While I posted a few days ago that May is National Asparagus Month, it’s also National Hamburger Month, a holiday that I can really get behind! The hamburger is an American staple that has been around since the early 19th century, when it was known as a Hamburg steak (minced beef served raw with onions and bread crumbs). The dish had been a German favorite and came to America via trans-Atlantic shipping lines; more precisely, it came straight from Germany into New York harbor. One of the first places to serve a Hamburg steak in America was–you guessed it–Delmonico’s, though the provenance of the first hamburger menu item is often contested. Over the 19th and 20th centuries the hamburger (that people decided tasted much better when you cooked it) transformed into a beef patty served between two pieces of bread, and has since become synonymous with simple, homegrown American cuisine and favorite summer foods. And while National Hamburger Month is best celebrated at the end of May, when everyone fires up their grills for the first time this year on Memorial Day, I decided it’s never too early to start enjoying a good burger. Besides, how many New Yorkers have the open space to even have a grill around these parts? Get thee to your favorite burger joint and celebrate!
You don’t often think about burgers when you’re considering high-end cuisine, but in recent years the idea of elevating the simple hamburger has brought five-star chefs to this very blue-collar dish–and we’ve all benefited from the results. One of the arguably best high-end burgers in the city comes from The Breslin Bar And Dining Room in the Ace Hotel. A Michelin-starred restaurant, serving burgers? You’d think it was April Fool’s Day, not National Hamburger Month. But indeed they do, and they serve their burgers with panache: instead of the typical ground beef used in burgers, chef April Bloomberg uses lamb, char grilled to the perfect medium-rare consistency. And the toppings are nothing to sneeze at: even the condiments are top-notch, with a cumin-infused mayonnaise that puts Hellmann’s to shame. The Breslin lamb burger has been lauded as the best up and down the food critic columns of newspapers and blogs, from the New York Times to the Village Voice, and has even showed up as chef Frank Bruni’s favorite burger in New York on Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate. This is so far removed from a fast food hamburger it’s almost laughable. Just make sure not to laugh with your mouth full of lamb burger; this is still the Breslin, remember.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room
20 W 29th St
“A lamb burger acts as a kind of diet plate in contrast, gamy on its sourdough bun, with feta, cumin-rich mayonnaise and a cone of wonderful steak fries, cooked three times so that the exterior shatters under the teeth and the middle tastes of mash.”–The New York Times
“If you enjoy a good beef-tongue sandwich, the one served at lunch, with a bowl of densely flavorful lentil soup, is among the best in the city, and so is the lamb burger, which is garnished with a whip of cumin-infused mayonnaise.”–New York Magazine
“The lamb burger at The Breslin surpasses Bloomfield’s previous effort, making us wonder if lamb isn’t a better base for a burger, anyway. The puck of meat sits up high on the bun, with a flavor subtle and rich, the medium-rare middle glowing with pinkness. There’s a bland white cheese, mainly for richness, but the coup-de-grace is delivered by a homemade cumin mayo, another burger innovation.”–Village Voice
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“I’ve only eaten the burger and its so good I am not sure if I would ever get anything else. If you are looking for the best burger in NYC this is definitely one of them although I find it hard to compare at is a lamb burger. Medium rare, lamb burger with the feta is a magical combo that the breslin has perfected. Been many times and will return many more. Very busy but great atmosphere. Have a porkslap beer or two while you wait and with your burger and you will not be disapointed.”–Simon S.
“For the main course, we both had the lamb burger with thrice cooked fries. The burger was special. Very juicy, I mean, EPIC juiciness. Nice and gamey and flavorful. The feta added the right salt, and there was a little finishing salt on the burger as well, which you could feel when biting into the meat. It was perfect. The cumin aioli was great for the fries. The fries could have stayed crisp through the holocaust, I’m pretty sure. I think I prefer slightly thinner chips (fries), but these were damn good.”–Erin O.
But I feel I would be remiss in this day and age, if I were doing a blog post on the best burgers of New York City, to not include the genre-defining Shake Shack. And I feel like a huge mob of angry NYC foodies would terrorize me if I ignored the famous burger joint-turned-national treasure. I mean, it’s so popular it’s got its own Wikipedia article. Shake Shack came about as Danny Meyer’s dream project, a simple burger joint serving quality meals inside Madison Square Park. What he did was spur on a movement towards simple foods, re-invigorate this city’s love for the hamburger, and make waiting an hour for a $10 lunch seem normal. Almost immediately the burger, served slightly loose to get a genuine beef flavor, was lauded as the best burger in the city by New York Magazine. People started lining up inside the park for their entire lunch hour just to get a bite. Since its creation in 2004, Shake Shack has expanded to seven locations in the city alone–one of which is in the new Citi Field in Queens–and locations abroad in Miami, Las Vegas, and even Dubai. Even I have to admit, I’ve given in a little to the Shake Shack hype: the burgers are full of fresh, genuine ingredients, and the food is so devoid of pretension it makes me smile when I devour one. (Note that I say the food is pretension-free; I can’t say the same for the patrons.) Maybe it’s also about eating outside, in a park setting, in the middle of one of the best cities in the world that gets me all gooey when I eat a Shackburger, but I think it has something to do with how good–how real–that burger tastes to me. Head to one of their locations (hopefully there won’t be much of a line!) and get your fix in before Memorial Day hits and everyone’s got a craving for a Shackburger.
Madison Square Park, E 23rd St & Madison Ave
“The beef-a mix of sirloin and brisket freshly ground across the street at Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park-is loosely packed to allow all those tasty fat molecules to move around freely and express themselves on the griddle, and then served on a squishy, supermarket-style bun that quickly becomes one with the juicy, crisp-edged meat. As for extras and condiments, there is everything the burger classicist needs: ketchup, mustard, lettuce, tomato, and American cheese. No Kobe. No foie gras. No knife and fork necessary-just an alfresco table, a bunch of napkins, and a frozen custard alongside. Pretty much burger heaven.”–New York Magazine
“Shake Shack presents an idealized jumble of a number of regional styles of junk food under one ivy-covered roof. Only the Chicago-style hot dog, that paragon of American hot dog excellence, is presented in an unadulterated form. And the salty, meaty little burgers swaddled by potato rolls are so good that Shake Shack is swarmed with diners willing to wait 20 minutes or more to order.”–The New York Times
“It comes with a single American-cheesed patty, two slices of Roma tomato, a single piece of green leaf lettuce, and a few squirts of their not-so-secret ShackSauce (the secret ingredient is pickles) all on a buttered and toasted Martin’s Potato Rolls. There are few burgers in the world that are better cooked to medium than to rare. The ShackBurger is one of those, precisely because the flavor of a ShackBurger is just as much about the browned crust as it is about the tender beef. Too little time on the griddle and its signature aroma simply doesn’t develop, and its grind is of a texture that tends to stay mushy if cooked too rare.”–Serious Eats
Some reviews from Yelp.com (as if you even need them!):
“You’ve got to love their burgers: crunchy, crusty, salty exterior and a good ratio of bun to meat. The beef apparently is ground at Eleven Madison Park across the street, and is cooked to medium. The mayo based sauce at Shake Shack comes in for some flack from hacks – as does the lack luster tomato slice, but seriously: the burger IS the real deal. It has to be one of the best in the city!”–Atif I.
“When I bit into my Shack Burger, two clouds parted above my head, and a ray of light came down and engulfed me. A voice from above said, “Allison, this is the greatest burger you have ever eaten.” I said, “Amen.” My chocolate shake was large and thick and creamy. It was truly delicious, and complimented the juicy burger very well. The Shack Burger includes some kind of a “special sauce,” which I can liken to garlic butter, though I’m not entirely sure what it was. Whatever it was, it was amazing. The fries were good, but I cannot say they “stood out” to me as something special, like the burger did. Truly a divine experience, and one I cannot wait to repeat in two weeks!”–Allison G.
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