Hi, my name is Devra, and until last month, I was a New York City burger virgin. I've lived here for more than a decade, almost half of that as a food writer, and in all that time, ordered a grand total of one beef burger. They just aren't part of my repertoire. Sure, I've had them, but they're not a go-to order for me when I'm in a restaurant. And as for fast food, I grew up with in a family fiercely opposed to it. I've never tasted a Big Mac, a Whopper, or anything from White Castle.
It didn't help that I was a vegetarian from the middle of high school up until I was offered a piece of prosciutto while studying abroad in Italy during college. Even when I started to eat meat again, burger cravings never arose. I had no longing for a disc of beef, no matter how well it was prepared or what it was topped with. I heard stories of the Minetta Black Label, classic burgers in ancient New York pubs, and of course the burgers from that shack in Madison Square Park, but was never tempted. When other food writers would debate Shake Shack vs. In-N-Out or which patty in the city offers the best custom Pat LaFrieda blend, I simply stayed silent. I felt so far behind the curve, I didn't know how to recover. Things only got worse with time — my burger virginity became my deep, dark, food secret, that I kept tucked away.
But you can only keep a secret for so long. Recently, I came clean to my Eater colleagues. Jokes about revoking my food-person credentials on the spot were batted around, but eventually they settled on a fair penance: I'd have to eat New York's most important burgers — or at least, a bunch of them. So, over the past month, I ate my way through five representative samples, chosen for me by Eater's resident burger expert Nick Solares, with vocal input from the rest of the New York team. This week, I'll share what it was like to eat these quintessential burgers for the first time. First up, the Shack Burger. My initiation rite.
SHAKE SHACK: THE SHACK BURGER
It's noon on a blustery spring day in Downtown Brooklyn and I'm getting stares from Shake Shack staff as I sit typing away on my computer waiting for my dining companion. Eater's features editor Helen Rosner has agreed to be my guide through this rite of passage and I'm thankful for it. I'm genuinely nervous: Eating anything resembling fast food still feels forbidden to me. Worse, I am anxious about whether I will like the Shack Burger — it seems almost a requirement for young food writers in this city. Once Helen arrives, we order three burgers (a plain cheeseburger, a Shack Burger, and a Double Shack Burger), a side of cheese covered crinkle cut fries, and two Arnold Palmers.
Helen wants to document my very first Shake Shack bite. The moment feels loaded. I pick up the Shack Burger and delicately wiggle it out of its wrapping and take a bite, getting crispy but juicy meat, melted cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, Shack Sauce, and a sweet bun all at once. The patty is intensely rich and salty. I dive in for another bite, hunting for the crispy edges of the burger and realizing that one of the glories of this burger is that they are actually all around, even hiding under the blanket of melted American cheese. The Shack Sauce's mayo base makes the burger experience even richer, with its slight kick of mustard offering a nice contrast. The squishy and sweet Martin's bun cradles the whole operation, keeping everything, except one runaway tomato slice, in place.
I keep going back for more, but mid-way through our lunch, my fingers and mouth are covered in grease. Eating this burger feels somehow like an illicit act. I keep going, determined to prove myself. By the end of our long lunch, I've sampled (but not finished) all of the burgers. It's a relief. I've survived the initiation.
The Verdict: The first few bites are dreamy, but as I keep going through the patty, I'm overwhelmed by grease.
CORNER BISTRO: THE BISTRO BURGER
[Photo by Nick Solares]
Corner Bistro divides New York's burger fans. It's a love-it-or-hate-it thing, with die-hard fans of the giant patty and cheap price on one side, and critics who label it overhyped, and a poor copy of what the bar used to serve, on the other.
Midday on a Saturday the wait is just about 10 minutes, shorter than expected given that lines sometimes extend down the block. My friend and I are seated in a cozy church-pew booth in the tiny dining room where the no-frills menu is listed on a board on the wall.
Our burgers arrive quickly on plastic plates, divided into two stacks, one with the bottom bun, thick patty, cheese, and a few rashers of bacon, and the other with the top bun, a leaf of iceberg lettuce and a couple of slices of tomato. The Bistro Burger is a towering thing when assembled; it likely would have toppled over on its way to the table had the kitchen stacked it together. I spend a solid minute just staring at it, trying to figure out how to take a proper bite. Deciding it's a lost cause, I just go for it, getting only part of the bottom bun and patty. It's a disappointment. The hunk of meat is overcooked and under-seasoned. The brick of a patty is so densely packed that it requires serious chewing. There's nothing about this burger that melts on the tongue. I take another few bites and discover a piece of gristle, which feels like a bad omen. Then the bun falls apart. The crispy bacon on top is the saving grace. But that feels like a cheat — bacon makes almost everything taste better.
The Verdict: Around us are tables of tourists with guidebooks out. I sit there feeling slightly embarrassed. I want to go to their tables and tell them: New York is better than this.
Check back later this week for the second installment, when the Burger Virgin takes on Minetta Tavern, P.J. Clarke's, and Joe Jr.