Welcome to Burger Time, the burger-centric column by Eater's resident carnivore Nick Solares. This week he checks out the lunch time only burger at Peter Luger.
Do not order the cheeseburger at Peter Luger Steak House. Don’t order the hamburger either, at least if it is your first time, or your tenth. Peter Luger has always been, and will always be, about the porterhouse steak. A dish that the restaurant has firmly cemented as the cornerstone in the cultural edifice that is the NYC steakhouse. The method of preparation and service Luger pioneered — broiled and sliced and broiled again, served on a sizzling platter full of beef juice and butter — has been often mimicked but never equalled. And although the restaurant has been in business since 1887 the burger has only been on the menu since around 1995. According to David Berson, one of the fourth generation owners of Peter Luger, the exact genesis of the burger is somewhat murky. Berson surmises it was likely added due to demand from regulars, perhaps in the same way that the now ubiquitous thick-cut bacon appetizer became a menu staple — a customer spotted a staff member eating family meal and requested the same dish. Of course, chopped steak — one of the staples of the 19th century chophouse — existed on the menu at Peter Luger since time immemorial, so adding a bun was not a huge leap.
Like much else at the restaurant, everything is done in analog. Peter Luger doesn’t really operate like a 21st century restaurant — it barely operates as an early 20th century one. There are no fancy computer management systems. The reservation book is a giant calendar penned by hand. And the aging of the beef, and indeed blending of the burger, are done by the feel and experience of Peter Luger’s star butchers, rather than following a strict formula or recipe. The restaurant could likely run without electricity, although it would have to revert back to cash only. (Peter Luger added debit card machines a few years back; the only credit card they accept remains their own.)
The Peter Luger burger is made primarily of prime grade chuck, the foundation of any great patty, buttressed with the dry aged trimmings from the short loins from which the restaurant's iconic porterhouses are fabricated. "We don’t disclose the breakdown of the burger," says Berson when queried on the fat-to-lean percentage or the quantity of the dry aged component. I would say that the burger is at least 25 percent fat to 75 percent lean, given how juicy it is. And commendably, almost all of it remains in the burger, rather than spilling out onto the plate. This is the sign of proper chopping technique and the reason to use prime beef. Because of the abundant marbling, you don’t need to add extra fat, which is prone to leach out more easily. The patties are formed into eight ounce portions and are cooked in a dedicated broiler of the same type that sears the steaks at 800°. Personally I prefer a flattop method of preparation because you can generally get a better sear. The burger broiler seems calibrated to turn out a perfectly cooked medium rare burger. A rare burger will not have quite the level of external char I like. It makes sense, since medium rare is by far the most the most popular order. But I think this beef is so marvelous that it deserves to be cooked rare. And unlike more than one steakhouse burger I have had, even a rare order will be warmed through, while maintaining a glorious claret hue. Cool raw beef is desirable in steak tartare, and completely disheartening in a hamburger.
The sesame spangled bun is sourced from a local bakery, who also produce the fabled onion rolls and other assorted breads served at the restaurant. The bun is what Berson describes as "sturdier than usual," designed to accommodate the buxom patty and not disintegrate completely. While the burger with the crown on looks almost comically bulbous, the bun compresses easily without falling apart and still holds the patty snuggly. The most popular order at Peter Luger is a cheeseburger — American cheese being the only option for an extra $1.50 over the hamburger's $14.95 price tag. I am here to tell you to skip the cheese entirely. The cheeseburger is excellent by any measure, but it pales compared to the elegant purity of the hamburger. While I am a staunch advocate for American as the ideal cheese on a burger, the beef here is simply too lush and flavorful to require it. In fact the cheese serves to obscure much of the gentle gaminess inherent in the dry aged component.
A slice of the aforementioned thick slab bacon is also available for an additional $4.50 but does nothing to improve the burger; it is far too thick to eat in the burger itself and in any case the beef already has the perfect balance of salt and fat. The fries on the other hand are well worth the $3.95 supplemental charge. They are some of the best in the city: thick cut, golden, with plenty of fluffiness to contrast with the external crispness. They resemble British chips and similarly cooked in beef fat, as was the traditional method of preparation for much of that nations history. That’s right, even the fries are beefy at Peter Luger. If you haven’t eaten at Peter Luger before I would encourage you to go for the steak on your first visit. The burger is really intended for regulars and Berson notes that tourists almost never order them. When asked if he considers changing the burger, Berson demurs: "People make all these hight brow burgers with caramelized onions, bacon marmalade, and a cheese whose name I can’t pronounce. That’s not what we are about. We are about simple goodness." Like the porterhouse steak, and the dining room itself, there is a stripped down purity to the Peter Luger burger that perfectly embodies the essence of the experience I am after.
Eater Video: How New York's Peter Luger Chooses Its Steak