Baxter Street between Canal and Bayard still feels like NYC. That is something that is becoming increasingly less common downtown, as national chains continue to expand and as old buildings are swept aside and replaced with gleaming edifices. Baxter Street contains a jumble of small, unique businesses jammed chockablock into old tenement houses, representing different aspects of the city’s rich cultural tapestry — and quite possibly the future of the hamburger as well.
On Baxter Street, in the shadow of the court building and above the "tombs" where the freshly incarcerated spend their first night, sits a quirky little restaurant called Breakroom. Occupying a postage stamp sized space between a bail bond office and an acupuncturist, Breakroom reminds me of Crif Dog in the East Village, both in terms of its chaotic interior design (right down to the lack of a bathroom) and menu choices. It feels designed by and for the intoxicated. Indeed one would expect a place like Breakroom to reside in the East Village or perhaps Williamsburg. That it is situated in Chinatown makes it more appealing because it both provides a genuine alternative to most anything in the neighborhood and has clearly been influenced by what surrounds it.
There are two burgers on the Breakroom menu. The "original" contains a six-ounce patty from Pat LaFrieda, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles on a bun from the beloved Parisi Bakery in neighboring Little Italy. The problem with this burger is that the beef-to-bun ratio is way off. The fluffy, voluminous bun is just too much for the svelte patty. Enter the "Breakroom burger" — it adds confit pork belly, jalapeños, tempura onion rings, and a fried egg to the original, filling out the bun and sending the height of the burger skyward.
Indeed the Breakroom burger is far taller than it is wide, thumbing its nose at both tradition but also at the mechanical properties of the human jaw. Compressing the sandwich is required unless you want to nibble away at the exterior, whittling it down like a rodent. But you aren’t a burger rat, you are a human being, so you will need to exert a little force with your opposing digits and squish the thing down. Compressing the Breakroom burger has the bombastic effect of sending the perfectly cooked egg’s yolk spewing outwards and jumbling the other toppings into a tangle. The bun does a great job of holding everything else together, but you will be hard pressed to get all the components in a single bite, which is at least notionally important to many burger aficionados.
A traditional burger is largely a savory affair — salty, beefy, with hints of sweetness from ketchup or some special sauce variant. But the burgers and other menu items at Breakroom are all over the place, veering wildly between sweet and spicy. The beef, for example, is heavily seasoned with a fiery spice blend — think adobo with a chipotle kick. But the bun is on the sweet side and the "special sauce" — lashings of which are applied to most everything on the menu — is a combination of both sweetness and spiciness.
The patty was ordered and delivered medium rare and came with an impressively seared crust. But the beef was over worked, as if the patty was compressed ahead of cooking, resulting in a tightly bound affair. And the spice blend tended to obscure the essential flavor of the beef itself. But in total with the creaminess from the egg, the salty punch of pork belly and crunch from the onion ring, the Breakroom burger offers a particular form of satisfaction. What it lacks in simplicity, it counters with a volley of heat and sweetness, bordering on sensory overload.
The Breakroom burger isn’t a fusion sandwich per se — the flavor profiles and ingredients it adds aren’t definable in terms of a particular non-American cuisine. Rather it represents a synthesis of several modern food tropes — hamburgers, pork belly, hot sauce, and runny fried eggs. Tangentially, Breakroom owes something to David Chang’s Momofuku in that it plays fast and loose with the traditional vision of comfort foods as purely lumpen. And it owes something to Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese in the technicolor application of heat and sweetness. But that is not to say that these are necessarily deliberate or conscious adjustments, rather they speak to the spirit of the age — or possibly a future age.
Breakroom is exactly the type of place that stands as bulwark against the encroachment of national chains into NYC, and the market standardization that results from disruptive companies like Shake Shack. How many places have adopted a griddle-cooked burger with American cheese on a Martin’s potato bun? Too may to name here, that’s for sure. And don’t get me wrong: I love Shake Shack and in fact prefer a Shackburger to anything I sampled at Breakroom. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive precisely because Breakroom breaks from tradition. And while Shack Shack's future seems fairly secure, I can’t help wondering if the hamburger of future generations won’t be closer to what Breakroom is selling than what we consider to be a "normal" burger these days.