One block away from Milu, in Madison Square Park, you will find the original Shake Shack. Twenty years ago, Shake Shack transitioned from a hot dog cart to a kiosk selling burgers and shakes. And before you knew it, FOMO and long lines started to disrupt the local squirrel population. Today Shake Shack has 360 locations worldwide, including one 5 minutes away from my house. The chicken sandwich ranks up there, and the Smoke Shack, featuring the signature quality beef with applewood-smoked bacon, cherry peppers, and Shack Sauce is perhaps the finest fast food burger we have today.
But while Shake Shack revolutionized America’s burger culture, the original shack neighbor Milu may be in the early innings of reinventing American fast food as we know it. Its a tough task considering our obsession with the familiar. But if anyone can do it, its probably fine dining veterans and students of taste, Milu’s co-founders. The trio has an extensive combined resume, including stints at another famous neighbor, Eleven Madison Park.
We essentially have an Eleven Madison Park and Shake Sack love child. I dont have the slightest idea if the co-founders have any ambitions beyond this, although by all indication ambition isnt exactly lacking here. To open a Chinese fast food operation that is far from traditional Chinese food, and far from traditional fast food in an ultra competitive environment requires some major chutzpah. Even if they dont open another location, I’m rooting for these guys as there’s nothing quite like Milu out there.
Thats not to say you should expect big flavors that are in line with finer dining, and you can cancel your ressies at nearby Upland. Thats to say for $10-15 you can get a well crafted bowl of expertly cooked protein, rice and greens, usually Watercrest salad, or cucumber salad. Some may balk at the amount of protein, and abundance of veggies, but thats part of the idea. Make it tasty, cheap, and healthy(er). Another big benefit is the space. Fast food often involves rubbing elbows, noise, long lines, and pretending that you are comfortable eating in the park while telling every other stranger that the Hoisin sauce was on your shirt before. At Milu its as comfortable as it gets. Although at peak lunch time you may experience a full house, and a line.
After trying about half of the bowls, I settled on the Chili Crisp Chicken. Its not terribly spicy, and it helps to be familiar with Sichuan sodium levels. The Sichuan Cauliflower with the Seaweed salad is outstanding as well, and so is the Brisket. They used to offer a Sichuan fried chicken on Saturdays that was plenty hot, and ultra, dentist approved crispy, but I’m not sure if that’s still the case. You also have access to free water, a big indication that they value comfort/needs over $$$.
On occasion you do get a taste of Milu’s growing pains. Last time, my Mandarin Duck’s crispy skin was far from it, and while the meat was tender alright, there wasnt much of it underneath the skin. The terrific marinated cucumbers, and duck fat rice however helped curb the disappointment. Even at well oiled machine Shake Shack, you can get a bad burger sometimes.
But there’s more. Milu also offer products that will upgrade your pantry in a meaningful way. Chili oils, Soy, Hoisin, their own seasoning, and dumpling sauces. I probably purchased around half of them and pour their seasoning on just about everything I cook. Although they make their own Chili Crisp, perhaps the most notable (and expensive) item they sell is the Fly By Jing Chili Crisp. The added Umami with this Chili Crisp will transform your eggs and pastas into something as complex as figuring out Bronski Beat lyrics. I’m still trying after all those years.