I love a great burger. Juicy, perfectly cooked medium rare prime beef oozing with flavor, layered with cheese, topped with ‘special sauce’ and sandwiched between a bun…this is when food takes me to my happy place. I will go out of my way for a great burger, alter my route to try a new burger place and I'll spend big bucks for the perfect burger. Apparently I am not alone. In 2012, Americans consumed 14 billion of hamburgers and the average American consumes 100 Burgers a year. I don’t think I come anywhere close to that. Although I wouldn’t mind trying. Today’s list is completely subjective, based on nothing more than my own burger experience and my research is on going. These burgers may be found outside the island of Manhattan but that’s where I’ve concentrated my list since that’s where I eat the bulk of my burgers. There’s a wide price range: 3.99 is my basement. My absolute favorite “Classic” Burger is 4.35. In Part 2, the Gourmet Burgers, most of my picks come in around $15.00 and the list tops out with an over the top burger at $32.00, but wait till you read what’s in it before balking
Part 1 of my list is based, sadly, on a burger I only get to eat a couple of times a year. Its is the In-N-Out burger created in Southern California and, for the moment, confined to 5 western states. The In-N-Out burger is nirvana to me. I like the thinness of the patties, which I always compensate for by ordering a double. I like the cheese, the lettuce and the bun. My son Alex is a bit leery of the chain, claiming he’s found hidden biblical verses on the wrapping paper. It is true the place has a highly religious family behind it. But their burgers are so blissful, I say onward Christian soldiers. As far back as 2010, I’ve found stories of the imminent arrival in New York of In-N-Out Burger. But apparently our particular Sodom and Gomorrah is not on their radar as yet. And when I am back in New York, and seeking a classic burger: Meat Patties, American Cheese, “Special Sauce”, Tomato and Lettuce, I hold all other up to In-N-Out’s high standards. There are plenty of contenders for the Best Burger Crown. They have nothing to with Burger King or Mickey D’s, both of whose meat is so questionable, they have been immediately disqualified. Please, who in this world imagines that you could make a decent hamburger part of a Dollar Meal? Universally, the places that do Burgers best concentrate on the meat.
If In-N-Out were to take on Manhattan, it would certainly heat up our overheated burger scene. One recent interloper, #5 Steak and Shake, arrived in January 2012 and parked itself next to the Ed Sullivan Theater home of the David Letterman Show (1695 Broadway between 53 rd and 54th Sts). Since Steak and Shake is Indiana based, the talk show host himself greeted their arrival on his show. Steak and Shake originally ground its own meat right in front of its customers. This was to reassure them of its quality. While that’s no longer done, the Steakburger is a classic thin single to triple burger with lettuce, pickle, onion and ketchup. It’s without question one of Manhattan’s great burger bargains. A triple burger with fries is $3.99, .59 more if you add American Cheese which you most certainly should. They also serve beer and wine and although the place is miniscule you can usually wedge yourself in somewhere while you eat.
#4 BRGR bases its burgers on Grass Fed Beef for which it makes all kinds of environmentally friendly and healthy eating claims. Grass fed beef is ‘lower in fat, cholesterol, calories and is heart-healthy…with as much Omega 3 as Salmon”. Who knew? Two locations hardly make it a chain but they’re certainly “fashionably” located. One is at 1026 Third Avenue across from Bloomingdale’s and the other is at 287
Seventh Avenue across from The Fashion Institute of Technology. In the interest of full disclosure, this is a real love it or hate it place. Moans about prices (Starting at $7.95 ) and service may have much to do with FIT student budgets and Bloomingdale’s “I want it Now” Shoppers. But Andrew and I both loved it. This is an incredibly juicy burger, made to order and simply delicious. The place gets extra marks for equipping every table with Sea Salt and Black Pepper Grinders, a nice touch.
This brings us to the largest burger joint in the entire country:
#3 Bill’s Bar and Burger’s at Rockefeller Center has 400 seats. But the first one I went to was downtown in the Meat Packing District. I stumbled upon the place and was taken with its retro charm. I was so enthusiastic that soon after I took Andrew down there, waxing about how this funky old bar sold hamburgers with press that was glowing. Andrew pointed out the whole
place was about as old as yesterday’s Times. In fact, Bill’s is owned by BR Guest, a New York restaurant conglomerate that operates 17 restaurants of wildly varying quality from fine dining to, well, Bill’s. A regular burger will set you back 8.25 at Bill’s—a beef patty on a soft sesame seeded bun with American Cheese. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. There are 12 other burgers on offer and 18 add-ons ranging from bacon to pico de galo.
Another Haute Burger Palace, #2 5 Napkin Burger, has grown to 3 locations in the city: 1 at 150 West 14th Street across from Union Square, 1 in Hell’s Kitchen at 639 Ninth Avenue at 46th Street and the original on the Upper West Side at 2315 Broadway at 84th St. This burger empire grew out of a single item on a an Upper West Side bistro menu. At Nice Matin, the original 5 Napkin burger was highly
descriptive. Now an empire is being built here offering 5 beef burgers, and five other burgers made of everything from Lamb to Tuna to Turkey and, of course, two Vegetarian options. The 5 Napkin menu is heretical to some because it’s packed with non-burger items—even a large selection of sushi maki rolls. It’s a great place to take your non burger obsessed friends when you want to indulge in the Original 5 Napkin Burger which has 10 ounces of fresh ground beef, American cheese, , rosemary aioli on a soft white roll. With hand cut fries, it comes in at $15.95. And while it’s a stretch to say it’s really close to In-N-Out’s burger, it’s a sentimental favorite of mine.
But the burger that’s closest to my In-N-Out favorite is, without question, the one at Danny Meyer’s #1 Shake Shack. There are now 6 Shake Shacks in Manhattan from one in back of the Museum of Natural History (366 Columbus Avenue at 77th St.) to the original, which is outdoors and, for obvious reasons seasonal, in Madison Square Park. Worldwide there are now over 20 Shake Shacks. Dubai has 3. There’s a rumor that one is going in next to the Apple Store on Broadway. This would place a Shake Shack within 100 feet of my apartment and would spell complete disaster to my waistline. The Shackburger is the burger of choice here. Its premise is to be as simple a burger as possible. “It’s all about the burger meat” is the motto of the place. But I suggest it’s all about five things:
The bun is a toasted Martin’s Potato Roll, buttered and griddled. Good Old American Cheese tops the ShackBurger. It’s creamy salty taste is selected for its melting properties. The cheese is sourced in Wisconsin, which, as any school kid who can read a license plate knows, is America’s Dairyland. The patty was created by New York’s Master of Meat, Pat LaFrieda. It’s a blend whose contents are guarded like the recipe for Coca Cola. Seasoned with salt and pepper, it’s smashed on a griddle to create a crust that contrasts with the juicy inside of the meat. Finally there’s the ShackBurgers signature sauce. This one starts with homemade mayonnaise. The add-ins (which of course are deep dark secret ingredients ) are chosen to add sweet, bitter, salty, smoky and spicy notes to the mix, all to enhance the flavor of the meat. Shake Shake’s toppings round out the five ingredients. They get high marks for their green leaf lettuce and slices of Roma tomato. Customers can feel free to add pickles or onions because as the Shake Shack spokesman says: “People have strong feelings about the way they want their burger”.
And what they want can be very different as you’ll read in Part Two, coming Thursday.