Many of my best dining experiences never make it to the page: If an eating establishment doesn’t merit a first look, dish of the week, is it still good?, point on a map, or paragraph in a feature story, it often disappears. Those fleeting encounters with restaurants are often the most enjoyable. Accordingly, I resolved to keep an informal diary reflecting my unvarnished daily experiences. Here’s the thirteenth installment and here’s the last edition.
The history of smash burgers goes back decades, when lunch counter and diner cooks, burning cigarettes hanging from their lips, smashed hamburger patties down hard on the griddle with their spatulas to hasten cooking. This resulted in a flatter and darker patty seared almost to crispness, adding flavor to ground beef that probably didn’t have much of it to begin with. A couple of years ago, that cooking style was revived, perhaps a reaction against the juicy, half-pound burgers being sold in bistros and Irish bars, but also as an acknowledgement of the growing popularity of Shake Shack, which was spreading the technique quite literally all over the world.
Eater NY has followed the gradual progress of smash burgers in the overheated realm of our burgerdom, and noticed the phenomenon as a recognizable fad, even as chains like Smashburger and 7th Street Burger thrived and expanded. And lately, as ingredients get more expensive, cheaper items like burgers become more popular — in fancy places (Crown Shy, reportedly, has a burger at the bar) and otherwise. So I decided to revisit a handful of places that had been holding their own to see if it’s still the case.
The other day I dropped by Smashed, a Lower East Side one-off that opened a West Village location not long ago. I ordered the single burger, which was modestly priced at $8, and came with onions, pickles, and American cheese. But among the city’s overhyped smash burgers in trendy neighborhoods, that’s just a start. These places all regale you with more expensive options. Running from $15 to $17, the menu at Smashed offers one, two, or three patties, and a plethora of possible extra toppings — one truffled model is priced at $28. Clearly, they don’t want you to order the minimum burger.
The patty in the burger was razor thin with little flesh that wasn’t part of the sear, in other words it was like a meat potato chip. It was wildly salty, suggesting that the sear is achieved by coating the griddle with salt, which extracts every last ounce of moisture while enhancing the sear. Even multiple gulps of water couldn’t dispel the saltiness. The fries were great, though. If this is where the smash burger phenomenon is headed, I can do without it. 516 Hudson Street, between 10th and Christopher streets, West Village
A better outcome
The next day I happened to be traipsing up Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City and passed by Petey’s Burger, one of a pair of homegrown Queens burger joints (the other in Astoria) founded in 2008. Back then, nobody called it a smash burger, but that is just what Petey’s was. The configuration of the burger is similar to Smashed, only the cheeseburger has lettuce and tomato in addition to onions, pickles, and a mayo-based sauce. Nothing about it is dry.
The stripped-down burger was priced at $6.25, and I gobbled it ferociously despite having a couple more places to hit that afternoon. This was something like my platonic ideal of a fast-food burger, the patty having plenty of meat on it, yet smashed and seared with a delicate hand so it was also a bit crusty. Two of these would make a magnificent meal. 46-46 Vernon Boulevard, at 46th Street, Long Island City
Can 7th Street maintain quality?
Two summers ago when 7th Street Burger opened in the site of a small former stuffed arepa carryout in the East Village, it caused a sensation. For one thing, the menu was of the most fundamental sort, selling only cheeseburgers, fries, and sucrose-bearing Mexican Cokes, something akin to the hamburger stands of long ago (or maybe the pre-Big Mac McDonald’s). The burgers handily outdid those at Shake Shake, by being sloppier, greasier, and more flavorful. And did the cook mangle the bun on purpose? Eventually a second location opened on MacDougal Street, and in the last year, nine new places have appeared or are in the process of appearing. This worried me.
Would the quality remain high with so many branches? And why are nearly all in Manhattan?
I needn’t have worried, because climbing the stairs out of the subway at 23rd and 7th, I was assailed by a familiar smell. And the place looked pretty much the same as the other two branches I’d visited: plain counter, disorganized-looking kitchen with a harried cook, and the same spare menu except for one hand-scrawled item of menu creep: a serving of fries dressed with the burger toppings. The burger ($6.50) tasted the same as I remembered it, only greasier, and the Impossible vegetarian version tasted the same, only more crumbly. (Yes, the way to make Impossible meat taste like meat is to torture it.)
Coke in old-fashioned bottles is still the drink of choice. There was a knot of guys out front who seemed to be part of the management team. Oblivious of eavesdroppers they discussed a new location they were scouting on South Street near the Seaport, and the minutiae of the milkshake machine they would install there. Well, that’s a menu escalation, but if the shake is as good as the burgers still are, I’m down with it. Please sell malts, too! 171 West 23rd Street, near 7th Avenue, Chelsea