When coming the the US and in particular New York, one of the restaurants that was recommended most to me by friends was the Shake Shack, usually accompanied by a statement that these were the best burgers in the world. I had a pretty good idea that 'burgers' were popular in the US, I mean, the biggest burger company in the world started out in San Bernardino, California. Once I actually arrived in New York, I started to get a bit of a sense of how ubiquitous the humble hamburger was. There are burger joints 'everywhere' and most menus, even in some of the nicer restaurants, have a burger on the menu.
Just what makes the burger so popular and in the States? I thought I would try to find out by getting to as many different burger places that I could (and my waistline would allow) and find out for myself which was the best burger joint in New York. Now I understand that this is a personal view and that everyone will have their favourite burger and favourite burger joint, this will be a totally subjective view of burgers.
I wanted to find out more about the humble hamburger, so I took to the internet (thanks Google) to find out a little about the background of a food most of us take for granted. There is quite a dispute about who invented the hamburger but there is a common theme amongst many of the 'origin' stories that some Germans from Hamburg were involved. One of the more interesting stories was that Louis Larsen created a hamburger in 1900 and sold it to some 'rowdy' sailers from Hamburg, Germany, and they named it after themselves.
On a large scale, the first the earliest major vendor of burgers was a place called White Castle, a place that I must admit only knowing due to the film Harold and Kumar go to White Castle! Then there is the best well known story about burgers, the story of Richard & Maurice McDonald...... I didn't visit any of the big chains and tried to stick to smaller burger joints, but in a city the size of New York, that's also a subjective statement.
Shake Shack - http://www.shakeshack.com/
Shake Shack seems to be the most popular burger joint in Manhattan and the one most recommended to us in guides and from friends. We managed to beat the rush one day and grab a couple of cheeseburgers from the Upper West Side and to be honest, were a little disappointed with them. They just didn't have much flavour and were a bit soggy. We decided to set this aside one day when we were wandering around and found the Shake Shack that everyone recommends in Madison Square Park. It was still early and the queue was only about 20 deep, so we decided to give them another go.
I'm glad we did, these were much better. To start off, the bun was really soft and fresh and unlike the first Shake Shack burger I had, it wasn't soggy. The meat patty was grilled a perfect medium rare and had just the right texture by being a little firm but still juicy and tender. The lettuce and tomato were fresh, but I would have liked a little more tomato in my burger as it got lost a little. The Shake Shack sauce was OK, but I would like liked it to be a little punchier and I would have like the cheese to be a little stronger. When combined the flavours worked well together and it was a good burger overall. We really enjoyed the vanilla shakes too.
Shnipper's Quality Kitchen - http://www.schnippers.com/
One of the burger joints that we loved the most was recommended to us by a friend back home and a place we had discounted due to its proximity to Times Square. Shnipper's sells a lot more than burgers but ended up being a place that was our default burger joint when we were running out of time and wanted a quick and great burger.
What I liked about the Schnipper's burger was their freshness, they really had a fresh quality about them that didn't leave a greasy aftertaste. I love burgers that have lots of tomato, lettuce and onion and the Schnipper's burgers was heaped with all three. The meat patties were thicker and cooked to order, that is they asked you how you wanted your meat cooked and each time I ordered here I received a perfect medium. The buns were not overly sugary either and tasted so much better for the lack of sweetness. The cheese in the cheeseburgers was lovely and sticky and had good flavour, the only minor gripe for me was that the sauce lacked a little punch. They must have been great though, we went back to Schnipper's half a dozen times during our time in New York.
The Five Guys - http://www.fiveguys.com/
There are quite a few Five Guys burger restaurants around Manhattan and the place seemed to have been a good bet, it had heaps of recommendations from the likes of 'Time Out New York' and 'GQ Magazine'. Headings like 'Rated #1 Burger for lunch' and 'The best $5 dollar burger a man can eat' sounded pretty good so I had high expectations when ordering. The Five Guys stand out with their bright red stores and when we went in, all the tables were full but there seemed to be a lull and we were served fairly quickly.
Of all the burgers I had in New York, this was the first that had a double meat patties. The burgers came wrapped in tin foil and when we unwrapped them, they were quite messy and not well put together. The bun looked all scrunched up and the meat was exploding everywhere and it didn't look as appetising as some of the other burgers we had had. I had asked for my burger to come medium rare but unfortunately the burgers were well done and as a consequence were really dry and hard to eat. There was not a lot of salad with the burger either, so the meat to salad ration seemed out of balance. Overall, this was a disappointing burger.
Zaitzeff Burgers - http://zaitzeff.com/
We were wandering around the narrow streets of the financial district one day and came across a little corner shop that had a cool name and upon further inspection was a cool little burger joint. The name Zaitzeff was pretty hard to forget, so it went onto my list of burger places to check out the next time were were in that part of Manhattan. I never found out how it got the name, but Zaitzeff promotes itself as a healthy burger, using hormone and antibiotic free beef from a little co-op in Washington and Oregon. At this time, Zaitzeff is a one off store, but it has great burgers, so I think there will be others at some point.
The buns at Zaitzeff were completely different from all the other burgers we had in New York, the almost seemed to be toasted crumpets as opposed to traditional buns. They don't have a lot of sugar in them, which helps with promoting a healthy burger. The meat was delicious and really benefited from coming from a small co-op, you could almost taste the love in the burger. There was plenty of fresh salad with the burger, in particular thickly cut tomato, which I loved and there was sautéed onion which gave the burger a unique (almost BBQ'd) flavour. There was also really thick cut cheese on the burger, which hadn't melted properly, so it was nice but would have been better if it was melted. Overall, the burgers were great and we really enjoyed them.
Bareburger - http://www.bareburger.com/
There are so many different burger joints in New York, they are all trying to hit a different market, some are unashamedly heavy on calories and others are looking for healthy alternatives. One of the places that we found while just wandering around was Bareburger, which looks to go down the healthy path. By this time SC was a little over burgers, so she was able to get a caesar salad, I on the other hand was just getting started and went for a burger.
Bareburger offers some exotic alternatives to beef, proteins like bison, elk, ostrich and boar are on the menu. I had always wanted to try bison, so went for the bison burger. You have a choice of buns also, and I went for the slightly sweeter brioche bun, but there were very healthy options, like multi-grain rolls available too. When the burger arrived, it looked fresh and healthy and was extremely pretty looking with lots of salad, it almost looked like a burger from a TV ad. Overall the burger was pretty good but I was surprised that the bison did not have more of a gamey flavour, it was actually quite subtle. As with lots of the burgers around town, I would have liked a bit more of a punchy sauce to add some extra flavour.
Burger Joint at le Parker Meridian - http://www.parkermeridien.com/eat4.php
We had always planned to get along to the Burger Joint after watching Anthony Bourdain's 'The Layover in NYC'. This was one of the places that you either know about or you miss out on going to; it's a little hard to find and is in the most unlikely of locations. The Burger Joint is part of the Parker Meridian hotel chain and to get to it, you need to go to the hotel, then try to find it. It's pretty much hidden away behind a curtain, then you need to wander down a mostly hidden walkway and follow the neon sign. When you finally find it (and then pretty much always wait in a queue), it's quite amazing. Be careful when you go here though, after you wait in the queue don't mess about with your order, if you don't know what you want, they send you to the back of the queue!
There is always a queue at the Burger Joint but it's most definitely worth the wait, the burgers are amazing. There are not too many choices, a hamburger or cheeseburger! They come wrapped up in paper and if you are lucky enough to score a table (we did) then you can sit down and enjoy the burger while watching the madness of the queue. The meat was cooked a perfect medium rare and the cheese was tasty and melted nicely, it had melted to that lovely sticky texture. The bun was lightly toasted and nice and fresh and the accompanying salad was also nice and fresh. This was one of my favourite burgers from a taste perspective but it was also the most interesting experience we had in New York.
5 Napkin Burger - http://5napkinburger.com/
In the USA, one of the big rating systems that everyone seems to pay the most attention to is the Zagat rating, any restaurant or business of note proudly displays their Zagat rating. The 5 Napkin Burger place has one of the highest Zagat ratings for burgers and this was how I came across the name. It's a little more formal here, more of a restaurant that specialised in burgers. When we went along for lunch, pretty much every table was taken by 11:30am, so I was anticipating a great burger. 5 Napkin Burgers actually started out as a burger on a menu at a restaurant called 'Nice Matin' but the burger was so popular they decided to open us a specialty burger restaurant and it has taken off.
SC was still not eating burgers at this point and was pretty happy that they also served a pretty decent plate of sushi. This was the first burger I had where it was served open and I had to close it to start eating. Of all the burgers I had in New York, this had the tastiest meat patty, it was seasoned perfectly and as a consequence had a wonderful meaty flavour. The meat patty was also the thickest, which made the burger the most substantial I had. The bun and salad were both extremely fresh but the only minor let down for me was the cheese, it was not as pungent as I would have liked. Overall, this was a great burger.
J.G.Melon - http://nymag.com/listings/restaurant/jg-melon/
It was lunchtime one day when we were wandering around the Upper East Side when I spied a 'Michelin Recommended' sign on what appeared to be a Gastropub. It looked interesting so I got onto Google to check out J.G Melon and discovered that it was a burger joint of note that had to be visited. It's been around since 1972 and was the only burger joint that I had come across so far with a Michelin recommendation, there was no way I could pass this up.
I ordered the cheeseburger, which normally only comes with the buns, cheese and the burger, but with some additional salad. This was the second time a burger turned up as an open burger and the first thing I noticed was how much onion was on the burger, there was a lot (but that was easily fixed). The burger came with nicely toasted buns and a lovely thick patty that was a perfect medium rare and had tasty cheese melted wonderfully over the succulent meat. This was a nice and simple burger that had lots of flavour and a lovely freshness about it. It was also the fastest burger I had in New York, it seemed like it was on the table within minutes of ordering.
Johnny Rockets - http://www.johnnyrockets.com/
There used to be a Johnny Rockets in the Myer Centre in Brisbane many years ago and I used to love going there for, what was at the time, was a different type of burger experience. It was nostalgia (and hunger from a long walk) that drove us into Johnny Rockets for a burger. It was pretty much as I expected and remembered from the Johnny Rockets in Brisbane, it reminded it me of a 50's burger joint and had the old fashioned juke boxes at every table.
I went for the #12, which was one of the original burgers that came out of the first Johnny Rockets and is pretty much just a cheeseburger. Of all the burgers I had in New York, this one was the most formulaic, and reminded me most of a 'fast food' burger. It had a sickly sweet bun and processed cheese melted on the fairly flat and tasteless meat patty. The salad was fresh, but there was not much of it, so the predominant flavour was the processed cheese. This one probably should have been left to nostalgia!
Umami Burgers - http://www.umami.com/umami-burger/
I can safely say that Umami Burgers was the newest burger joint in New York, it had just opened the day before! Umami Burgers is a West Coast burger joint that started in California and opened its doors in Greenwich Village, a perfect spot for such a burger joint. The place has just had a fit out and looks pretty amazing, clean lines with lots of wood about, with a slightly dark and moody feel to it. There was a bar down stairs, with heaps of seating and what looked to be an upstairs dining section as well. Umami Burgers is another dine in place only, and we were warmly greeted at the door and led to a table for service.
Umami is often referred to as the 5th taste receptor after sweet, sour, bitter and salt and the whole premise of the burger joint is to bring out this 5th taste. To do this almost every element on the burger is designed to bring out this mysterious flavour. This was the first time in a while that SC ordered a burger and went for a truffle burger (one of the key umami burgers) and I went for the Cali. The burgers that were presented were quite simple in appearance and the buns had a U burned into them, so you knew you were having an Umami burger. I'll try not to be too critical as the place had only been opened a day, but we both found our burgers to be very heavy and greasy with little texture in them at all, they seemed a bit mushy. Even the meat patties were so soft that it was hard to hold the burger together and the salad inside (the tomato) was roasted, which gave it great flavour but no texture. I managed to finish off my burger and it was OK, but SC could not eat her truffle burger, it was just to greasy and heavy.
We were in New York for about a month and it seems like we were eating burgers every other day, but it was not that full on. There are over 800 burger joint and restaurants that serve burgers in New York, which is an astounding number of places to get the humble burger. In the short time we were here we tried to get to some of the better known and more recognised burger joints and no doubt by doing so have missed out on some great burgers.
I have had a great time seeking out and trying so many burgers and have a couple that were burgers that I would happily go back to and become a regular. There were some burgers that I didn't enjoy that much, and perhaps this was as a consequence of having so many burgers. Back home I might have a burger a month, so this has been an interesting experience.
The concept of the burger is so tightly ingrained in the American culture, and by extension the culture of most of the western world. It's a pretty quick and convenient way to get some food, but I have noticed that I have packed on a few extra kilos in my quest. The key thing about having so many different types of burgers is that you are going to find one that suits your tastes perfectly. Right now, I think I will give burgers a wide berth for a while.