If the hamburger world has produced anything like a celebrity, it’s George Motz. Motz has appeared on TV shows, taught university classes, written books, and even made a film about hamburgers. Now, the Long Island native has brought his wealth of knowledge to bear by founding a new restaurant — in Soho of all places — with the same name as his 2004 film, Hamburger America. It opened a few days ago at 51 MacDougal Street, with the entrance around the corner on Houston Street.
The place is designed like an old-fashioned luncheonette — a Formica counter with yellow stools snuggling up to a flat-top griddle, where Motz himself has flipped burgers in the opening days. (It also has luncheonette hours of noon to 8 p.m. for now.) A solid figure with mutton-chop sideburns, a blue baseball cap, and an affable manner, he hovers over a lake of grease, into which he vigorously doles out scoops of ground beef, heaps of shaved onions, and slices of American cheese, pressing and pounding with a broad spatula etched with his likeness.
The menu is relatively brief, offering familiar lunch counter items, including sandwiches on white or whole wheat, grilled cheese, french fries, wedges of pie, coffee, lemonade, and chocolate chip cookies. But there can be no doubt hamburgers are the center of attention. Currently, two are available, the smash burger and the Motz burger.
The first is probably the best smash burger ($7.25) in the city, available with or without cheese at the same price. Why is it the best? The beef is scintillatingly fresh and seasoned; the (non brioche) bun is toasted; the crust is thick, and the diced onions are strewn underneath the patty, which don’t slip out the way sliced ones placed atop the patty often do. Motz’s obvious excitement adds to the finished product.
And one other thing: Rather than a gooey pink sauce of mayo and ketchup (the usual deplorable “secret sauce”), Hamburger America uses a modest smear of yellow mustard, sending the patty, frisbee-like, in a Whataburger direction.
The second burger now available carries his name: George Motz’s fried onion burger ($7.25). It is a riff on a type served in Oklahoma, in which the onions are smashed into the ball of ground beef, and the rendered grease caramelizes them to a deep brown. After the cheese is applied, it becomes a variable element of the amalgam, too, so that no two onion burgers are exactly alike. I tried two on consecutive days, and one had a damp oniony flavor like White Castle, while in the second, the onions became nearly indistinguishable from the beef, though adding sweetness. There are no condiments applied, and pickles are served on the side.
The restaurant teases that three burgers more are coming soon: an olive burger from Lansing, Michigan; the double-patty No. 5 from Keller’s in Dallas (a drive-in well known to me when I went to high school there); and a butter burger from Glendale, Wisconsin.
The most I can say about the fries ($4.25) is that they are adequate: McDonald’s-style sticks tasting of commercial vegetable oil, but nicely fried and crisp. The sandwiches are another story. The egg salad ($7) was perfection itself, with finely cubed egg and good thick mayo. No lettuce, no tomato, and better for it. You can have the bread toasted or not. The peanut butter and jelly ($5) is just what you used to get in your school lunchbox. There’s also a toasted cheese and a hot ham-and-swiss that the guy next to me was eating; it looked great.
Why does Motz bother with these non-burger sandwiches? It makes the place more lunch-counter-like, and offers an alternative for children, vegetarians, and those tired of hamburgers. There are other lunch-counter offerings, too. The beverage selection includes a chocolate egg cream, fresh squeezed lemonade, Miller High Life, iced tea and coffee, and coffee milk. For dessert, there’s key lime pie and chocolate chip cookies.
Cole slaw, onion rings, and milk shakes are three things entirely missing from Hamburger America. Motz needed to draw the line somewhere.