Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On the Road to Burgerville

J. Wellington Wimpy
I've enlisted... the great Best Burger wars. Things - I've been told - can get pretty hairy in the trenches; real and perceived snubs, catsup/ketchup flare ups, true believers vs. the casual burger fan... we've all been there. So before wading in, here are some criteria for grading my Best Burgers:
What am I willing to spend on a burger?
Was the burger worth the price?
What would I absolutely refuse to shell out for ground meat on a bun?
I wouldn't care if I had a pile of F-you money under the mattress. There is no way in hell I'm forking over fifty bucks for what is essentially a sandwich. You can take that Japanese cow, bathe it in lotus blossom-infused oil, lovingly massage it by hand, and sing it to sleep each night. I'm not paying to have it turned into an over-priced menu item. If you are, well then you're an idiot. People that irresponsible with their money ought to be horsewhipped.
Meat quality:
USDA Grade
I do believe in quality, Kobe beef notwithstanding, so the beef ought to be graded Prime or Choice. Even granny's meatloaf deserve a good grade of meat.
Let's face it, if all you can taste in your burger is the caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, or pickled white asparagus tips, then what's the point? But, if you can find a burger of good quality, at a reasonable price, why not have some fun building upon it? Excess for excess' sake will be pointed out for what it is: pure hype. Do I include fries? Maybe. If they're remarkable on their own, they may get a nod along with the burger review.
Now let's have some fun!
Prime Burger cook
If you Google "best NYC burgers", the Prime Burger always makes the cut. An old family friend has been badgering me for months to go there. She's been eating her lunch there every Thursday for the past 27 years. She built up expectations to such a frenzied extent that I was sure of having a burger epiphany with the first bite.
It pains me to say this, but the experience didn't live up to the hype. Sure the Formica counters and schoolhouse desk seating were cool, but the service was lousy and my burger was nothing to write home about. I ordered a cheeseburger and onion rings. I discovered after the fact that lettuce and tomato were an extra charge on the bill. Even Burger King doesn't try to rip you off like that.
Cheeseburger from Prime BurgerThe burger itself was just okay. It came served on a bun that had been crushed by something heavy, and while the meat was juicy and cooked to order (medium-rare), twice I bit into what I'm sure was bone and gristle. After the second time, I just put the burger down. (My friend doesn't know this, until she reads this of course, but I grabbed a slice of pizza after our lunch.)
Onion ringsAnd the onions! A solid mass of greasy, under-cooked, and poorly sliced rings. You had to tear them apart with two hands just to get something close to a bite-sized piece. Even then it wasn't worth the effort. I was so disappointed. I didn't know what I was going to say when my friend asked me how I liked Prime Burger. It then dawned on me that I had built up the place in my own mind. It was almost impossible not to come away with a negative impression. I had never been promised the ultimate hamburger, just a good, quick lunch at someone's long-time favorite diner. I looked again at the menu. Prime Burger is famous for fast, cheap breakfasts and burgers. No hype. No fanfare. We were unlucky enough to get a new, inexperienced waiter, and there was some connective tissue in my sandwich. Big deal! While Prime Burger will struggle to make my Top 10 list of Best Burgers, I know where to go for a quick burger fix. I'm sure my next experience will be cast in a whole different light, and to be fair, they will get a second chance. Another bad experience though, and they're off the Christmas card list!
Burger Joint signBut let's end on a positive note, shall we? There are great hamburgers out there, and I've eaten plenty. The Burger Joint ranks among the best in price, quality, atmosphere, and overall experience. It is hidden behind a rust-colored velvet curtain off the lobby of Le Parker Meridien Hotel in mid-town. It has developed something of a cult following and is probably listed with travel agents as a "must see" right after the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. The Burger Joint gets two serious and impressive rushes. One is the business week lunch crowd; guys in ties, women in heels, tourists in the know. The other, more boisterous following appears late night when appetites are roused from NYC's plethora of diversions. Come at the right time, and you can witness a line out the lobby doors, a sight that always startles considering the posh setting. You catch several European languages competing with our native tongue while folks jostle for coveted seats inside the tiny space. In a word, the crowd is fun.
Burger Joint how to orderExplicit ordering instructions are plastered conspicuously in front of your face at the counter, but people still get it invariably wrong. The menu consists of prime beef, flame-grilled burgers (cooked to order), fries bagged in brown paper, soft drinks and beer (Sam Adams, take it or leave it). Your burger comes topped with the standards: lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, ketchup, mustard and mayo. A burger, fries and a beer will set you back $15, or a steal at twice the price. For those of you who blanche at that, this is New York, get over it. The Burger Joint is another no-frills hole in the wall establishment. It just happens to be tucked into a four-star hotel. The scene is: there is no scene. Get in, order quickly, eat and go.
'BurgerIn a civilized world, beef would be served one way: medium-rare. But then again, nobody's asked me to run things in a while, so I'll concede to others more delicate sensibilities. With beef this fresh however, don't be afraid to push the envelope. Flavor and moistness really come through the rarer your burger is prepared. My burgers are always perfectly cooked. Slightly charred outside -with beautiful sear marks from the grill - and pink and juicy on the inside. With every bite, you can actually taste how flavorful the beef is. Even "the works" can't mask its fresh, nutty taste. The bun doesn't get in the way and the fries are superior. To avoid the rush, get to the Burger Joint for lunch before 11:45 and before 9:00pm every evening. Lines do move quickly but can be quite long.
The Prime Burger is located at 5 E. 51st Street in Manhattan between Madison and 5th, and directly across the street from St Patrick's Cathedral. Burgers start at $4.25 and there are several optional toppings. Their special is the Prime Burger Deluxe: two burgers and French fries. Cheese and drink are extra. They open at 6:00 for breakfast Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. The Burger Joint is located at 118 W. 57th Street off the main lobby of Le Parker Meridien. They are open for lunch every day beginning at 11:00 and stay open until 11:30pm weeknights, midnight on the weekend. Burgers start at $7.
Thanks for taking the time - Blog.O.Food

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