Back in 2008, I asked if the Joe Junior burger was the "the finest in New York." I concluded that it was not, but was "certainly one of the most honest and unpretentious—a burger that only aspires to feed the belly but ends up feeding the soul." I was right about the latter notion, the burger is nourishing on many levels. I now see that I was entirely wrong about its place in the pantheon of hamburgers. Joe Junior serves the best hamburger in NYC.
I know that sounds hyperbolic, especially because the burger at Joe Junior has not changed one iota in the ensuing years, while almost everything else has. But maybe that is exactly the point.
The burger world seems to be on overdrive these days. The Black Label burger debuted at Minetta Tavern in 2009, ushering in a new era of chef obsession with burgers. The use of dry aged beef has become prevalent now, and burger prices have steadily risen along with the cost of beef. Shake Shack has grown into an international chain, and become a publicly traded company. National concerns like Steak ’n’ Shake, Five Guys, and Burger Fi have landed in the city. And old-school classics like P. J. Clarke’s, Corner Bistro, and most recently J.G. Melon have branched out (or plan to), opening new outposts while diluting their uniqueness. Through all of this tumult of media obsession and internet fetishism (of which I am as guilty as any), throughout the dizzying expansion of chains and the rising fortunes of butchers, the Joe Junior burger remains staid and steady; the consumable manifestation of the spirit of a past age.
The Joe Junior burger ($5.50 plain, $9.30 deluxe, including tax) wasn’t designed by a chef, but rather by the collective conscious of the hamburger eating public and the diners that sprang up to serve them. It is born of an era when fresh food and good service were the hallmarks of hospitality, and when the local diner served as a unitary social institution. It has been said that a diner is a restaurant with no opinion. So when you roll into Joe Junior in your finest attire, or drunk, or high (or both, or all three) and scarf down a burger, the copious juices running down your sleeve, no one cares. There is a liberation to diner eating that one can find nowhere else.
But about the actual burger: The Joe Junior burger is a griddled, fresh beef chuck hamburger of approximately seven ounces. The beef is delivered daily by New England Meats, which also supplies Corner Bistro. It is served on a generic white bun, providing the perfect blank canvas for the masterpiece of meat and cheese to come. I only ever order a burger with American cheese, mostly because its a cheese that's made for a burger, but also because it has much higher salt content than other cheeses, and Joe Junior doesn’t generally salt before cooking. I also ask for them not to weigh down the burger with the "plancha," which tends to dry it out.
The griddled patty develops a densely charred, craggy crust, the color of the darkest mahogany. It is as accomplished as any I can recall, developing those roast meat flavors and evoking a steakhouse sear. But the patty, despite crust, remains jiggly and loose, as if there are torrents of liquids ready to gush out, which is indeed the case. The burger here is ridiculously juicy, spilling out all over the plate. It is also remarkably crumbly, falling apart easily in the hands and with the same effort required to tear the bun. And what of the taste? It tastes like fresh beef chuck, which is to say it tastes like hamburger. Perhaps not the hamburger of the fancy restaurant or boutique counter, nor that of the commodity fast food joint. But it is what the hamburger tasted like during much of the 20th century, nostalgia incarnate.
I now realize that what has disappointed me about the elaborate creations from both high minded chef and modern interpretations of the classic burger stand isn’t that they don’t make fascinating hamburgers; they surely do, but they lack the zen like simplicity of the Joe Junior cheeseburger. It has attained a level of aesthetic perfection that escapes more complex offerings. The beef-to-bun ratio is spot on. The cheese adds just the right amount of viscosity to the proceedings. The patty exhibits the same traits as a perfectly cooked steak: an aggressively seared crust yielding to a succulent and juicy core. It doesn’t need anything else. No special sauce, no extraneous toppings, nothing to distract from the trinity of cheese, beef, and bun. It is truly greater than the sum of its parts. It is the platonic ideal of what a diner burger should be. And maybe a diner burger, in this chained-out, rapidly changing world, is the platonic ideal of what any burger should be.
Joe Junior, 167 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10003