Sunday, 20 May 2012

Burgerthon USA

Burgers, I've had few. While the veins of Twitter still continue to flow with the well rested juices of a burgeoning UK burger scene (those who are waning, think back to the previous landscape, punctuated by the odd, dessicated hockey puck and frozen chips) America remains the leader in the classic ground beef and bread combo.

That's not to say the best of our burgers can't stand head to head with our cousins over the pond, but coast to coast across America, from drive thrus to dive bars, gas stations to gastro pubs, a few bites of beefy pleasure in a bun is never too far away.

Of course, eating burgers wasn't the raison d'être of our Transatlantic trip, but with all the fine bovine comestibles on offer it would be rude not to sample a few on our way... 

Burger Joint, Le Parker Meridien, Manhattan
First stop after touching down at JFK, and finding we were too early to check in to our hotel, was Burger Joint; a 'secret' burger dive found hidden just off the lobby of the plush Le Parker Meridien Hotel. This is most probably the worst kept secret in New York the world, but despite its infamy it's still rated as one of the very best burgers in a burger-filled town. 

Slightly concerned that we wouldn't be able to find it, the queues of people snaking around the velvet ropes and past the reception somewhat gave the game away. Thankfully the line moved pretty quickly and we soon saw the iconic neon burger lighting the way.

Inside is pretty cramped and hectic. Graffiti and music posters adorn the wall and the air is thick with smoke from fat sizzling through the grill and the sound of tickets being called out. For the uninitiated a hand scrawled sign is displayed over the counter explaining the options available (hamburger, cheeseburger or cheeseburger (hold the burger)); levels of 'doneness' and different accoutrement. Ditherers beware; the bottom of the sign reads: 'be ready to order or else you go to the end of the line' and, succinctly:  'if you don't see it, we don't have it'.

While the Ewing staked out a table I ordered two cheeseburgers, medium rare, with the works. Despite the pretty dark photo it's clear to see from the charred meat just poking out of the juice-soaked bun that this was a keeper. It's a compact, but weighty, parcel; neat, and well constructed. The chunky patty was nicely cooked, a crispy, grilled exterior with a nicely bloody middle, and wasn't overwhelmed by the toppings.

Interior shot of the half eaten Burger Joint cheeseburger, awash on a sea of fries (note nicely pink centre). Despite its notoriety, our (hot, bedraggled and jet-lagged) visit to Burger joint was a very enjoyable one; the burgers are filling and tasty, the vibe is lively and the guys serving at the counter are good fun. At 25 bucks and some change for the two burgers, fries, root beer and a Coke, it isn't the cheapest deal in town, but it's certainly one of the more unique experiences. 

As the first burger on our long  journey it was a very decent, if unspectacular, beginning. I knew there was more to come.

Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien on Urbanspoon

Minetta Tavern, Greenwich Village, Manhattan
We arrived in a sleepy Greenwich Village early on a Sunday afternoon, the sunlight dappling through the trees on to the Minetta Tavern. Inside this little corner bistro was a different story; a rammed a raucous room of people chowing down pastries, eggs, cocktails and the now legendary Black Label Burger; creation of master butcher Pat LaFrieda (you can get the full story, and a little meat porn here).

First lets stop a moment to admire the sea life emerging from the Minetta bloody marys. Mine was a surf and turf mary, made with both oxtail broth and clam broth and served with a 'shrimp'. (Yes, I know that an American shrimp is what we would term a prawn, but this more resembled a sea monster and skimmed the bottom of the glass.) The Ewing had an oyster mary complete with oyster and cocktail onion 'pearl'. Although I found them a little too weak for my tastes, it was mostly forgiven with the spicy pickled green bean garnish.

The Black Label burger with caramelised onions; not much I can really add to this picture of perfection. The burger is made from a closely guarded blend of dry aged prime NY strip, skirt and brisket. The lengthy dry ageing gives the meat a rich funk, like a autumnal wood or a roll in the hay (literally as well as figuratively). This burger is one hot, hot mess.

Using prime cuts gives the burger a taste of a great steak in a bun. Usually I prefer my steak to have a little chew, but the blend of meat, basted in butter, manages to have softness of fillet with the flavour of rib eye. Quite wonderful.  The bun is a custom made, sesame topped and slightly sweet brioche, from Balthazar Bakery. It is baked the day before, and cut a while before assembly to let the bread harden slightly, making it perfect vehicle for the rich meat and onions. Much is made of the 26 buck price tag, but for this beauty in a bun it seems well worth every cent.

This is not an everyday burger, but nor would you want it to be; this is a juicy, beefy treat to be properly savoured. Just enough to leave you wanting a little more. (The chips are rather fine, too.)

Yes it was big, yes it was rich, but no burger can defeat the Ewing's wanton lust for pudding, especially if it contains chocolate. This beauty was a Bombe Glace au Chocolat; a frozen milk chocolate mousse with a malted chocolate anglaise. From the spoonful I was allowed I confirm it was very good.

Minetta Tavern on Urbanspoon

Shake Shack, Upper West Side, Mahattan
We were staying in Midtown, so initially I planned to squeeze in a stop at the Broadway branch of Danny Meyer's mini-chain, but then the Ewing got given free tickets to the Natural History Museum while out bird watching in Bryant Park (don't ask), and our plans changed. So after an afternoon in the butterfly house and examining whale bones and totem poles we ended up visiting the Upper West Side branch.

As well as beef burgers and hot dogs the Shack offers a vegetarian 'Shroom Burger, consisting of a portabello mushroom, stuffed with Muenster cheese breaded and fried (you can add it to a Shack Burger for a Shack Stack). Unfortunately I had left my elasticated trousers at home, so stuck to the classic shack burger and a couple of, St Louis inspired, frozen concrete custards.

After collecting our booty the weather was so good we crossed back past the Museum and over into the cool and leafy confines of Central Park, (getting many passing jealous looks from the joggers going round and round and round). And sat there, on a bench by the Turtle Lake overlooking Downtown Manhattan, I had a beefy epiphany.

A double Shack Burger; I'm in love. There are many time in life where the total doesn't quite manage to equal the sum of its parts. The Shack burger exceeds them. I know people may be getting bored with all the hyperbole praising meat on a bun, but if looking at this photo doesn't provoke a little stir of longing, then you're reading the wrong blog.

It was gooey and greasy in the best possible way; the thick cloak of American cheese swathing each smoky, crispy, grilled patty. The burger provides perfect proportions of meat, cheese, bread and salad, with the special 'Shack sauce' giving it a little extra zing. It was only after I got home and checked the website, that I realised the Shack burger comes sans onion and pickles as standard; normally I'm a believer in the old adage more is definitely more, but here the understated lettuce leaf and slice of juicy plum tomato was just enough.

The meat is, again La Frieda; a mixture of sirloin, brisket and short rib. The cheese mild and melty American, and a slightly sweet and squishy, butter toasted Martin's potato roll hold the whole-she bang together. This could well be my Holy Trinity of burger greatness.

Slightly melted ice cream concretes with slightly eaten Shack Burger. The concretes were good, like super flurries on steroids. We tried two Upper West side specials; the Shacky Road with chocolate ice cream, truffle cookie dough, marshmallows and almonds; and the Natural History 'crunchstellation' with vanilla ice cream, malt, Valrhona chocolate crunchies and chocolate toffee.

An awesome burger, with a very nice view to boot. Thinking about my Shake Shack lunch back in dear old Blighty still makes me a little wistful, and more than a little hungry. Absolutely worth the hype.

Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon

White Castle, 7th Avenue, Manhattan
The home of the original steamed slider and the Holy Grail of the intrepid duo Harold and Kumar (renamed H and K Get the Munchies for us uninitiated Brits). I am completely unashamed to say that Harold and Kumar go to White Castle remains one of my favourite films, and from the first time I saw it I knew I wanted to track a branch down and consume a sack of sliders and a pile of crinkle cut chips while in a triumphant and euphoric haze.

Of course the fantasy is often a little different from the reality, and being cramed in to the 7th Avenue branch, along with a few interesting characters under the influence of substances a little stronger than Kumar's doobies, was a little different to how I'd pictured this triumphant moment. The cleaner seemed particularly bemused at me photographing my slider meal. When the Ewing tried to explain 'she's very excited to be here' it only seemed to make things worse....)

Luckily the taste was everything I hoped it would be; soft and oniony patty, fluffy bun and piquant pickles. It reminded me of favourite fast food cheeseburgers of my youth. No complex sear or bloody, dry aged beef, just sweet meat and mellow cheese cut through with a little blob of ketchup and mustard. It's not an exciting, challenging, or even particularly memorable burger (save the onions, which repeated on my all the way on the train to Chicago that evening), but sitting there, munching my way through a great pile of meat and potatoes, I felt curiously happy and satisfied.

Frozen crinkle fries were a little humdrum, but the Ewing managed to hoover them up while simultaneously drinking all my pink lemonade. Nevermind, the sack of sliders were all mine.

White Castle on Urbanspoon

Billy Goat Taven, Michigan Ave, Chicago
The Billy Goat Tavern is a little dive bar in Chicago popularised in America by a skit on Saturday Night Live. Positioned under Michigan Avenue, between the Tribune and Sun Times offices, it was soon being regularly mentioned in newspaper columns all over town. I, however, I first become aware of it after watching the DVD that accompanies George Motz's book, Hamburger America, a tome that seeks to find Americas greatest meat patties.

Hot and tired after an afternoon at the Chicago Institute of Art we descended the stairs on Michigan Avenue ready for our beer and meat fix. Although there are surely better burgers in town (Kuma's Corner, dmk, David Burke's, Epic Burger) nowhere else can boast the legend of the Cubs curse, or an application for a liquor licence for the Moon.

The burgers, roughly wrapped in greaseproof paper, fly over the counter, unadorned except for American cheese (if requested). There's a very good DIY accompaniment bar, featuring both sliced and diced onions, ketchup, mustard and great pickles. I dressed mine up in the style of a classic Quarter Pounder with Cheese, with a few extra pickles for good measure.

The thin patties are made of fresh, never frozen, beef cooked until crispy on the flat top griddle and housed in a kaiser roll. The thinness of the patties and thickness of the bread means it's certainly not worth getting anything less than the famous double, although triples are also available for meat fiends.

The problems with the kaiser roll have been well documented in this Serious Eats article, but I found the bun soft and fresh and pretty good, if a little on the hefty side for it's cargo.

Interestingly, when I quizzed the Ewing mid-trip over her favourite burger thus far, this was her choices (she sat out the glorious Shake Shack number with 'meat fatigue'). I wasn't really too surprised; the Billy Goat effort is a classic, meat and potatoes kinda burger. From the slight sear on the patties down to the pickles, everything is just right. Not perfect, but nice, like an old pair of slippers, or a hug from your Mum.

In fact, it's just the sort of burger to enjoy when you're necking bottle of Old Style and watching the Cubs score a walk off run in the 11th inning on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Billy Goat Tavern on Urbanspoon

Amtrack, somehere between Glenwood Spings and Grand Junction, Colarado
For a trip that took us coast to coast, from New York to San Francisco, by train I had to include one Amtrak burger. We slummed it in coach for the first leg, eating salami sandwiches, from Esposito's Pork Shop on 9th Avenue, washed down with Gatorade. But for the second part of the journey we luxiriated in our little sleeper cabin, complete with three meals a day in the dining car.

The cheeseburger was a rather strange thing, large enough to poke out the bun but a little ragged and misshapen and a rather odd, orangey hue. The cheese slice was too small and thin for the patty, but the sesame seed bun was fresh and springy and the meat well seasoned and surprisingly juicy. 

Of course the real draw of this lunch wasn't the burger, or the moreish kettle chips, the endless iced tea, or even the craft beer, but the incredible views we were treated to as we rounded every corner. The grease all over the camera was worth it to capture these shots of the winding Colarado River, with the snow-capped Rockies in the distance.

In-N-Out Burger, Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco
If Shake Shack is the prince of the East coast then In-N-Out are surely the burger kings of the West.  Founded in a suburb of LA in 1947, the regional chain may have spread out around So Cal, Utah, Texas and Nevada, but they have stayed true to their roots of beef that is butchered in house, freshly cut potatoes straight from the farm and real ice cream shakes. They have even garnered a cult of followers, including Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain and the Big Lebowski. Julia Child even had their burgers delivered to her during a hospital stay.

Despite their only Northern Californian location being down by the distinctly unlovely Fisherman's Wharf it was a journey I was prepared to make for my next burger fix.  Sea lion watching for the Ewing on Pier 39, followed by a double double animal style for me. Perfect compromise.

In-N-Out burger, fries 'done well' to avoid the problems of a flaccid potato, and a black and white shake.  The fries were very interesting; although they looked little more than lightly golden on the outside, inside that were more like those chip shaped crisps, crunchy and almost hollow.

The shake was a mix of chocolate and vanilla and was extra thick, sweet and creamy; the perfect fast food shake. The extra crunchy fries provided the ideal vehicle to scoop it up until it had softened a enough to be sucked through the straw.
The Double Double Animal Style, a behemoth in a bun; two mustard-crusted griddled patties, two slices of American cheese, grilled onions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and special burger 'spread'.

This was a great, sloppy, messy treat of a burger, but I have to say I found it all a bit overwhelming, the meat and cheese becoming lost in a forest of salad and the swathes of sweet, pungent onions. Going back to my previous Shake Shack pickle and onion observations, I wonder if the perfect balance would have been straight Double Double (with sliced or no onion), with mustard cooked  patties. Sadly I didn't get the chance to go back and find out.

The patties are griddled on cast iron, but don't really develop a real char. While remaining juicy and a little greasy they lack a smoky bite and don't seem to have a great deal of 'beefiness'. The bun is soft and toasted, but rather undistinguished and had started to disintegrate by the end of the whole messy operation. In-N-Out Sauce however is very good, and thankfully can be requested in sachets on on the side; very good slathered over your chips or smuggled home in your suitcase.

Despite its depth and girth it had been neatly half-swaddled in waxed paper, meaning it was, almost, possible to eat in a dignified fashion. Watching the grill man tenderly and swiftly wrap each burger like a newborn baby was, truly, a thing of simple beauty and something it would be good to see used more here to catch any unsightly bun spillage.

Milkshake and soda cups with their hidden Bible references (started under Rich Snyder's presidency in the 1980's, reflecting the families Christan beliefs, and now found tucked away on all packaging).

John 3.16 reads; 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life'. I would imagine everlasting life is an unlikely concept if you were to enjoy too many Double Doubles and thick shakes, but you may just die happy.

In-N-Out Burger on Urbanspoon

Super Duper Burger, Market Street and 3rd, San Francisco
On our last night in San Francisco we were (surprise, surprise) running hopelessly late for the evening ball game at Giant's Stadium. Unfortunately, as we hurried down Market Street, we came across this branch of Super Duper Burgers. What's taht you say? Niman Ranch beef? Home baked pies? Hand dipped ice cream cones? It was all far too much temptation and we were soon inside, debating on what milkshake would go best with our cheeseburgers and whether there was time for a teensy piece of pie (sadly there wasn't on this visit).

Inside is pretty sleek and modern, with seating both at the front and back, and up on a raised mezzanine area. All the packaging is 'green' and compostable (getting extra Ewing points) and they serve local wines and beers with their burgers. Burgers are cooked to order and you are handed a little buzzer that vibrates when your food is ready, leaving me free to go and explore the condiment bar...

House made pickle bar. Yep, you heard me; rows and rows of glass Kilner jars stuffed full of impossibly tasty help yourself pickles. I could have stopped right here at the condiment station, grabbed several of the brown paper trays, loaded them up with chillies and cukes, and happily eaten these alone.

Luckily the Ewing has a little more decorum and rationed me to one tray, to accompany my milkshake, as we waited for the burgers to be cooked. (Obviously I snuck back for more, to the violent consternation of my digestive system later that evening... Yes, she told me so).

They were having some sort of 'issues' with the chocolate syrup/ice cream when we arrived, and so we swapped the double choc chip with malt shake for the cookies and cream. It was a very fine confection; thick and creamy (there shakes and ice creams are made with organic Strauss Creamery milk) and shot through with crumbled chocolate cookies.

Initial thoughts about this burger were, 'pretty nice, but fairly humdrum'. It was only as I started to tuck in that I realised its impossibly beefy, cheesy depths. The Ewing experienced 'the spurt' as she bit in to hers; a good sign that it was going to be nice and juicy (not quite so good for the, now grease splattered, white T-shirt she was wearing at the time).
I had chosen my cheeseburger to come 'with everything' (obviously not learning my lesson after In-N-Out), fortuitously this only seemed to mean the extra toppings that were underlined on the menu; lettuce, tomato, red onions and Super Sauce. From the picture (and my memory) I don't seem to remember much salad at all; just a wisp of lettuce, a suggestion of tomato and onion and 8oz of Niman Ranch beef, slathered in Californian cheddar, all nestled on a toasted sesame seed bun.

Said bun is apparently 'custom-made by La Boulange', but it tastes like a plain old, squishy, sesame seed number, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. This burger was possibly the most juicy, just verging on the right side of greasy, of the whole trip and the bread held together perfectly to the last bite.

Super Duper Burgers (Market/3rd) on Urbanspoon

Burger Joint, San Francisco Airport, International Terminal
Our burger swansong, the serendipitously named Burger Joint take II. Unlike our first stop I wasn't expecting all that much from it's Californian namesake.

Burger Joint are a mini chain based in San Francisco, and although the reviews seemed fairly so so I was already getting frantic not knowing when my next cheeseburger fix was going to come from.  dragging (the surprisingly compliant) Ewing to the food court we prepared ourselves for a final fling with some good old American meat, cheese and bread.

Signs were fairly promising; choices of patty including Niman Ranch beef, Diestel turkey or veggie, grilled to order and served with a selection of drinks that include both a root beer float or a glass of champagne.

The first deconstructed presentation on the trip. Usually the vague pointlessness of this might annoy me, but I was feeling wistful about all the great burgers (and great food full stop), that had come in the three weeks before it, so I happy shoved the pile of greenery and pickles on top of the cheese coated patty, and popped the mayo slathered toasted bun on top.

Outside in the real world this burger would struggle to keep up with the big boys, but for airport grub it was actually pretty decent. For a quarter shy of a ten spot you get 1/3lb of Niman Ranch beef, choice of cheese (American all the way) and salad on a sesame seed bun. It also comes with some, very good, skin on fries, fried in peanut oil (there's also an extra salad, no fries, option, but, from the look of us, the server obviously decided it wasn't even worth suggesting). It certainly beats a limp, cold sandwich and a weak, cold coffee (take note Heathrow).

What this burger really lacked was heft. There was too much bun and salad and too little meat and cheese. The cut through (if I had any pictures of it) would have showed a nicely grilled patty, with a very little pink, overwhelmed by greenery and bread. (That said, it was probably the right dimensions for someone about to be shoehorned into a tiny aeroplane seat for the Trans-Atlantic red eye.)

The chocolate milkshake was very solid. By far the chocolatiest of the whole trip, it more resembled melted ice cream; pretty sweet and very full on. Needless to say the Ewing guzzled hers in double time, although, on balance I think I preferred the milder and maltier efforts at In-N-Out and Super Duper Burger.

Eat one of these bad boys, drink a few of pints of Anchor Steam and enjoy sleeping through the next nine and a half hours back to London (either that or you'll be up and down to the loo and suffering from terrible indigestion the whole way home).

Burger Joint on Urbanspoon

So, what have we learnt from these meat-filled escapades? That house made pickle bars are a dangerous thing; that fries well done and dunked in a black and white shake are pretty damn good; that any patty can be improved by drinking Old Style like it's going out of style; and that eating a Shack Burger in the shade of Central Park is one of life's simple (and calorific) pleasures. Oh, and always carry a bottle of Pepto Bismol.

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