MINETTA TAVERN: BLACK LABEL BURGER
My burger guru Nick Solares urged me to eat the Black Label Burger last. He worried the intensity of flavor from the dry aged Pat LaFrieda beef would ruin me for all the other burgers. But with seats at Minetta Tavern hard to come by, I decided to try my luck on a rainy, cold evening, which I hoped would keep wait times down.
It's 9:30 p.m. and Minetta's dark bar room feels like a good place to take shelter. A friend and I find seats at the bar quickly. The Black Label burger arrives and by appearance, it is a simple semi-thick burger with a substantial crust, unadorned but for a domed brioche-like bun and a pile of caramelized onions. A leaf of Boston bibb lettuce and slices of tomato come on the side. There's no cheese, no bacon. This is a burger that wants to stand on its own. As I pick it up, the lofty bun squishes down to a manageable size for a big, but comfortable bite. The patty's crust from the griddle adds just a tiny bit of crunch to the bite. Inside, the meat is juicy, rich, and bit funky from the dry aging, but slightly less so than if it had been left as a whole traditional steak. I expected the juices to run, but the patty manages to hold them in.
Throughout the evening, we're attended to by a bartender who seems to be in charge of taking care of just four diners, including us. We're the youngest diners at the bar, but that fact is irrelevant. One of the pleasures of Minetta is that simply dining here makes you feel like part of New York's ruling class — and placing an order that brazenly asks a chef to chop up a perfectly good piece of steak only adds to that. The feeling is seductive. And, while the burger is undeniably delicious, I leave wondering whether it would have been just as good eaten in a parking lot. I fear not.
The Verdict: The Black Label is the perfect burger for those looking for a steak in burger form, or to feel like a member of New York's elite, even if it's just for the night.
P.J. CLARKE: THE CADILLAC BURGER
P.J. Clarke's reputation in the burger world is clear: This is one of the few places to go for a true O.G. New York burger. The bar and restaurant has been serving burgers since the 1930s, and in the 1950s jazz legend Nat King Cole dubbed its bacon cheeseburger "The Cadillac of Burgers," a moniker that stuck. There's history here and it's palpable the moment one walks into the bar or red-walled dining room with its gingham table cloths. It's not hokey or manufactured, it's honest.
As a friend and I wait for a table, downing our post work beers, I'm noticing the absence of hesitation around eating a burger, a far cry from when I started this quest. After a rough day, I'm even eager to sit down and have a burger, thinking it will sweep away my frustrations. We place our order with a waitress who is old enough to be a grandmother, and it's easy to imagine she has worked here since since was young.
The Cadillac arrives, stacked high, but there's a bit of an optical illusion happening on the plate. A ring of raw onion is hiding under the bottom bun like a booster seat. I leave it on the plate and take a bite. The slightly small patty is juicy and salty, the bacon crisp, and the tomato slice about what one expects from an April tomato. The meat is more delicately flavored than the other burgers I've tried so far, fatty, but not overwhelmingly so, and lacking the distinctive funk of the dry aged Black Label burger. Where the bacon was the saving grace of the Corner Bistro burger, it overshadows an otherwise nice patty here. I start to wish I had opted for a plain cheeseburger, but I don't dwell on that for long as the burger washes the day away.
The Verdict: Next time, I'll stick with a basic cheeseburger.
JOE JR.: CHEESEBURGER
When Nick insisted his local diner offers the best burger in the city, I was skeptical. Classic coffee shops/lunch counters hold a sacred place in the city's dining canon, but they rarely turn out noteworthy food. Nick agreed to meet me there to prove his claim.
The laminated menu is pages long, but Nick orders for me: a cheeseburger, medium rare, no plancha, and deluxe, which means fries, coleslaw, and a pickle come with it. The short order cook throws down a patty and covers it with a tin dome. I pass Nick a look. Steamed meat is often chewy and flavorless. I'm doubting him and he knows it.
Before we can dwell on it, the order comes up. This is a no frills burger, both top and bottom bun are lined with a slice of cheese and between them is simply the meat patty. I leave the pale tomato slice and lettuce leaf that look like a 1980's country club dinner garnish on the side and take my first bite. The burger is too hot, but I immediately want another taste, so I ignore the heat and go back again. The meat has been very gently hand-packed, so that it almost feels delicate and refined. It's perfectly juicy, salted, and leaking just a bit onto my fries. Meanwhile, the cheese lining manages to shield the slightly stale bun, keeping it dry and intact.
The Verdict: This is the simplest of all the burgers of the bunch, and by far my favorite. There's no bacon, sauce, or mound of caramelized onions for it to hide behind — it doesn't need to. Nick wasn't lying. Days later, I'm still thinking about this burger.
When I took on this assignment, eating five burgers was daunting. But somewhere along the quest, I started to understand the power of the right burger at the right moment — one cured a bad day, another helped coax a busy friend out for dinner, and another gave me hope for the future of coffee shops in this city. I don't know if I'll reach for another burger anytime soon, but I'm glad to know they are there, always waiting to be thrown on the griddle.