Welcome to Burger Time, the new burger-centric column by Eater's resident carnivore Nick Solares. This week he checks out the burger at Miller's Near & Far Burger & Bar on the Lower East Side.
The concept of terroir — that something tastes of the place that it comes from — originated with wine, but the term has seeped into the vernacular of the wider world of food. Terroir is what gives a wine or a cheese or a plum a place in time and space. And while the extension of the concept into whole dishes is tenuous, it does hold true in some cases — such as Neapolitan pizza or Scotch haggis. But can a hamburger have terroir? Is terroir even applicable in the modern age? Out of all of the comfort foods that hold currency these days — pizza, doughnuts, barbecue, hot dogs, tacos, mac and cheese — only the hamburger is truly modern, the rest are warmed over from a prior age. The hamburger is a 20th century post industrial object. Standardized, commoditized, instantly recognizable. Yet like the American project itself, it also reflects great breadth and diversity of form.
I would argue that in order for a hamburger to have terroir we need to broaden the meaning, making it yet more amorphous. The terroir of a hamburger is not of the land as much as it is of the process and effect of modern manufacturing and agriculture. Terroir in the traditional sense is implicitly rooted in a pre-industrial, local, agrarian culture. The modern world with its complex economic and agricultural systems, blessed with enormous bounty and means to cart it off to most anywhere, changes things. Ingredients from across the country can be as immediately available as local ones. Take the excellent signature hamburger at Lower East Side bar Miller’s Near & Far ($14, comes with fries) as an example: The beef is reared in Colorado and Missouri, slaughtered in Kansas and butchered and chopped in New Jersey, before being whisked into Manhattan to be cooked and served. The bun is baked in Pennsylvania but the wheat likely grown in the midwest. As are the potatoes used for the French fries. The lettuce and onion, depending on the time of year, can come from as far away as California.
Speaking of the Golden State, the burger at Miller’s N&F is obviously patterned on the southern California model, down to the very menu description — two all beef patties…special sauce, cheese, lettuce, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. A phrase that will be instantly recognizable to anyone even remotely plugged in to popular culture as the Big Mac jingle. Indeed, Chris Miller, chef and owner of Miller’s N&F, wanted to create a familiar but elevated version of the fast food burger. To this end he went bigger and better. While the Big Mac skirts by with a single sliver of yellow American the Miller’s burger has almost comical amounts of the white variant. It cascades down the face of the sandwich, undulating over the double patty stack like liquid magma, giving a creaminess and subtle tang to the experience.
It takes that much cheese to match the brawny, hearty nature of the beef, a short rib affair procured from ace butcher Pat LaFrieda. Instead of a single large burger, Miller went with two four-ounce patties because he wanted to increase the browned, crunchy surface area. But despite the svelteness of the patties, they retain a significant amount of juiciness, even when cooked to medium. Of course as the Big Mac has shown, this isn’t entirely necessary as the supporting cast of pickle, lettuce, onion, and most importantly gobs of special sauce add considerable moisture to the sandwich.
While the essential architecture of the burger at Miller’s is dictated by tradition, the flavor profile, despite retaining the essentials of the original, is considerably more profound. Miller is a trained chef, having attended the French Culinary Institute, and his goal was to "build layers of flavor and texture" into the burger. Hence the double patties to maximize the Maillard flavors. The homemade special sauce is laced with pickled ramps, and everything is aggressively seasoned with salt. It is all held together by a buttered and toasted Big Marty’s seeded bun, which is the ideal vessel for any burger north of seven ounces. It manages to contain the sandwich to the very last bite, becoming thoroughly impregnated with the copious juices from the beef, oodles of cheese, and lashings of special sauce.
Biting into the burger is immediately evocative of a fast food sandwich, but refinements such as the beef blend and the amped up special sauce elevate the burger considerably, without straying from the spirit of the form. There is nothing fancy here, except there is. It provides both a familiarity and something new all at once. There are other compelling burgers on the menu, such as a two cheeseburger meal ($12 comes with fries) and more interestingly a Bialy Brunch Burger ($16 comes with fries; available seven days a week) which uses a Kossar’s bialy that has an egg cooked in the hole and is served with a square lattice of bacon and cheddar atop the patty. But really you’ll want to eat the MN&F burger on your first visit, and in all likelihood subsequent ones as well. The Miller’s N&F burger lives up to its moniker. It is a triumph over geography, yet at once provides an experience that is inherently rooted in America.
Miller's Near & Far, 65 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002
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