The egg sandwich is a utilitarian affair at most bodegas. Someone cracks open a few eggs, cooks them on a griddle with cheese, places them on roll, and says “thanks, boss.” But at Golden Diner in Manhattan’s Two Bridges, things proceed with more finesse.
Here’s what I witnessed last week at the Asian-accented spot: Cook No. 1 scrambles the eggs with a spatula. Cook No. 2 drops a hash brown into a fryer — a hamburger-sized potato cake whose interior has been rinsed three times, brined in salt and vinegar, shredded, and steamed. The same cook then splits a sweet Chinese scallion milk bun. Cook No. 1 tilts the pan and spills the eggs all over the bun.
The first cook, who happens to be chef Samuel Yoo, places his hand a foot above the hash brown and showers it with fleur de sel. He anoints the egg sandwich with the fat potato cake, and, like at a tasting menu spot, reaches across the counter to serve it personally. This gastronomic ballet, while not quite the dance of six chefs using tweezers to perform open heart surgery on a sweetbread, is now complete.
The eggs drip down the edges of the bun as if it were an ice cream cone. The curds wake up the palate with the tang of processed cheese and the smoke of bacon fat. The hash brown provides crunch and, thanks to its wild temperature, an insane level of heat as it slides down your esophagus. It acts like an edible heating pack for the entire sandwich, whose calorie count would likely qualify it as large-format.
Golden Diner is good. As the restaurant prepares to open for dinner later in August — when it will debut X’ian-style spiced lamb gyros — the stellar lunch and breakfast continue to serve as an impressive forum for the multitudinous talents of Yoo.
The space has all the trappings of a typical diner, from its soda fountain stools, to its sweet (matcha) coffee cakes in plastic displays, to its generic white counter. But even though bar dining is a requisite part of the genre, the precision cooking recalls a fancy chef’s table spot like Momofuku Ko, where Yoo once worked.
Rarely does a chef at any venue, cheap or expensive, care for their burgers with such dedication. Yoo makes his one at a time, sticking a metal skewer into the center and then pressing it against his lip to gauge the temperature. When done, he lets the meat rest for so long on a scallion roll — the same one used for the egg sando — that you might wonder whether he forgot about it. Rest assured, he did not forget.
Most restaurant patties nowadays exhibit a type of aggravating uniformity; they are too expensive, too large, too luxuriously soft, and too obsessed with performative aging or sourcing — the burger equivalent of RAM on a new MacBook. Yoo’s $18 version (with fries) is more easygoing, more like Shake Shack. The blend of chuck and brisket boasts such a deep griddle char that the exterior seems to crunch like an expertly-singed creme brulee. Its flavor is unequivocally beefy at first, followed by notes of spiciness and earthiness, thanks to a mushroom gochujang aioli.
The traditional diner might be a thinning breed, but a handful of younger operators aren’t wasting any time to jump in and revive the form. One thinks of MeMe’s, which blends a midcentury aesthetic with a modern inclusivity ethos, and Gertie, a cross between a New York diner and an airy, toast-forward West Coast cafe.
Yoo’s contribution — aside from the rigorous cooking — is his smart internationalization of diner culture.
Make no mistake, this class of culinary establishment has long been known for its global eclecticism. It’s not uncommon for a self-respecting Greek diner to serve solid chicken teriyaki alongside spanakopita. A pierogi-slinging Ukrainian diner might very well serve a deluxe gyro or eggs benedict. Golden Diner, in turn, hawks the de rigueur all-day omelets and matzo ball soup, but Yoo’s menu specifically moves the diner conversation forward with odes to Korea, Southeast Asia, and Japan.
Take the avocado toast: In a city where this dish is increasingly uniform, you could close your eyes and know that this is Yoo’s. He laces the fruit, smeared thick on crunchy sourdough, with an Indonesian-leaning blend of lemongrass, galangal, Thai basil, fresh turmeric, and the sugary soy sauce known as kecap manis. The forest’s worth of herbs and roots impart the avo with powerfully floral aromas.
As for the modern staple that is a grain bowl, Yoo employs the format to riff on Korean bibimbap. Atop plump barley he lies a rainbow’s worth of fairytale eggplant, shishitos, pickled cauliflower, daikon radish, pickled green tomato, and a white nectarine sliced with more care than some sushi chefs use to butcher expensive tuna belly. The resulting salad, laced with miso-sesame dressing, sports enough crunch, sugar, and starch to fuel any able-bodied content-producer through a day of blogging for just $15.
An all-day breakfast burrito, incidentally, equals the egg sandwich in its glory. The hash browns are crispier here, acting as a foil to the soft flour tortilla and slithery, cheese-laden eggs.
But really, the king of Golden Diner is the vegan sub, a reason as good as any to cross borough lines. A mix of oregano, garlic confit, lettuce, and tomatoes, and red wine vinegar give the creation a flavor profile that’s decidedly Italian hero. The sandwich, however, also boasts certain banh mi sensibilities, from its vivid levels of acidity, to its marinated carrots, to its incendiary pickled chiles. And instead of saline deli meats, Yoo deploys blowtorched yuba. The tofu skin packs the gentle smokiness of charcoal-grilled chicken thigh and the pleasant chew of thick-cut prosciutto. Each flavor comes through with savory, meaty (yet meat-free) clarity.
Is the acid a bit much? After about four bites, Yoo looks over and tells me he forgot to add avocado ($2 extra) to the hero. He asks if he could fix it. I’m like, lolz, sure? (The required attention to detail of food criticism notwithstanding, a missing avocado is as pressing to me as a cherry left out of a Manhattan). He takes my plate, cuts the fruit into pretty fans, and carefully inserting it into the uneaten and eaten parts of the sandwich.
How long did it take? Probably long enough to get him fired from any deli during the lunchtime rush. And yet the avocado wasn’t so much a gratuitous “egg on top of a burger,” but rather a vital force in taming the unbridled tartness. It easily ranks with a pastrami on rye as one of the city’s great sandwiches. The New York diner lives on.