For Shyan Zakeri, there’s only one type of burger that hits the spot. It’s greasy, with just a thin patty and a single layer of cheese between a semi-soggy potato bun.
Since February 2021, Zakeri has hosted Shy’s Burgers, food pop-ups around New York. The venues range from private house parties in Southampton to hotels in the Catskills, to various locations around New York City, such as Maria Hernandez Park and Time, a sushi restaurant near Dimes Square. On a rainy Sunday in September, he hosted the first Shy’s Bazaar, a pop-up that used the barter system. Customers traded objects, from books to hats, for one of his burgers.
The thin, greasy burgers he loves are typical in Los Angeles (see: In-N-Out Burger), where the 25-year-old grew up. He was raised in West Los Angeles, two blocks away from the Apple Pan, a small diner that has been around since the 1950s. He and his parents—his mother, a children’s-furniture designer; his father, an accountant—would often go for sodas, which are served in metal cups, and burgers with ketchup, which are served on paper plates.
When he moved to the East Coast in 2015 to attend New York University, Zakeri took urban-design and economics courses and didn’t think much about food. Later in college, he enrolled in a food-writing class taught by the anthropologist Sarah Franklin. “It just kind of changed my life,” he says. Food quickly became a hobby.
He started a search for the best burger in town. He tried ones from Minetta Tavern, JG Melon, Petey’s on Long Island, Red Hook Tavern, and Joe Jr., places often said to have the best burger in New York. Although many of them, he says, are excellent, none had the same magic as the burgers from his childhood. They were too meat-heavy, with very thick patties. “There wasn’t just a greasy perfect burger,” he says.
Then in January 2021, during lockdown, he and his friend Alexander David went on a cross-country road trip, from Los Angeles to New York. Along the way, they stopped in cities throughout the South to eat burgers. They often ate at historical diners, such as Dyer’s Burgers, in Memphis. “It’s been open since 1920,” says Zakeri. “They’ve been using the same beef grease since the beginning, straining it daily.”
In the car, between burger stops, the pair talked about future projects. “Originally I had talked to Alex about whether we should just post a bunch of burgers and a lot of food from Los Angeles that I missed,” Zakeri says. “But then it occurred to us we should just do something real.” They started making their own burgers.
“There wasn’t just a greasy perfect burger.”
“There’s a piece in The Washington Post from 1970 that [asked,] ‘What is the best hamburger in the United States?,’” Zakeri explains. “Thousands of people from across the country wrote in, and for the most part people wrote in their childhood burger place—not McDonald’s.” The article inspired him to re-create the burgers he loved in Los Angeles. “Everyone’s favorite burger has a very close connection to them as a person.”
In February 2021, the pair posted on Instagram to invite 120 of their closest friends to try burgers they would cook in David’s Williamsburg apartment. Because social distancing was still strictly enforced at the time, people stood on the sidewalk outside their building and Zakeri and David delivered the burgers by putting them in a bucket and lowering it down from their fire escape with a rope.
“The response was intense,” Zakeri says. “Our phones were blowing up. What originally started as a joke was not a joke, per se.” A few weeks after that, they officially started Shy’s Burgers. Now, a year and a half on, Zakeri has single-handedly cooked 10,000 burgers.
Since David moved back to Los Angeles, in October 2021, Zakeri has been running the business alone. Despite the logistical nightmares that come with managing pop-ups—such as finding storage space and cooking in small spaces—he’s content. “My favorite part about the pop-ups is feeding my friends,” he says. “We don’t really advertise. I don’t really do interviews. I don’t have a TikTok. I don’t post a crazy amount on social media. It’s really just like having a party.”
Now that the business is taking off, he has finally started a search for a brick-and-mortar location in the city. “I think we’re close,” he says. “The time is definitely right.”
Shy’s Burgers will have a pop-up today, November 5, between one and five P.M. at 16 Morton Street, in New York
Elena Clavarino is a Senior Editor for AIR MAIL