The true happy meal is a bouncy shrimp patty sandwiched between two soft buns.
On a crisp spring day in 2021, Julie Yeung stood in a line that curved through Madison Square Park in New York City, waiting to buy a shrimp burger. Yeung was one of hundreds vying for a taste of the collaboration between Shake Shack and chef Junghyun Park of New York restaurants Atomix and Atoboy. Park’s shrimp burger promised to be one of a kind: a chopped shrimp patty with spring onions, topped with a crispy nest of golden hash browns and a drizzle of fermented pepper sauce.
“I don’t think I would have left if it was just a burger, but this one really impressed me,” says Yeung, who waited about an hour to be one of the lucky 500 customers to snag the limited edition Cooperation. “It was very unusual and very tasty – so it was worth the wait.”
On average, Americans eat five pounds of shrimp per person per year, but when it comes to burgers, beef comes first. Still, there’s a growing cult obsession with the delicious lift of a chopped shrimp patty, particularly in, but not limited to, the Asian-American diaspora.
Many shrimp burgers in restaurants today, including the Shake Shack collaboration, are inspired by similar versions at Lotteria, a fast-food chain with branches in Japan and South Korea. Lotteria launched its shrimp burger in Japan in 1977 and eventually brought it to South Korea after expanding there in 1979. “A shrimp burger is definitely a piece of nostalgia for me because it brings back memories of my childhood,” says Park. who grew up near Seoul, writes in an email.
The first fast food restaurants in Asia blended western sensibilities with local tastes. The shrimp burger was a prime example. Seafood was far more popular than beef in Asia in the 1970s, so a breaded and fried minced shrimp patty served with creamy tartar sauce and salad in a soft bun would have been particularly tempting to local palates. The patty bears a faint resemblance to korokke, Japanese croquettes, or perhaps harks back to the virtues of shrimp paste or fishballs found in Southeast and East Asia. Shrimp burgers are also inherently delicious, with a resilient texture bursting with a slightly sweet, irresistibly umami flavor.
Lotteria’s shrimp burger started a delicious trend in Asia Pacific. Other fast-food restaurants followed suit, and the shrimp burger craze reached new heights in the early hours. Japanese restaurant chain MOS Burger launched a version in 2000 that is now available in many of their 400+ locations across Asia. In 2005, McDonald’s fended off the sales decline in Japan by introducing the Ebi Filet-O, a crispy shrimp burger named after the popular Filet-O-Fish. The new item generated $10 million in sales in just three months. Since then, iterations have popped up at Burger King, Wendy’s, and countless homegrown chains (find shrimp burgers on fast-food menus at). Cyprus To Kuwait).
There’s a growing cult obsession over the wonderful lift of a chopped shrimp patty
“Shrimp is the universal seafood that everyone loves. It transcends all cultures,” says James Wong, executive chef and co-owner of bread belly in San Francisco. Wong and his business partners Kate Campecino-Wong and Clement Hsu are known for their Asian-American influenced sweets, but their shrimp burger is also an absolute hit.
The shrimp burger at Breadbelly consists of a quarter-pound panko-crusted gulf shrimp patty, topped with powdered shrimp shell tartar sauce and a homemade citrus kosho. It’s all held together by a pandesal bun, which is a little more elastic than the bakery’s popular milk toast. Wong points out that the patties are an extremely costly and labor-intensive item. It takes time and effort to shell and clean the shrimp, then shape and bread the patty, which is an 80/20 mix of coarsely chopped chunks and a homemade shrimp mousse at Breadbelly. In general, this might explain why shrimp — America’s most popular seafood — isn’t more commonly found on menus in burger form. (By the way, shrimp burger patties are a staple at the grocery store; you can find them at both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.)
Still, Breadbelly isn’t the only restaurant to decide shrimp patties are worth it. In New York, at Korean gastropub Ms Yoo, chef Esther Choi prepares a hearty shrimp burger served with kimchi tartar sauce on a toasted brioche bun. In Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, BOPOMOFO sells a Cantonese Honey Walnut Shrimp Burger with honey-sweetened mayonnaise and chopped, candied walnuts.
The Asian-American appetite for umami-rich shrimp and bouncy textures isn’t the only driving force behind the popularity of the shrimp burger. Shrimp are native to the waters of North America. Subsistence shrimp fisheries have a long history in the South Atlantic and Gulf regions from Maryland to Texas, and shrimp burgers have a long history in the American South. While North Carolina-made “burgers” typically feature whole fried shrimp, chopped shrimp patties are popular in South Carolina.
The town of Beaufort on Port Royal Island is not only known for its shrimp burgers because of the film Forrest Gump was partly filmed in Beaufort. In this film, Bubba, the fictional character who comes from a shrimp fishing family in Alabama, counts down a list of delicious shrimp dishes, including a shrimp burger. (Ironically, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the restaurant inspired by the movie, doesn’t have a shrimp burger on the menu.) In the 2020 book Shrimp Tales: Little Bits of HistoryAuthor Beverly Bowers Jennings writes about a Beaufort shrimp fisherman named Saxby Stowe “Jack” Chaplin who was known for making excellent shrimp burgers on his boat in the 1950s. “He mashed the shrimp with the bottom of a Coke bottle before pieing and cooking them,” she writes. Today the locals will tell you about it the shrimp shackwhich opened in 1979 is the best place on the island to get one.
Shrimp burgers in and around Beaufort are a no-fuss dish made with local, seasonal ingredients, making them quintessential Lowcountry cuisine. On South Carolina’s Sea Islands such as Port Royal and St. Helena, the Gullah Geechee community, as descendants of enslaved Africans, contributed to the dominant style of native home cooking, or Lowcountry cuisine. Shrimp burgers may not be as ubiquitous in Gullah cuisine as, say, shrimp and grits, but they make an appearance every now and then. Chef and historian BJ Dennis describes the burgers as street food for special occasions or something you could buy at a local food truck Gullah Express.
In Charleston, a two-hour drive north of Beaufort, shrimp burgers are a rarity, but not uncommon. Little Jack’s Tavern has had a shrimp burger on its menu since it opened in 2016, although its award-winning beef burger is far more famous. “It’s a regional thing,” says co-owner Brooks Reitz. At Little Jack’s, the shrimp burger is made with small shrimp, making it a little easier to make into a paste. Some pitted jalapeño and fresh herbs are added to the mixture, which is shaped but not breaded and then pan fried. It pays homage to fresh shrimp from nearby waters and corner shops specializing in home cooking. Reitz calls it an underrated gem. “Don’t sleep on it.”
Given how popular shrimp are, it’s a wonder shrimp burgers don’t make an appearance on restaurant menus, be it in South Carolina or Southern California. But when they do, they’re sure to draw in an eager audience willing to put up with a long wait or just lapse into poetry at the inimitable sweet, salty crunch. Because anyone who knows knows: A shrimp burger really is the best burger.