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


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


“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 1: “If I can make it there…”

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 two, part threepart four and part five.

No. 1: ShackBurger at Shake Shack

Shake Shack squareI landed at the wrong terminal. The whole point of flying Delta was to land at Terminal 4 where they have two Shake Shacks, so I had to take a dumb shuttle to make sure the first goddamn thing I did in New York was eat a fucking burger.

The increasingly ubiquitous burger chain fine-tuned their craft to mass-produce it without losing a smidge of quality. I went classic, obviously, and ordered the straight-up ShackBurger–no mods: beef patty ground in-house, God-bless-American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and ShackSauce on a potato roll. The star of this show is the smashed patty with a great sear, and everything else balances quite nicely. This is a great burger, better than the average fast food joint.

No. 2: Hamburger at Mother’s

Mother's squareAfter wiping my fingers, I took a cab from JFK to my sister Anna’s apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where I dropped off my bags and we went to her local hang, Mother’s.

“They don’t ask you how you want it cooked,” she warned me, not realizing I hate it when they ask that. When prompted, I go medium rare, but prefer to leave it up to the chef or the cook or whomever gives the biggest fuck.

It’s $10 for a burger, cheese for a buck, bacon for two. The patty’s grilled medium, topped with American and a pile of curly-ass crispy-ass bacon, which was a textural playground for my tongue to frolic through. They serve it with a ramekin of spicy mayo I spread on the top bun and lettuce, tomato, and raw onion.

“Oh, they use Pat LaFrieda beef,” I noticed on the chalkboard menu behind the bar.

“Everyone around here does,” Anna informed me.

It was solid, not mind-blowing, a bit underseasoned, but a hefty patty. It’s definitely bacon-tastic. The curly pile of bacon beats the living shit out of any place laying a measly couple of slices on burger. It’s a good neighborhood option if you want a burger with your beer, but I wasn’t here for that.

No. 3 & 4: Hamburger and Cheeseburger at White Mana

White Mana ExteriorThe next morning, I took the L Train from Brooklyn to 6th Ave to take the PATH train to Jersey City to start the day’s burger journey at White Mana, a prefabricated UFO-shaped diner built in 1939 for the World’s Fair before the building was moved in its entirety to its current location in 1946.

Minneapolitans can take note that prefabricating burger joints used to be a common practice, which is how we got that White Castle at 33rd & Lyndale.

When I arrived, the place was deserted, which was fine because I wanted to sit at the counter to watch the magic. Plus I’d be taking weirdo pictures.

“Sliders” nowadays refer to any small burger or tiny sandwich on a bun, but originally it was a process created by White Castle and imitated by many places like White Mana to cook burgers efficiently. There aren’t many places left that make them this way, mostly in northern New Jersey and Detroit, MI.

White Mana processI ordered a hamburger and a cheeseburger and the guy smooshed two tiny lumps of beef on top of onions on the griddle and placed a bottom bun, then a top bun on top of each to steam the bread. When it’s all done, in a matter of a couple of minutes, the top buns were lifted off, the patty-and-bottom-buns were flipped onto a paper plate and the tops were replaced into the common burger assemblage. Throw some pickles on the side, and “here you go, buddy.”

White Mana burgersMy only point of reference is obviously White Castle, and they definitely tasted similar. The onion really makes that flavor distinct to a slider. The top bun wasn’t far past room temperature and hadn’t softened at all. Its inclusion in the cooking process was pointless. Otherwise, they were simple and flavorful. I put the pickles on, squirted some ketchup on my plate to dip, and really enjoyed them. Getting out there is a pain; the Jersey City bus system is a headache. I liked it, and at $1.12 for a hamburger and 10 cents more for cheese, the novelty is more than worth it, but at the end of the day, whatever White Castle is doing now tastes pretty much the same without the top bun issue.

No. 4.5: Spicy Chicken Sandwich at Fuku

Fuku Spicy Chicken SandwichI took the PATH back to Manhattan and got on the L back to the East Village to hit up the Momofuku Noodle Bar for a bowl of their famous ramen. I magically showed up at a golden moment when there wasn’t a line, and got a seat at the bar, quickly ordered, ate, and squeezed out past the amassed masses outside to head a couple of doors down to Momofuku’s fried chicken sandwich joint, Fuku, in Noodle Bar’s original location.

The chicken sandwich is all thigh, brined with habañero peppers, breaded in a batter that stays impossibly crispy throughout its consumption on a Martin’s Potato Roll slathered in mayo with a few slices of pickled cucumber. It’s really really good, and I’m not surprised that New York’s been going nuts for them.

It’s only kind of a burger, though. It’s on a bun, but there’s no ground patty. But I ate one, and this is my blog and you can’t tell me what to do. Who cares? It’s good, go eat one.

To be continued tomorrow with my further burgventures in the East Village, here