During the past few months, four new burger restaurants have blossomed in adjacent downtown neighborhoods, including the East Village, Lower East Side, Nolita, and Greenwich Village. Each offered a pared-down menu emphasizing greasy burgers cooked to order in a manner that emulated working-class burger joints of long ago. All provided skinny fries, a narrow range of toppings, little seating, prices regarded as affordable, and in most cases, a vegetarian option. And all seemed calculated for franchising, making us wonder: Are they trying to duplicate Shake Shack’s success? Read on, burger lover.
Ice cream parlor Morgenstern’s recently added a hamburger counter to its storefront, which Silver Spurs once occupied. These burgers are not the humongous, partly steamed patties of its predecessor, but modest-size burgers in the Shake Shack mode, only tidier and more austere. Every element of the “all-American burger” ($11) has been carefully contrived: An ample seeded bun carefully browned on its interior surfaces, American cheese that melts as the burger is served, shredded lettuce, assertive vinegar pickles, and chopped raw onions — a classic combination of flavors.
Break off a piece of the beef patty and find it medium rare and full of beefy savor. But there was a problem: In keeping the interior pink, the exterior failed to achieve brownness — mine was lightly seared on one side and nearly raw on the other, like a cross between a burger and steak tartare. The garlic fries ($5) with swatches of skin adhering were good. Having an ice cream parlor and burger joint in the same space is an obvious asset, and boozy shakes and cocktails are part of the formula. 88 West Houston Street, at LaGuardia Place, Greenwich Village
Not yet two weeks old, Bronson’s Burgers is named, not after movie star Charles Bronson or rapper Action Bronson, but supposedly after a dog. It’s a project of Rivers & Hills Hospitality, the outfit behind Kimika and Wayla, though this place bears no resemblance to either. The burger dubbed “classic” ($12) is a compact affair, with a great bun that sits up high, and a relatively thick patty that’s been expertly cooked so that it’s darkly seared on both sides.
Trouble is, the meat lacks flavor. Two other defects plague it: The slice of cheddar sweats like a student taking a test, and the caramelized onions command too much attention, making each bite sweet. The fries ($3) are better than average, and don’t miss the root beer float ($5.50). 350 Mulberry Street, between Prince and Spring streets, Nolita
In the current era, the “smash burger” has become a thing, accomplished by doing what we were once told never to do: Press the spatula down on top of the patty until all the juices have been expelled, resulting in a thin dark patty that produces a slight crunch when bitten into. I dutifully tried three of the seven burgers offered, including one that featured blue cheese and bacon, mainly because the place received a glowing review in the New Yorker, in which the Maillard reaction was prominently mentioned. I found the patties inconsistently smashed, with some of the sides deeply browned, others gray and soppy.
Nevertheless, the double-patty “classic smashed” ($12) on a puffy potato roll with an orange sauce like thousand-island dressing, proved to be tasty if not truly delicious. The wobbly brown fries outclassed the burger and were the best I tried among all four burger joints; but the “smashed potatoes,” made with miniature skin-on spuds, were disappointingly bland. Alcoholic beverages may eventually be available, giving “Smashed” a new meaning. 177 Orchard Street, between Stanton and Houston streets, Lower East Side
7th Street Burger
7th Street Burger opened in early June in the space formerly occupied by Caracas Arepa Bar, a fixture of the East Village since 2003. Now brighter and airier, the white box of a place is operated by Jersey native Kevin Rezvani. He previously owned a small burger chain called Diesel & Duke in New Brunswick. The new place retains the chain’s extreme simplicity, with a menu so pared down it only includes four food items: a cheeseburger, a double cheeseburger, an Impossible cheeseburger, and fries.
The cheeseburger ($6) proved elegant in its unwavering simplicity, with a much larger ratio of meat to other ingredients than is usual, elevating beefiness almost to a religion. The beef brims with flavor and grease gloriously soaks the bun. Whether the bun is intentionally flattened by the grill cook or not, the squished bun further concentrates the flavors, with the supporting roles filled by lightly sauteed onions, yellow American cheese, and a sour-creamy sauce that tastes slightly of mustard. In its explosion of concentrated flavors, this burger is an absolute joy to eat.
The fries are kinda meh, with a light starch coating to imitate true brownness. This path of decent-but-undistinguished fries is one that Shake Shack also takes, but here the burger is actually a shade better than Shake Shack’s. Burger blasphemy? So be it. 91 East Seventh Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, East Village
Building a Better Burger
The reconfiguring of the city’s typical burger away from the lush, bulbous bistro variety that once held sway to a retro, fast-food model is typical of these times. Yes, the prices are lower, but the burgers are smaller, and most places charge separately for fries and other add-ons, side dishes, and drinks, which can inflate the price of a meal to nearly what a bistro burger, including fries, costs.
But there is one flaw in the new formula. While the ingredients are often distinguished, not enough attention has been devoted to grilling the meat patty, and some of those I tried were flaccid and poorly cooked. World-class searing takes times and effort and burger flipping is a high calling. Still, it’s exciting to have so many new burger choices, and these sorts of places are already popping up in other parts of town.