The Burger Lives
Published: April 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
In haute dining rooms and in dives, there's a hamburger revival across America. A ravenous <b>Peter Jon Lindberg</b> compares the New York and L.A. versions of a classic
The hamburger turned 100 this year. Or 110, or 127, depending on whom—or where—you ask. By most accounts, the burger made its official debut at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, though there are competing claims from places as far-flung as Texas, Connecticut, and Wisconsin. Some 19th-century cooks slapped a meatball on bread or served steak as a sandwich and were later credited with pioneering the form.
Whatever its true origin, the hamburger was a 20th-century phenomenon. It's no coincidence that the rise of the burger paralleled that of the automobile: both satisfied a national craving for fast, easy, and cheap thrills. Indeed, the burger was designed for instant gratification. Every ingredient can be sampled in a bite, and it demands nothing but an appetite—no forks, knives, or table manners required. Americans now consume some 14 billion hamburgers a year, but the vast majority are hardly worth calling burgers, let alone eating.
Take heart. The hamburger has entered a new golden age. Ambitious burger joints are emphasizing fresh produce and high-grade beef. Meanwhile, chefs at upmarket restaurants are embracing the original comfort food and creating wild variations. Craving foie gras?Aged Gruyère?Kobe beef?The burger can accommodate you.
Every American city has a handful of worthy burger joints, but as virtually every burger aficionado can tell you, Los Angeles has long held the title for quality across the board. Unless you're really slumming, it's hard to find a bad burger in L.A. But what about the East Coast?New York has plenty of legendary burger meccas; lately it's been ratcheting up the competition with bold new contenders. I set out to compare New York's emerging stars with their famous counterparts in L.A., to see how each city stacks up on the bun.
An all-out burger war has consumed Manhattan, as contestants vie to create the city's most extravagant version. The first broadside was fired by chef Daniel Boulud at his power-lunchroom DB Bistro Moderne. Boulud tucked a lobe of foie gras inside a sirloin patty and laced it with preserved truffles, then charged $29 for the privilege of eating it. Despite its price tag, the DB Burger was a smash. A counterattack came from the Old Homestead Steak House, which conjured a $41 burger from Kobe-style beef. Forget that grinding Kobe into a burger is like mixing Glenmorangie with Tang, and never mind that the result is a slimy mess: the Kobe burger was also a hit. Now you find sticker-shock burgers all over town. Le Cirque 2000 even brought back the "slider" (remember White Castle?), serving two golf-ball-sized microburgers for $24.
Of the bourgeois burgers, only DB's is outstanding. It arrives sliced in two, like a showroom Lexus with its doors flung open—the better to ogle the interior. The pristine meat is cooked to an admirable minimum, still pink and sticky at the center. Inside lurks the glistening hunk of foie, swaddled by braised short ribs. Atop are a tangy tomato confit, a tingle of horseradish, shaved raw onions, and bitter frisée; it all sits on an onion-brioche-style roll flecked with Parmesan. And the fries... my God, the fries are extraordinary, served in a silver julep cup, and uncannily consistent, with a clean and fresh taste. Look around the room, all muted earth tones and velour banquettes, and watch the anchorman join the socialite and the hotel impresario for lunch. Everyone orders the burger.
Fancy-dress options were just the opening salvo. A down-market alternative came from Blue 9, a mod East Village spot that aims to restore dignity to fast food. The burger is cooked to order (NO HEAT WAVES OR MICROWAVES declares a sign on the wall); the beef is fresh, not frozen; and the toppings are above average. It's an overt homage to California's In-N-Out burger, down to the piquant Thousand Island dressing. Onions are fiery, not the pallid facsimiles you find at the big chains, and the lettuce is icy-crisp. An oozing slice of American cheese bonds the contraption. The result is a near-perfect equilibrium, wherein the thin beef patty is a role player, not the star of the show.
Burgers, some say, are best eaten in cars, or at least in parking lots. This poses a problem in New York, since nobody owns a car, and parking lots charge gazillions an hour. Shake Shack, a sleek new takeout stand in Madison Square Park, gives Manhattan an alternative to the drive-through. Restaurateur Danny Meyer made his name with Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern; here his young staff dishes out Chicago-style hot dogs, knockout crinkle-cut fries, and sublime, meaty burgers on chewy Martin's potato rolls, garnished with romaine and tomato and wrapped in wax paper. Pair it with a frozen-custard shake or a half-bottle of wine, find a patio chair, and pretend it's the hood of a Mustang.
Hidden behind a curtain off the opulent lobby of the Parker Méridien hotel is the cheekily low-profile Burger Joint. The rec-room interior—fake wood paneling, eighties movie posters—lends credibility, if not glamour. Most patrons have nothing to do with the hotel; they're simply after a five-buck charcoal-grilled cheeseburger that tastes of summer: singed by the flame, nicely juicy, and unapologetically sloppy with bubbling cheddar and dripping sauce. It's not pretty, but this is one of the better bargains in Midtown.
Pop Burger, a recent arrival in the red-hot Meatpacking District, may be the first fast-food stand-cum-model hangout. Owner Roy Liebenthal won over the beau monde with Café Tabac and Pop; here he's feeding their ids—and bulking up their negligible waistlines—with supremely addictive microburgers. Five bucks gets you a dainty pair, served on golden brioche rolls and topped with shredded lettuce, Russian dressing, tomato, and American cheese. The meat is somewhat dry but has a beefy kick. Giant fries are extra salty so they absorb more oil, making them blissfully crunchy, though hardly virtuous.
And what of the classics?New York's old-school burgers tend to be as brash and burly as the city itself: 18-ounce, nine-story behemoths. "Think you can take me?" they taunt. (L.A.'s, by contrast, are generally slim and user-friendly.) I've never been a fan of the type-A burgers at the celebrated Corner Bistro and Old Town Bar. The patties are simply too big, forfeiting balance. Serious beef is what some people are after, however, and if I'm feeling that way, I head for Peter Luger. This landmark Brooklyn steakhouse serves a splendid burger, at lunch only. It comes with steak fries, a slab of bacon thick as a magazine, and, inexplicably, a saucer of butter. The fries are terrible. But the smoky bacon is fantastic, and the half-pound burger, with only raw onions and marbled cheese, is ridiculously good, its pale-pink, medium-rare interior bursting with juice. This is essentially ground steak on a sesame bun, as rich and beefy as a porterhouse—and the best no-frills burger in town.
Angelenos didn't invent the burger, but they perfected it. The golden ratio of meat-to-bun-to-trimmings-to-sauce is met by even the humblest dives. And maybe the lettuce is always greener on the other side of the country, but L.A. toppings are invariably fresh and ripe.
Burger culture here transcends ethnic lines. Until recently, an ethereal hamburger could be had at a Thai restaurant in Silverlake (Thai-American Express Café closed last year, its burgers passing into legend). And now, a Korean-American chef named Sang Yoon has quietly created Westside's most dazzling hamburger. After heading the kitchen at industry favorite Michael's, Yoon took over Father's Office, a raucous singles bar in Santa Monica, replacing the usual tavern fare with delectable tapas such as jamón serrano and cured white anchovies. The terrific Office Burger blends dry-aged beef with Gruyère and Maytag blue cheese and comes dressed with spicy arugula and a marvelous compote of applewood-smoked bacon and caramelized onions. No substitutions are allowed, and don't ask for ketchup—Yoon has banned it from the premises.
If the love-it-or-leave-it Office Burger is too particular, relief awaits at the Counter, a build-your-own-burger place that opened last December. It's a stylish and inviting space, with walls of muted teal, navy banquettes, and votives in the window. You're issued a clipboard, a pencil, and a lengthy checklist: Choose from any of 9 cheeses, 17 sauces, and 26 toppings. Dried cranberries with ginger-soy glaze, or guacamole with roasted chiles?The daunted can opt for the ready-made Old School, with Tillamook cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and relish-spiked ketchup. It's an exceptional burger, perched on a soft eggy bun painted with butter. And you must have the Counter's fried dill-pickle chips, which put onion rings to shame.
At Tommy's, a 58-year-old shack near downtown L.A., the parking lot is filled with Mexican families in Econoline vans and suit-clad CPA's on lunch breaks. Why?Tommy's famous chiliburger. The pasty, beanless chile has a slow and powerful burn, a perfect complement to the well-done beef, the sulfurous zing of raw onions, tart pickles, and sugar-sweet tomato. And Tommy's crispy fries are marvelous, cooked to a rich golden hue. You'll devour all this at an ancient wooden counter that's carved with graffiti in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Russian.
Jay Coffin worked at Tommy's before opening his own stall in 1956, with the delightful name Jay's Jayburgers. From his perch on Santa Monica and Virgil, Jay has seen Silverlake morph from a scuzzy backwater into one of L.A.'s hippest enclaves. His chiliburger is well-seasoned with cumin and is neither as overloaded nor as moist as Tommy's. The thin patties are a shade gristly and very peppery, the bun dense and spongy. Tommy's has the superior burger, but I know Angelenos who would follow Jay into battle. A city that can claim both is blessed indeed.
And a city that also has the Apple Pan is just unfairly lucky. This beloved diner looks as it did upon opening in 1947—the same tartan wallpaper; the same antique cash register; the same counter of wood-grain Formica. It's the sort of place that still serves buttermilk by the glass. Open the screen door, greet the friendly counterman (silver hair, fifties horn-rims, paper hat), and line up for a stool. The burger is a saucy affair with a limited life span—grip it properly, or its layers will slide apart—but the flavor and texture are heavenly. A robust beef patty is topped with cool mayo, sour pickles, and a thick sheaf of iceberg lettuce, then sluiced with a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce (on the Hickoryburger) or a chile-and-cinnamon concoction (on the Steakburger). Top it with a slice of sharp Tillamook cheddar, and ensure that your napkin holder is full.
In L.A., even the fast-food chains earn top ratings from Zagat. Case in point: the glorious In-N-Out Burger, a family-owned chain with stores across California and the Southwest (but, alas, nowhere else). Every outpost is awash in ketchup reds, mustard yellows, and airbrushed hot-rod paintings. On the kitchen counter you glimpse actual potatoes, waiting to be sliced into fries. What you won't see is a single freezer or microwave. The trick to INO is learning the secret menu, which Californians have hard-wired into their brains. Instead of regular fries they'll ask for crisper "wellies" (the normal fries resemble mushy Durkee's potato sticks). They may take their burger "animal-style" (adding chopped, grilled onions, dill pickles, and a pool of mustard) or even "protein-style" (replacing the fresh-baked bun with a sturdy pocket of iceberg lettuce). Some elusive fifth element comes through in that magical combination of fresh produce, piquant relish, gooey cheese, and peppery beef.
INO's only legitimate rival is Fatburger, another West Coast chain with a commitment to fresh ingredients and a retro vibe. (Does your fast-food stand have a jukebox playing Charlie Parker and the Chi-Lites?) They'll grill or broil your burger "on the char"; "with everything" includes snappy pickles, chopped lettuce, sliced tomato, and grilled onions (hold the cloying relish for a cleaner taste). The one-third-pound patty can be ordered medium-well and will be rendered as such. Cooking and assembly takes a solid 15 minutes; a server will deliver it to your table. And whereas Big Macs and Whoppers have the consistency of angel food cake, biting into a Fatburger feels like eating meat and vegetables. Devotees also love the fries, cooked in canola oil, each the size of a Bic lighter.
And the best part?Fatburger is finally going nationwide, with outlets soon to open in the Midwest, Florida, and—manna from heaven—the New York area. At least that's one less reason for Manhattanites to cross the country.
PETER JON LINDBERG is an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure.
A great burger should be a study in contrasts, coaxing out the yin-yang of cool/warm, crispy/chewy, raw/cooked, savory/sweet, and dry/moist. A proper meat-to-bun ratio is crucial. Forgo establishments that proffer "burgers the size of your face"; giant patties rarely cook properly and overwhelm their casings. Equally vital is the patty-to-trimmings ratio. You need enough fresh lettuce to elicit crunch, enough tomato to sweeten the deal, enough onion to bring heat, and only enough sauce to lend flavor. Beef should never be frozen. (Fries, on the other hand, are often better if frozen first.) The meat should contain at least 20 percent fat, which provides flavor and moistness. Seasoned patties are fine, but quality beef can stand on its own. Whether done on the grill, on the griddle, or in the broiler, a burger should be cooked on high heat, seared outside yet still juicy within. (Few places are allowed to serve burgers medium-rare, though that's the ideal.) As for the other elements—American, cheddar, or Muenster cheese?Brioche, enriched white, or sesame bun?—well, those are entirely subjective.
Blue 9 ***1/2
out of ****
DOUBLE CHEESEBURGER $3.90
92 THIRD AVE.; 212/979-0053
Burger Joint ***
AT LE PARKER MÉRIDIEN HOTEL;
119 W. 56TH ST.; 212/245-5000
Le Cirque 2000 **
MINI-BURGERS (PAIR) $24
455 MADISON AVE.;
DB Bistro Moderne ****
"DB BURGER" $29
55 W. 44TH ST.; 212/391-2400
Peter Luger ****
CHEESEBURGER $7.95 (LUNCH ONLY)
178 BROADWAY, BROOKLYN
Pop Burger ***
MINI-BURGERS (PAIR) $5
58-60 NINTH AVE.;
Shake Shack ***
MADISON SQUARE PARK
Apple Pan ****
10801 W. PICO BLVD. 310/475-3585
The Counter ***
2901 OCEAN PARK BLVD., SANTA MONICA; 310/399-8383
7450 SANTA MONICA BLVD., WEST HOLLYWOOD; 57 OTHER LOCATIONS IN CALIFORNIA, THE SOUTHWESTERN U.S., AND FLORIDA; 323/436-0862
Father's Office ****
1018 MONTANA AVE., SANTA MONICA; 310/393-2337
7009 SUNSET BLVD., HOLLYWOOD; 185 LOCATIONS IN CALIFORNIA AND THE SOUTHWESTERN U.S. 800/786-1000;
Jay's Jayburgers ***
4481 SANTA MONICA BLVD., SILVERLAKE; 323/666-5204
2575 BEVERLY BLVD. 213/389-9060
THE WINNER Los Angeles remains the burger kingdom, despite a valiant effort by NYC newcomers. (New Yorkers: just wait for the pizza matchup.)