Could anyone have guessed that a burger from Oklahoma would be one of the most talked-about dishes of the year? Burger fanatics will say it’s been a long time coming, but for most of us, the first time we said the words “double Oklahoma fried onion burger” was earlier this winter. Hamburger America, a retro burger shop, wedged the word into our vocabulary when it opened in Soho in November. Now it’s on its way to becoming a household name.
The burger is made by pulverizing one or more beef patties on a flat-top grill, piling on shaved onions, and turning them over to wallow in their fat. You can have one with pickles and American cheese, for a faithful recreation — or flip off the purists by adding pickled jalapenos and ghost pepper ranch.
That’s the approach at Gotham Burger Social Club, a new burger shop that opens today on the Lower East Side. Unlike Hamburger America, which has its nose in the history books, these are burgers for the modern age. In addition to onions, they come with jalapenos, bread and butter pickles, mustard, ketchup, and burger sauce. If you want, you can have one with an Aperol Spritz or a “chopped cheese” taco on the side.
Mike Puma, the restaurant’s owner, opened the restaurant (131 Essex Street, at Rivington Street) to make his burgers easier to get. For the last six years, he’s carted a portable grill around lower Manhattan, serving burgers to fans who seem undeterred by cold weather or long lines.
The shortest someone has waited for one is a few minutes: the time it takes to caramelize beef and onions on a grill. But the longest is about three hours — when Gotham Burger Social Club popped up at a Lower East Side bar and went through two days of beef in an afternoon. (The second day of the pop-up was called off.)
“I wouldn’t wait three hours for a burger,” you’re probably thinking. But have you had one? To explain it without offering you one would be cruel and unusual, but I’m a Scorpio, at the end of the day.
The patty crunches, the cheese melts, the onions ooze, and the bun dissolves like a county fair cotton candy on a hot day. As if that wasn’t enough to call out of work and run to the Lower East Side right now, there’s the appearance: bright red ketchup, yellow mustard, a brown bun and its charred center, cheese the color of no naturally occurring substance, and a burger sauce that looks like last week’s sunset. The rest is black: what onions and beef become when they’re pushed to the brink of burning on a 450° flat-top grill.
For years, Puma has made burgers matching that description and served them to customers in paper trays. That’s still the case at the new restaurant, but now there’s a place to sit down. The space, which looks like a Western saloon, as ChatGPT might imagine one, has 40 seats between high-tops, counters, and booths.
The menu has grown, too. In addition to the burger, there are loaded tater tots, onion rings, fried pickles, and hot dogs. The restaurant also has a small bar that dispenses chocolate egg creams and $11 wines.
The most coveted seats in the house will almost certainly be the handful of stools by the front door. They’re arranged in a line at a counter that almost puts you in the splash zone of the grease-slicked grill. Sitting here offers some insight into how the burgers are made. If you end up there, watch closely.
This one’s not in the history books.
Gotham Burger Social Club is open Monday to Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to midnight.