Welcome to Burger Time, the column by Eater's resident carnivore Nick Solares. This week he finds out if the new JG Melon in Greenwich Village stacks up to the original.
"The first thing we had to get right was the hamburger," states co-owner Danny Abrams of the new Greenwich Village incarnation of J.G. Melon. It is a colossal understatement. The hamburger is actually the only thing they have to get right. Maybe the only thing they can get right. Well, that and having the distinctive green gingham table clothes and some melon effigies. Because, really, the only reason the original J.G. Melon is known anywhere outside of a three block radius of its East 73rd Street home is for the hamburger. It certainly isn’t for the gracious hospitality or wide selection of craft beers and cocktails; nor for the plush, comfortable confines, short wait times, and easy check out system. The staff there are notoriously gruff, the beer selection is domestic (in the pejorative and literal sense), the room is cramped and cash is the only accepted method of payment. You want at itemized receipt? Good luck with that. But all of that, while not part of the charm — because there is little — is mitigated by one of the city’s most iconic hamburgers served in one of its quintessential barrooms.
The hamburger in question is a plump and juicy, seven and a quarter ounce, griddle-cooked patty served with American cheese on a squishy white bun. It is in many ways the platonic ideal of a bar burger. No mess, no fuss, just meat and bread and cheese on a plate with pickles and onions on the side. The crown is left off of the patty exposing its craggy surface, the molten American cheese undulating over it in a viscous blanket. The patty comes impressively seared with dense, dark crust rife with the browned meat flavors of the Maillard reaction. The interior, while not as abundantly juicy as more modern burgers, is still pleasingly succulent, and texturally the patty is so loosely packed that you wonder if it was even formed into a patty before cooking. It is a burger I am eminently familiar with, having consumed it numerous times. A recent lunchtime visit reconfirmed its consistency and my admiration for it. My only real criticisms of it was that while delivered rare as ordered, there was perhaps a touch too much over-cooked meat between the interior and the crust. It was also completely unseasoned, unlike the staff who are rather salty. But those quibbles aside, it was still a wonderfully synergistic cheeseburger.
The downtown J.G. Melon is not owned by Jack O’Neill, who owns the original, but the name has been licensed to brothers Danny Abrams (The Mermaid Inn) and Steve Abrams (Magnolia Bakery), and partner Shaun Young, who managed the uptown Melon for 33 years before retiring a few years back (he was also a partner in the original). In order to replicate the burger downtown, the team went with the same Arnold bun, beef blend, and American cheese of the original. Even the griddles the burgers are cooked on are the same, although wisely they have doubled up on them, something that is not possible in the cramped kitchen of the original. The beef is sourced from Master Purveyors, one of the city’s top butchers who also supply beef to places like Peter Luger and Keens. The exact J.G. Melon blend is very hush hush. No one either at the restaurant nor at Master Purveyors is willing to divulge more information other than that it is made from fresh "Angus influenced" beef. Young is unequivocal about its importance: "We have always used Master Purveyors. The hamburger recipe they gave us is one of the reasons for the success of J.G. Melon." According to Mark Solasz of Master Purveyors, the blend was created by his father Sam Solasz back in 1972 when J.G. Melon first opened and has remained the same ever since. When asked about the prospects of expansion and his ability to keep up with demand, Mark Solasz is confident that he can and adds: "If they do great, then I am happy. But they are the ones turning on the electricity and preparing the hamburger. They should get the credit — we are happy to be the man behind the man."
Jumping on the 6 Train, a line whose color closely matches Melon’s iconic green, I trundled downtown to try the new version of the hamburger. I found it equally compelling as the uptown original: same mouthfeel, same flavor profile. But it does have one thing in its favor, and it is not inconsequential: It is aggressively seasoned with salt and pepper, highlighting the beefiness of the patty and adding a complexity absent in the original. The downtown version was also delivered rare as ordered and while it did not have the same band of over-cooked meat, the interior was rather cooler than one would hope for, doubtlessly a function of being such a new operation. Other than that, the food is at least as good, and probably a little better, than the uptown versions: the oft maligned cottage fries are crisper for example, and the desserts come form Magnolia Bakery.
But of course the food is only part of the story. It is true that the feel and vibe of the original Melon will be impossible to recreate. And to the UES regulars who fret that the new outpost will dilute the brand, I feel you: the same thing has happened to P.J. Clarke’s and Corner Bistro. On the other hand, since there is now absolutely no reason to trek uptown to the original if all you want is the burger (it is arguably better downtown because of the seasoning), that only leaves those that love Melon for other reasons to flock to the uptown. As for downtown, I can think of a lot worse things to befall the corner of Bleecker and Macdougal than one of the city’s best hamburgers.
Eater Video: Nick Solares' favorite cheeseburger