The McGangbang at McDonald’s: “Control yourself, take only what you need from it”

McGangbang cross sectionUp until this point, the concept of “Burger Porn” has rested cheekily in the realm of tasteful erotica, presenting images of oozy cheese and juicy patties, but easily staying PG-13. Titillating? Sure. Mouth-watering? Obviously. Tongue-in-cheek, grain-of-salt guiltless fun. But I haven’t reached full-on smut.

I need to do something about that.

Immediately after eating the Big Mac-inspired cheeseburger at Scena Tavern, the only obvious place to go was literally across the street to the McDonalds for a Big Mac. On my way in, however, I came across the “McPick 2” deal, and remembered something bigger, and bolder than a Big Mac for half the price, and a vile grin spread across my face.

“Fuck the Big Mac,” I told my companions. “I’m getting a McGangbang*.”

This is the post I don’t want my mother to see. Hi, Mom.

Secret menus are a simple way to get the most out of your favorite fast food restaurant by taking ingredients they already have to turn their regular menu items into unique masterpieces. Some are so ubiquitous they get their own names. The “Quesarito“, for instance, is a Chipotle burrito on a quesadilla in stead of a boring tortilla. The secret menu is so well known at In-N-Out Burger, that they list some of the most popular menu variations on their website. Did you know you can swap in grilled onions on any McDonald’s sandwich at no extra charge? Now you do.

Its origin is unclear, but the McGangbang first appeared on the internet in 2006 and gained popularity in 2008. The premise is simple: you take one McChicken and put it in the middle of a McDouble. I’d never had one before. Feeling extra frisky, I ordered both sandwiches with extra Special Sauce. I meant in stead of the ketchup and mustard on the McDouble and the mayo on the McChicken but didn’t make this clear and got charged for the sauce, but this was fine. Very, very fine.

I pulled up to a table and unwrapped both sandwiches. The McDouble I peeled apart at the cheese, right between the two patties, and laid the McChicken–in full–on the bottom half, and replaced the top half of the burger on top. Voila.

McDonald's McGangbang

The sear’s weak, the seasoning’s good, not enough cheese, essential bun-squish, nice crunch on the chicken, kind of a fantastic amount of total sauce, to be honest, a bit of crisp from the lettuce, nice acid from the pickles, zip from the special sauce, but mostly it tasted like McDonald’s, which is exactly what it needed to taste like. This sandwich is so elemental it’s ridiculous. It’s a literal mashup of two of the most iconic sandwiches in the world, and that’s exactly what it fucking tastes like, and I’m totally extremely happily “Loving It” for all of the chemicals, additives, preservatives, GMOs, and passive voice that go along with that trademarked phrase.

Nostalgia-wise, McDonalds is my ultimate platonic ideal of a cheeseburger, for the simple fact that I can walk into any McDonalds in the entire world and it’ll taste exactly how it’s supposed to, every single time. You cannot fake that. It’s what they do best. They drilled the concept into me via shitty toys, and I shall continue to drink that Kool-Aid so long as I shall live. I’ve eaten far superior burgers than McDonalds, but when I get that specific itch, there’s only one scratch for it.

Right now, Mom’s regretting every Happy Meal she ever bought me.

Each sandwich was $1 and the extra sauce was $.25 each, for a total of $2.50. A Big Mac is $3.99. Math.

I don’t think I’ve eaten at McDonald’s since Burger Fetish started, but I really liked this carnival sideshow act because I really like McDonalds. I’m not going to recommend it–you either want one or you don’t–and while reading this might be fun, I don’t think I’ve swayed anyone in either direction. No one’s taking another chance on McDonald’s after reading this either; you’ve made your mind up on the restaurant before you started reading this. So what am I doing here? Why’d I write this? Why’d I eat a McGangbang?

Because I eat fucking burgers and talk about them. This is my life.


*A word on the awkward name, just in case. A “gangbang” is a group performing sex acts on one consenting person, simultaneously or in turn. Not to be confused with an orgy in which a group of participants engages freely in sexual acts with one another. My consumption of a sandwich named after this act is neither endorsement nor disapproval; what consenting adults do with a group of other consenting adults is their business. “Gang rape” is a nonconsensual act that’s absolutely wrong, should never be done, is never funny, and I’d never eat a sandwich named after it. Clear? Good.

 

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The Cheeseburger at Scena Tavern: “Return of the Mac”

 

Scena, three burgers, by Kyle

Photo by Kyle Coughlin, but that’s me with my phone back there!

Minnesotans reach a point every winter where we must ask ourselves, “why do we live here?” This past Sunday, it was 26 below zero including windchill, and as Netflix beckoned us to our couches, we with our lofty goals ventured into the near-tundra to the heart of Uptown to get the cheeseburger at our town’s latest modern Italian crudo and noodle spot, Scena Tavern.

Paul Dzunbar may be the Twin Cities’ biggest restaurant mogul. Besides his role as CEO of locally-based and originated Green Mill chain, Dzunbar owns the various Crooked Pints, the Town Hall group, and a handful of other standalone spots, while currently developing a few more places around town. Dude’s busy. But, while he seems to have mastered the lucrative pub game, Scena is his go-big-or-go-back-to-pubs attempt at more upscale fare, and he’s recruited an all-star team to help launch.

Behind the drink list (and frequently the bar) is the team from Bittercube, the Milwaukee-based masters of all things cocktail who consult internationally developing bar programs, though they’re probably best known for their delicious hand-crafted line of bitters. Wine guru Bill Summerville, former general manager and master sommelier at both La Belle Vie and Spoon and Stable, assembled the wine list. And consulting on the menu are unmatched local chef duo Erik Anderson and Jamie Malone.

The chefs’ collective resumé is a local where’s-where of top notch restaurants. La Belle Vie, Porter & Frye, Sea Change, Auriga; this pair’s been kicking culinary ass for years. Anderson left town a few years ago to run the Catbird Seat in Nashville, and earned him and partner Josh Habiger Food & Wine’s Best New Chef Award in 2012. Malone would win the following year helming Sea Change. Anderson returned to Minneapolis two years ago to partner up with Malone to open the upcoming Brut in the North Loop, and in the meantime have been hosting pop-ups, traveling, and helping Executive Chef Marc Paavola develop the menu at Scena.

On top of it all, Anderson’s a fellow cheeseburger fanatic, and I had to see what a chef of his caliber would do with a patty and a bun.

At 3pm on a Sunday, Scena was vacant, having completed brunch service and gearing up for dinner. But it was also happy hour, the only time the cheeseburger appears on the menu outside of weekend brunch, but my sources tell me it’s always available to order. As a big fan of drinks Bittercube did at Eat Street Social, I was excited to sample their latest concoctions and ordered a non-happy-hour Scena Sling, an aquavit-lemon-sweet vermouth cocktail because I adore aquavit, but not surprisingly found it more citrus and sweet than I prefer in a cocktail, though the aquavit had a great presence and the drink was overall complementary to itself. It was good, but not my bag.

I don’t need to say I ordered the burger anymore, do I? This is Burger Fetish. But am I skipping an important plot point if I omit it from now on? Like, “how did Matty get this burger? Did it appear as if out of nowhere? Did they see him coming and start making his burger upon arrival? I don’t understand!” We’re all here for the same reason. Let’s agree that I ordered the burger and move on.

Scena Tavern cheeseburgerThe cheeseburger came out and on appearance immediately gave away its inspiration: the Big Mac. All together now: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. Props on the iceberg lettuce. It holds up well to the heat of the patty and gives a great crunch. The onions were raw and diced perfectly. They use a note-perfect replica of McD’s Special Sauce, and I greatly appreciated just how much was on this monster: a swipe on all four cut surfaces of bun. My biggest gripe about the fairly standard use of most “special sauce” is that you can barely taste it. Here, you couldn’t miss it, but it definitely did not overwhelm. The beef was a definite dominant flavor with the gobs of cheese singing harmonies right on the patty’s heels. The glorious sear screams smashed patty, but unfortunately so did the overdoneness. It was too tough, and lacked moisture. I can’t help but think this was an intentional side-effect of the smash technique, but smashing to get that sear doesn’t necessarily mean losing moisture if properly executed. Scena cross sectionThe beef’s well-seasoned and the flavor is definitely good, but there was too much chew. I admire the effort of a house-made bun, but always find myself disappointed. No restaurant can make a squishy enough bun, and if you’re trying to recreate a classic, you need a squishy bun, and this was simply too much bread. Three quarters of the way through, the bread should be reduced to a near-tortilla, but it remained intact and bready as fuck. Flavor-wise, the burger’s an on-point facsimile, but texturally, it misses the mark. Between the overwhelming bun and the too-tough patty, I’m not a fan of this burger.

This is, of course, an Italian-inspired modern place with an emphasis on crudo and steak and pasta, and the rest of the menu that I completely ignored sounds real tasty.

The crew agreed the obvious next stop was to the McDonald’s across the street for Big Macs, and that’s where we went. But I did not end up getting a Big Mac.

TO BE CONTINUED, sort of. This entry’s about the Scena cheeseburger, and the next one’s about McDonald’s, and they stand on their own, but they’re connected, but only kind of. I’m probably overthinking this.

 

Matt’s Bar vs. The 5-8 Club: “Two households, alike in dignity”

Matt's vs. 5-8 header

Matt’s Bar (l), the 5-8 Club (r)

After my whirlwind trip to New York, the best way to come home and kick off the 2016 season (season? sure) of Burger Fetish is with the biggest Minneapolis burger question of them all.

There’s no Minneapolis food item more iconic than the Juicy Lucy*, and no greater rivalry than that between Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club. Both bars claim invention of the cheese-stuffed burger, but every Minneapolite has an opinion on which Lucy is best. Luckily, I am a Minneapolite, full of both opinions and, at the moment, a lot of beef and cheese.

I’ve never actually been to the 5-8 Club, having accepted on hearsay that Matt’s Jucy Lucy was the better. I recruited my favorite native Southsider, Kyle, to join me, partly because he’s the only person I know who prefers the 5-8 Lucy, partly because he loves burgers enough to go eat two of them with me, and partly because he’s one of my best buds in the whole wide world. AWWWWWWW. Shut up.

According to legend, soon after Matt’s Bar opened in 1954, a customer asked proprietor Matt Bristol to make two patties with cheese in the middle, causing him to declare, “that’s one juicy lucy!” and a sensation was born. The 5-8 Club opened in 1928 as a speakeasy and went legit following the repeal of prohibition. Originally called the 58th St. Club, patrons began referring to it as the 5-8 and eventually the name stuck. It has no cute origin story for its Juicy Lucy, but say they invented it “in the 1950’s,” which sounds dubious, but I’m not here to quibble on undocumented history.

5-8 Club cross sectionAt the 5-8, you can get your Lucy stuffed with American, blue, Swiss, or pepperjack. I, obviously, went American. I misunderstood the server’s question and ordered mine without fried onions, which I’ll admit is a misstep, especially when it comes to a fair comparison. Otherwise, the only topping was pickles on a notably less-than-squishy bun. The patty arrived relatively medium-well, still pretty juicy with basically no sear, but well-seasoned. This leads me to believe they don’t keep their griddle cranked the fuck up like most burger joints. Lucys are traditionally cooked through to ensure the cheese melts thoroughly, and keeping the griddle at a more moderate temperature makes sure the meat doesn’t dry out, which I respect, but as I learned in New York at Whitman’s, this isn’t actually necessary. They stuff an incredible stack of three slices of cheese between two quarter-pound patties, and it came out looking like a beef patty that got pregnant. The solid quantity delivers an awesome mouthful of meat and a grip of cheese in every bite. They season their grill daily with bacon and onions, and despite my embarrassing omission, there was a definite subtle oniony taste to it reminiscent of a White Mana slider. I squirted some ketchup on the side for strategically acrobatic–so as not to spill that precious cheese–dipping, and I was pretty damn impressed with what I’d heard was the lesser Lucy.

Then on to Matt’s.

First of all, vibe-wise, Matt’s was on point. It’s a total dive, as opposed to the 5-8’s updated family restaurant, near-Applebees feel. Everything from the music to the attitude of the servers just screamed we-care-but-only-barely. You walk in and know where you are, and I frankly felt at home. I’m a dive bar dude.

Matt's cross section

The Jucy Lucy, on the other hand, could use some work. They pride themselves on having a griddle seasoned with over 60 years of Lucys and onions, but it mostly gave it an overcharred taste with added bitter notes of burgers past. The onions completely overwhelm the patty, which is not something I typically frown upon, but it was too much. And the pickles were weirdly overpowering. Not so much sour, they were over-seasoned, and they had way too much influence on the overall taste of the burger so I took them off, which is an enormous deal for a pickle fiend like me. Most egregiously, Matt’s puts a single slice of cheese between two 3oz. patties, which is not an awesome amount of cheese to have with six ounces of meat. The sear was wonderful, and the patty was seasoned respectably, the bun perfectly squished itself to the meat, but it plainly just wanted more cheese. I could respect the ratio if the meat was better and cooked less well, but for fairly standard well-done beef, you need to get fucked in the face with cheese.

In the end the 5-8 Juicy Lucy wins for me, on the basis of cheese. If you’re literally putting cheese at the heart of your burger, it needs to be amazing, and Matt’s American turns to a hot cheese grease that mostly just burns your mouth. The 5-8’s cheese-beef ratio has too much cheese, which is actually just enough, and it stays gooey and flavorful.

Again, I don’t do rankings and I don’t do ratings, but the next time someone asks which Juicy Lucy is better, I’ll tell them the 5-8. Then I’ll send them to the Blue Door for what I consider the best Juicy Lucy in town. Both bars stick to  methods that might have been novel in the 1950’s, and good on them for keeping people interested for 60 years, but burgers have gotten better since then. The rivalry will never go away, die-hard adherents will maintain their allegiances, but I’m honored to add fuel to this ongoing fire.


*A word on spelling, because it matters. The 5-8 Club calls it a “Juicy Lucy”. Due to a spelling error they decided to run with, Matt’s calls it a “Jucy Lucy.” Because writer [sic], I consider “Juicy Lucy” to be the “correct” spelling of the category of cheese-stuffed burgers, but a restaurant can name their burger anything they want; at the Nook, it’s a “Juicy Nookie”, and at the Blue Door it’s a “Blucy“. I will use appropriate spelling when discussing each bar, but use “Juicy Lucy” in reference to all cheese-stuffed burgers, without specific allegiance to either Juicy Lucy**.

**See what I did there?

 

The Stomach that Never Sleeps, part 5: “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”

I spent December 20 – 27, 2015 in New York City and ate a silly amount of burgers. Every day this week, I’ll document every fucking burger from my trip in a 5-part series of stories from what might be one of the most diverse burger cities in the damn world. Read part onepart twopart three, and part four.

No. 13: Royalton Farms Cheeseburger at Allswell

AllswellOrdering burgers at every damn restaurant in town starts to make you feel like a basic bitch.

Often, the burger’s the safest thing on the menu, and since starting this project, I’m not mad that they’re the cheapest thing on the menu, but they’re the safest, cheapest thing on the menu. At a lot of nicer spots, people order a burger because they freaked out when someone told them sweetbreads aren’t a kind of pastry. And the FOMO sets in when I wonder why I got the burger at a pizza place, or a French place, or a Chinese place. Why my obsession would waste several hours on a trip to New Haven that I could have spent eating in one of the best damn food cities in the world.

I love this. I love doing this. I love writing about this. But I love more food than burgers and sometimes I feel stuck.

When I suggested my family go to Allswell on Christmas Eve for brunch, I had an ulterior motive. It was on my burger list, so they could get eggs and I could get a burger. I’m tricky like that.

But I got those FOMO pangs when I saw a fried chicken sandwich on the menu, and I kinda really wanted a fried chicken sandwich, but despite Fukus to the contrary, I wasn’t trying to eat a bunch of fried chicken sandwiches.

Allswell cross sectionIt was a good burger, though. Dry aged beef, grilled to a perfect medium rare. lettuce, onion, homemade pickles, homemade sesame seed bun. Cheddar, which I traditionally object to, worked in being well-melted and tasty. The bun was good, and while not quite squishy enough, there’s something about a thick patty with a more dense bun that screams pub burger in a way that just feels good. It isn’t rewriting any book on the burger, but it’s good, solid, and apparently available ’til 3am if you’re into drunk snacks–I know I am! I liked it.

No. 14: the Original db Burger at db Bistro Moderne

We took the subway to Midtown, which was the first time I saw my sister out of her element. She’s lived in New York for over ten years now and lives and breathes it through and through. She never goes to Midtown; that’s where you’ll find Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Broadway, and crowds. Gaggles. Hordes. Tourists. Enter at your own risk. Here be dragons.

But alas, there was an honestly breathtaking Picasso sculpture exhibit at the MoMA, and Dad’s a big Picasso fan. We went from there to Rockefeller Center, then St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and watched the Christmas light show at Saks before our dinner reservation at db Bistro Moderne.

This was the one. I didn’t know exactly how I’d get it in, but I knew I’d never again have a burger like Daniel Boloud‘s contribution to the conversation. It sounds unreal, and it kind of is. I don’t know of any burger that comes close to it’s decadence, much less its $35 price tag*. Luckily, my parents were paying.

Tee hee.

dbFirst and foremost, it’s a sirloin patty stuffed with braised short rib, black truffle, and foie gras, on a spread of tomato confit and a bed of frisée lettuce, topped with raw onion, tomato, and a spread of horseradish on a parmesan poppy seed bun.

“Oh my god, this is a good burger,” were the first words out of my mouth.

It’s extremely well-composed. It showcases classic burger flavor in a way that’s completely over-the-top, but totally familiar. Each ingredient delivered on its promise of being the gratuitous version of itself. Lettuce, tomato, and onion on a potato bun? All that’s missing is American cheese, and I didn’t even miss it. At the end of the day, the beef is the star. The red wine-braised short ribs are crazy delicious. The patty is cooked perfectly, too, pan-fried in butter, and at the heart is the foie: rich, buttery, and present but not showy (except for the part where they cut it in half and literally show it to you, but let’s not quibble). The entire thing tastes of pure decadence in a way where the typically safest, cheapest menu item is anything but bitch-basic.

When it debuted in 2001, the db Burger showed everyone what a burger could be. No one would even bother trying to come close to emulating it, but every chef that’s ever loved a burger or tried making one has learned something from it. It wasn’t my favorite, but only because it’s impossible to compare to any other. Not that it’s any better or worse, and not even that it’s unique or special. It’s in a category all its own.

But yes: it’s fucking delicious.

No. 15: the beef burger at MP Taverna

Christmas was the only day of my trip that I didn’t eat a burger, because Christmas. We did a gift exchange at Anna’s apartment over bagels then went to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens before an excellent dinner at Antica Pesa. Then on Saturday we brunched at Filipino restaurant Maharlika and visited the 9/11 Memorial before dinner back in Williamsburg at MP Taverna.

It’s the latest iteration of a series of Greek restaurants in the greater NYC area. But here, ordering the burger was a serious misstep, a decidedly basic bitch move to get the burger because I saw it on the menu and shrugged. First and foremost, the updated take on Greek cuisine here was incredible; hummus, calamari, and merquez sausage were fantastic. But the burger.

MP TavernaThis was a case where it seems like someone told them they had to put a burger on the menu, and they didn’t know what that was and someone described a burger to them and they made one based on that. But it was gross so they decided to do something a little zany and Greek it up a bit with some unique choices, and it was still gross, but they went with it because they had to.

The patty was honestly cooked fine, and the bread was a little dense. There was a spicy spread on it that totally killed any other flavor, the tomato was tasteless. It was utterly forgettable in a way I don’t even feel like talking about. Skip. Next, please.

No. 16: the Emmy at Emily’s
EmilyMom and Dad left early on Sunday morning, my last day in town, so Anna and I were free to brunch it up how we pleased, so I picked Emily in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. This was a good decision.

Emily only does 25 burgers a night, and trying to make it there early enough in their dinner service proved impossible by our schedules, but since they offer unlimited burgers during brunch, it seemed the perfect way to close out my trip.

Emily cross sectionDry-aged beef with a gorgeous amber sear cooked to a delightful medium-rare, coated in cheddar, drenched in “EMMY sauce” that’s unlike any ketchup-mayo-pickle “secret” sauce I’ve sampled, on a pretzel bun from local bakery Tom Cat, I was quite pleased. The EMMY sauce had a flavor I couldn’t place, but it was tangy and buttery and spicy. American cheese would have ruined this burger, I’m afraid, but fortunately, the cheddar balances perfectly, adds sharpness, and holds up admirably on beef cooked expertly to showcase its dry-aged flavor. I’m a convert to Martin’s potato rolls by inundation and squishy buns, obviously, rule my world, but with flavors this strong, the density, the crust of a pretzel bun holds up remarkably. It’s an interplay of bold flavors that don’t fight for your attention but highlight each other like a seasoned breakdancing crew. Cornichons were served on the side, but it would have been cool to see if, diced-up and sprinkled-on, the acid played well with the rest of the team. Not at all mad about it, though. The late entry quickly ended up very high on my recommendeds list.

Then we went to Target and took a car2go back to Anna’s, and I packed up and headed for the airport, a most excellent burger adventure in the bag.

No. 17: Double SmokeShack at Shake Shack

Oops.

I really wanted to squeeze in one more, and almost missed my flight for it. Which would have been hilarious.

I got to JFK and security was a shit-show of confusing labyrinthine cattle gates that made me second-guess my decision to get there only two hours prior to my flight, but I made it through with 45 minutes to spare correctly, this time around, at Terminal 4. And, I mean, 45 minutes? I had time, right?

Not really. The line at Shake shack wasn’t long, which was a LIE, because the line on the other end–a grip of people holding buzzers–was thick. It took about 15 minutes, and the guy who ordered after me asking where his food was every damn time they brought out another round. (“Two plain hamburga? That is two plain hamburga? Where’s my two plain hamburga?” Calm your tits, guy!). So of course my gate was the very last one. 

Thoughts while running down the terminal, suitcase in one hand, bag o’ burger in the other: I can just eat it on the plane, right? Should I stop and, like, choke it down? Is that a good idea? I’m going to need to make sure there’s no ShackSauce in my mustache when I ask the Delta people to reschedule my flight.

And when I finally got to the gate, I don’t think anyone’s ever been so happy to see a delayed flight. Only half an hour late, and there was plenty of time to enjoy my burger before it even started boarding.

Shake Shack SmokeShackAnd enjoy it I did! What I loved about the ShackBurger is still present in the SmokeShack: a smash-imparted sear and American. But while I thought I was mostly just adding bacon, a cherry pepper relish really brought the SmokeShack home. It adds heat, for sure, but I didn’t anticipate it all coming together so fucking well. Acid balances the added fat, and spice complements the smokiness. It all killed the tang of the ShackSauce, and maybe I’d feel like it was missing something without it, but I didn’t notice it. Whatever it is, I really liked this burger.

Mall of America aside, the Twin Cities are in for a serious treat when Shake Shack opens this summer, and from what I can tell, they don’t just move into a market with one location; soon enough there’ll be one in every home! Or close enough.

And unless there are burgers available on the airplane, this absolutely has to be my very last. And you know I’d get one on the plane if I could.

That’s that! Before you yell at me, I know I missed the following: Peter Luger, Minetta Tavern, Fritzl’s Lunch Box, Corner Bistro, Five Napkin Burger, Ramen Burger, the Ainsworth, and more than likely a dozen to a hundred more of your favorite New York burger. Comment freely.

People always ask me what my favorite burger is, and I hate that question. I don’t rate, I don’t rank, but in the interest of fuck-it, here’s my top 5, in no particular order:

  • the Brindle Room
  • Emily
  • Raoul’s
  • Whitman’s
  • the Spotted Pig

But for completely different reasons, don’t skip Shake Shack, and if you’re really feeling good about yourself, the db is 100% worth it.

I don’t say it enough, but thanks for sitting through my burger trip. My New York week may be over, but my journey continues. If you’re a diligent lil’ fucker, I had a teaser for my next story in one of these entries somewhere.


*I’ve heard of Kobe beef burgers that cost more, but that’s a different class. They’re just using stupid-expensive beef for the sake of stupid-expensive beef.

The Stomach that Never Sleeps, part 4: “No Sleep till…”

I spent December 20 – 27, 2015 in New York City and ate a silly amount of burgers. Every day this week, I’ll document every fucking burger from my trip in a 5-part series of stories from what might be one of the most diverse burger cities in the damn world. Read part onepart twopart three, and part five.

No. 9: The Au Poivre Burger at Raoul’s

Raoul's banner

When I got back to Grand Central Station from New Haven, I took the subway to Soho and had just enough time to squeeze in a quick espresso as forgettable as the name of the chain coffee shop that pulled it before I absolutely without fail had to be at Raoul’s when they opened at 5pm. At ten minutes to five, I was the first one there, and by the time they unlocked the door, two older gentlemen who didn’t look as nearly out of place had queued up behind me.

The bartender knew what I was there for, which I figured when he asked if I wanted to see the beer list, and confirmed when the kitchen opened at 5:30 and he flat-out asked me if I wanted to order the burger. Raoul’s is a French bistro dating back to the 1970’s, specializing in classic dishes, but when they added a burger to the menu they made a conscious effort to not become a burger spot. And when they got national attention in 2014 for not only the rarity of their burger but the incredible quality, they still didn’t make it more widely available (when they started brunch service in September 2015 they made the burger available in unlimited quantity, but only during brunch). Otherwise, they make twelve a night and you can only get them at the bar–not the bar area, the bar. Three dudes scruffier-looking than me were sitting at the bar waiting for another friend who couldn’t get a bar stool when he finally showed up and he hovered behind his buddies. When they tried ordering four burgers, the bartender informed them they could only get three for the guys at the bar.

Raoul's cross sectionThe burger is a reinterpretation of a steak au poivre, with its patty crusted in cracked black pepper and salt, seared in butter, topped with triple cream St. Andre cheese–imagine a somehow creamier brie, but sharper–and a pinch of watercress tossed with red onion and crisp cornichons. On the side is a generous portion of au poivre sauce made from reduced cognac, heavy cream, and plenty of black pepper (guess what au poivre means!). The sear is wonderful, and as indicated it’s heavily seasoned but not overseasoned. The bun is challah, which is wonderfully squishy the way I like, but holds up to the boldness of the other ingredients. The sauce is a wonderful pairing, a perfect complement to the acid in the cornichons, the bite of the raw onion.

It’s a burger unlike any I’ve had before. In my world of griddled patties with American cheese, it’s refreshing to see a burger do something so different that’s extremely well thought-out but not outrageous, classic in preparation and delicious.

No. 10: The All-American at Black Tap

It was a quick two-block walk to Black Tap, a rather hot-right-now burger bar who won the burger bash at the 2015 NYC Wine & Food Fest. I’d been following them for a while on Instagram, and was really hyped to try their stuff.

Black Tap assembledAnd I don’t know what it was, but it missed the mark. Maybe because I’d come straight from Raoul’s flavor bomb and should have gone for a bolder creation than the American-cheese-secret-sauce standard, but that’s what I wanted. The patty could have used some seasoning, for sure. The sear was good, I liked how the bun picked up some beef juice on the griddle, but on the whole it was just bland. I popped some ketchup for dipping purposes, but was ultimately just disappointed. This was a burger that I’d heard some good stuff about, and I don’t know. It needed some salt. It needed some flavor.

No. 11: The Chargrilled Burger at the Spotted Pig

Spotted Pig

Leaving Black Tap, I had an hour until I was supposed to meet Anna for dinner in Brooklyn, so I figured I’d try to squeeze in one more burger before then. Y’know: one more burger before dinner, right? Who am I?

Fucking Matty, that’s who.

High on my list was the Spotted Pig, mostly because I liked what I’d seen from chef/owner April Bloomfield on Mind of a Chef. Plus the Spotted Pig burger was one of the more iconic recent NYC food items, and it was not a short walk, but not far either, and I figured I could be a little late for dinner with Anna.

But when I got there it was packed.

“One second,” the host said to me before answering the phone. “No, we don’t take reservations. It’s around two hours at this point. MmmHmm. Bye.”

“Did I just hear you say two hours?” I asked.

“For a table. You can sit at the bar, but be aggressive. All these other people are waiting for bar seats, too.”

After losing out to two other people more on point with their barstool-swarm game, I decided not to be late to dinner and walked to the nearest subway station.

“Oh my god, I would have been so mad if you’d been late for dinner,” Anna said at Setagaya, an excellent ramen shop in Williamsburg.

“Tomorrow, I want to go to the Spotted Pig and Roberta’s before mom & dad get here,” I told her. Our parents got to town the next afternoon and we’d be on a schedule where we couldn’t just run around eating burgers willy-nilly. I was at a point where I had to start deciding what burgers I really wanted and go for those rather than going to an area of town and eating literally all of the burgers there.

So the next morning, we hiked back over to the West Village and much more easily got a table at the Spotted Pig. And I’m glad we did.

Spotted Pig cross sectionThis burger is fantastic. The patty was cooked medium-rare, to order, and had a characteristic sweetness and a supreme tenderness to it that I absolutely loved. There’s almost no chew to it, which I’d normally protest, but it that wasn’t the point here. I’d read that the Roquefort cheese was overwhelming, but I thought it a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the beef. It’s definitely apparent, but mostly in texture, and the funkiness was not at all persistent, but just gave strong inflections throughout the experience while keeping the beef front-and-center; it was the Flavor Flav to the patty’s Chuck D. It’s chargrilled, of course, so there’s no noticeable sear, but paired with the grilled-all-over bun and creamy smokiness in the Roquefort, there’s a definite undercurrent of char flavor throughout the burger. And that’s it! Fantastic patty, funky cheese, and a bun. I dipped it in ketchup for a bite and decided that it didn’t need any. It was absolutely delicious without it.

No. 12: the Cheeseburger at Roberta’s

Roberta's

“When this place first opened, it was full of punks. Now it’s all tourists,” Anna told me. Ah, New York. Roberta’s is a pizzeria that opened in 2008, baking pies in a wood fire oven topped with ingredients culled from a garden on their rooftop. It’s very “cool,” and got a lot of hype, so tourists came a-flocking.

Roberta's cross sectionAnna got a margherita pizza and I got the lunch-only burger. It’s a hefty dry-aged beef patty, griddled and topped with American cheese on top of a full slice of raw onion with pickles and romaine lettuce on yet another Martin’s potato roll with a side of smashed fingerling potatoes. The sear is good, it’s well-seasoned, the cheese is gooey and yummy and blah-blah-blah-I-love-American-cheese, pickles for balance, the romaine was forgettable but fine. But beyond just making an extremely excellent well-balanced burger, the innovation here is putting raw onion on the bottom. I like onion, but your options are basically to put it on raw which gives it that bite, in which case you can only do a couple of rings lest you want all bite, or a pile of caramelized, which have fantastic flavor–it draws out that sweetness–but no bite. Roberta’s found that middle ground, where they put an entire slice of raw onion under the beef, where incidental heat from the patty cooks it just slightly, mellowing out the bite without killing it entirely. That’s the trick. For an onion-lover like me who feels torn when asked if he wants grilled or raw onion, who adores the onion flavor smashed into a slider, this is that middle ground I’ve been dreaming of.

Sure, it’s a pizza place, but the burger is simple and wonderful and not to be overlooked.

So after second lunch, Anna and I went to meet up with our parents and take a little break from the burger game for…oh, about a day.

To be concluded, kiddos! In tomorrow’s entry I eat one of New York’s most talked-about burgers of all time!

The Stomach that Never Sleeps, part 3: “First is the Worst”

I spent December 20 – 27, 2015 in New York City and ate a silly amount of burgers. Every day this week, I’ll document every fucking burger from my trip in a 5-part series of stories from what might be one of the most diverse burger cities in the damn world. Read part onepart two, part four and part five.

No. 8: Cheeseburger at Louis’ Lunch

Louis Lunch Burger

There are many disputed origins of the hamburger, but among them, the most widely accepted to be the true original can still be purchased in its original preparation, and it happens to be a two hour train ride from New York City. It’s the absolute number one burger destination in these United States and it’s closed on Mondays or I would have gone the day before.

I woke up early and took the subway from Brooklyn to Grand Central Station and bought a $40 round trip train ticket to New Haven, Connecticut. When we pulled into New Haven it was raining and I didn’t have an umbrella so I bought the shittiest umbrella ever made from a news stand at the New Haven train station for $13. I took the bus to Yale’s “Old Campus” area, which I found surprisingly developed in my historically-preserved-Virginia-bred observation–I passed a Shake Shack en route–and walked in the rain to Louis’ Lunch.

Louis lunch buildingLouis Lassen opened a food cart in 1886 selling eggs and butter, then added lunch items to his repertoire in 1895, including steak. According to legend, in 1900, at a customer’s request for a quick lunch to eat on the go, he put some ground steak trimmings on sliced bread and thereby invented the hamburger. He moved the whole operation into the building pictured above in 1917, and they’ve been cranking out burger patties on sliced bread ever since.

I walked into the teeny shack to see a ridiculously small bar with two dudes working and no visible kitchen when I realize the small bar is the kitchen. One guy takes three things: orders, cash (only!), and absolutely no shit from anybody. The other’s just cooking burgers continuously the entire time I’m there. I later learned the cook is Jeff Lassen, grandson of Louis, and current owner of Louis Lunch.

The menu is wonderfully simple: hamburger and cheeseburger. You can add tomatoes or onions or both, and those are your only options. Sides are potato salad or chips, and there’s an array of bottled soft drinks. That’s it. I got a cheeseburger with onions.

The place is packed, mostly full of families, which worked for me since I wanted to sit at the bar and watch the action, and a few regulars who were accustomed to the crowds. While I’m there a guy pulls up to the bar and chats with the guys working, asks about their kids, bitches about his day and when he orders “two cheese plain,” the order-taking guy goes, “already got it in.” Another guy’s in a hurry and standing in the window giving the guys a hard time and Lassen goes, “give this guy a coffee so we don’t have to hear his yakkity-yakkin'”. This is how these guys actually talk.

I loved the rapport, I loved the attitude, I loved how cramped it was, and I loved that there were regulars despite the tourists. This was my kinda joint, the salt-of-the-earth kinda joint that doesn’t give a shit if you use the word “joint” three times in one sentence.

Right behind the bar, they have three specially-made cast-iron vertical broilers that when opened reveal flames going up both sides. They’re all the original broilers that Louis Lassen had commissioned when he built Louis’ Lunch. Each houses a cage holding–I believe–eight beef patties at a time, including a slice of onion, if you got it, pinched between the cage and the patty. The cage is inserted into the broiler which then cooks both sides of the patties simultaneously. Sliced bread is toasted and coated with cheese spread, if you got it, then assembled with the patty, sprinkled with salt, topped with tomato, if you got it, cut diagonally and served on a paper plate.

Louis Lunch cross section

It’s probably the worst hamburger I’ve ever eaten.

The cooking method makes absolutely no sense. Holding it vertically ensures the grease all drips out and does nothing to contribute to the flavor, and you get absolutely no sear. All you’re really doing is cooking the beef, which would have been fine if there were more than a sprinkle of seasoning on it. The onions turned out more burnt than charred, dominating the flavor with total bitterness. The cheese spread did nothing. The sliced bread–which I expected to be my biggest gripe–worked fine. It was dry and well-toasted, and held up despite getting soaked with beef juice. They have a strict no ketchup policy posted on every available surface, and ketchup would have helped nearly every aspect of this sandwich. I get that they want the beef flavor to dominate, but ketchup helps, especially if you want to skimp on the seasoning. I probably should have gotten an out-of-season tomato to give it some flavor, but when presented with the option, I don’t do that. On the whole, this burger is a big, dumb mess, rife with questionable decisions they proudly, stubbornly hold steadfast.

They had a good idea that other people took and made better. And that kind of makes the hamburger the most American thing, like, ever.

Including the train ticket to New Haven, this $6 burger is the most expensive one I ate, but I have no regrets. This is the Patient Zero of burgers! The #1 burger in the New York much-greater area that I absolutely had to eat, and it wasted time that I could have spent eating burgers in Manhattan that are actually delicious, but I’m not mad about it. I literally walked away laughing at how fun this entry would be to write, having earned not the most difficult but perhaps the most important merit badge for a burger-interested individual to obtain.

But seriously, this burger’s fucking terrible and I would not recommend taking a trip specifically to New Haven to eat one.

Tune in tomorrow for continued burger eating as I return to Manhattan from my detour and then spend Wednesday running around trying to squeeze in some burgers before my parents show up. 

The Stomach that Never Sleeps, part 2: “Concrete Jungle, Wet Dream, Tomato.”

I spent December 20 – 27, 2015 in New York City and ate a silly amount of burgers. Every day this week, I’ll document every fucking burger from my trip in a 5-part series of stories from what might be one of the most diverse burger cities in the damn world. Read part onepart threepart four and part five.

No. 5: Sebastian’s Steakhouse Burger at Brindle Room

Brindle Room Burger

Next I walked less than a block down 10th Street to the highly regarded Brindle Room.

Thy use a cast iron skillet which achieves a majestic fucking sear that makes any puny smashed patty look like a slider (I can say these things now! I know these things!) A healthy sprinkling of salt and pepper helps make that crust; seasoning isn’t just about flavor enhancement, kids. And this is a nice thick juicy delicious patty. It’s made from trimmings from dry-aged prime rib, and the result has that characteristic funk and fattiness and tenderness and amazing flavor of dry aged prime rib. Topped with a goddamn slab of American and caramelized onions on a nicely squishy toasted roll. I put the pickles on it and ketchup for dipping, and this damn near approaches perfection in a way I kind of hate admitting.

But look at this picture! You can see the fucking sear! UGH.Brindle Room SEAR

No. 5.5: Stewed Pork Burger at Xi’an Famous Foods

In desperate need of rest for my pig-in-shit tummy, I stopped at the amazing Box Kite Coffee and had a Heart Roasters espresso for the second time in my life, and it was delicious, but they didn’t have outlets and I was really looking for a place to charge my phone, so I found a Starbucks a few blocks away. I don’t live here, so I make do. You can charge your phone at Starbucks. It’s a thing. McDonald’s, too. Now you know.

Xi'an Famous Foods Pork BurgerOn my way between coffee shops, I came across Xi’an Famous Foods, which had been recommended to me the day prior, and fuck a rest, let’s get another “burger”. “Burger” of course being reinterpreted once again, as it contained no patty and bread questionably classified as a bun, but had “burger” in the name, so I got one. It could have used a bit of mayo to balance some dryness in both the meat and bun. While definitely not a steam bun, it was similar in flavor and slightly toasted, but a bit too chewy with a crusty exterior. But the flavor was on point. Straight porkiness, a little sweet, a little salty. I kinda loved it.*

Belly fuller than full, I settled in at the Starbucks to charge my phone and read a book and just digest a bit. I had an hour until Whitmans opened for dinner service.

No. 6: The “Juicy Lucy” at Whitmans

Whitman's Juicy Lucy cross sectionI’d lose my Minneapolis burger cred if I didn’t try New York’s foremost Juicy Lucy offering at Whitmans.

They stuff a short rib patty with pimento cheese, a blend of cheese, mayo and–no shit–pimentos, on a sesame seed bun with caramelized onion, tomato, lettuce, and secret sauce. They asked how I wanted it cooked, which I’ve never been asked before in the context of a stuffed burger because that doesn’t fully make sense, but I went medium rare, and it came out medium rare! Though I suppose going with a cheese spread stuffing results in an unaffected goopiness in the face of a less-than-medium cooked patty. The sear was wonderful, the seasoning on point, but the pimento cheese really brings it home. It’s creamy but with a zippiness that the caramelized onions mellow out. This burger’s awesomely balanced, letting all the flavors shine.

No. 7: Superiority Burger

Right after I finished at Whitman’s, I went right on down the block to Superiority Burger, Brooks Headley’s reason for ditching his gig as one of the top pastry chefs in the country. When I arrived a half hour before they opened, there wasn’t a line, so I walked past, paused to think of what to do next, turned around and there were two people standing there, so I got in line behind them. By the time they opened, the line was at least twelve deep.

I went in and ordered the Superiority Burger, drank some Superiority Water ($FREE), they called my name first and I got the fuck out of there. There’s literally six places to sit and probably a dozen people standing in a room meant for four. I sat by a tree outside to eat it, thanking El Niño for the favorable late December weather.

Superiority BurgerThe recipe’s secret (“contains nuts” is the only clue), but Headley’s been developing it for years and it’s still evolving. I could taste some beans, some nuts, but at the end of the day I don’t give much of a shit. It’s tasty, and that’s what counts. The consistency’s great; it holds together and they made a surprisingly excellent sear and a good chew. Muenster cheese is a unique choice, but it paired nicely with the well-spiced patty. They make a glorious point of not using out-of-season fresh tomatoes, opting for a cooked-then-preserved tomato, which is one of those forehead-slapping why-doesn’t-anyone-else-do-this moments; what is it about fresh tomato that people are so damn devoted to? Non-shredded iceberg lettuce leaf for crunch, all on that ubiquitous Martin’s potato roll. It didn’t taste like a meat burger, but that isn’t the point. It’s supposed to be delicious, which it is.

Tomorrow’s entry is a special one-burger-only story about my ridiculous trip to New Haven, Connecticut.


*When I walked in, they were packed, and there was a really stressed-looking dude in a staff t-shirt on his cell phone. While I ordered, I noticed a guy checking the temperature of all the food they kept warm and thought, “Wow, I can’t believe they’re temping all the food during service like that,” when my cook brain realized they were getting health inspected at that moment and I quickly started hoping I my food arrived before they got shut down.