomato, and lettuce if you like. Or don’t. You do you. Or not. This burger is so perfect, so Platonic. I don’t even have words to describe it.
Now, there are certainly other foods being served out of the capacious blue wagon. And I am sure that they are good. The trouble is, I can never get anything else. I just don’t. Do you have those things at places? Where you’re at a restaurant like, “I’m branching out today, I’m going to try new dishes and liberate myself from this delicious oppression”? But then you can’t diverge from what works every time, that one thing you crave and dream about and have to have. Food is like that sometimes. Sometimes there’s just a click. An immediate connection. And it’s just as good every time.
Malcolm: Look, I run a food truck in Midcoast Maine. It’s an incredibly small, competitive market, with just a few players in the mobile food business. And as another customer inevitably points out nearly every time I visit The Zack Shack, you’d have to refer to them as a competitor for my own food truck. None of that matters. When you see a family like Zack’s all pitching in, working together to make their small business a success, taking enormous pride in delivering an infinitely customizable product at a price point comparable to a trip through the drive through, you have to get on board. In this business, you have to celebrate anyone that’s taking the time to do it well. And The Zack Shack is doing it exactly right.
Recurring, reliable satisfaction doesn’t always happen in life. Which is why perhaps, I am so attached to it happening here. Our lives are racked with disappointment. With fatigue born of repetition or actuality not living up to our fantasy or remembrance of events. Nostalgia is sweet, but never as good as the original moment. You can, for a moment, beat the odds on the pleasure of return. You can always be just as happy as you were once. You just have to go to The Zack Shack and order a burger with a side of fries or onion rings. It’s so simple, really.
I’m no Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, or Brene Brown. I am not a lady lifestyle guru. I am just a woman who has been through some stuff, telling you where to get a hamburger.
The Zack Shack is located at 210 New County Rd, Thomaston, ME 04861.