The Burger Correction
One good thing about a crumbling economy: cheaper burgers. No one really knows why. One theory holds that prior to a burger-correction period like the one we’re in right now, some sort of culinary-regulatory-group intervention secretly takes place, and the so-called innovators of the burger-boom years—the $29-burger barons and their ilk—are taken away during the night like Bear Stearns employees and sent off to a hamburger rehab facility. Once there, through tough love and arts-and-crafts workshops, they’re cured of their perverse desire to top hamburgers with all manner of luxury ingredients including foie gras, truffles, quail eggs, beluga caviar, French songbirds, diamond necklaces, and $100 bills.
The result is a rash of new burger joints whose names alone signal a return to sound burger economics, like the Wall Street Burger Shoppe (30 Water St.; 212-425-1000), for instance, which opened in the financial district earlier this year. Here, in a space done up like Nat’s Peach Pit from Beverly Hills, 90210, hordes of bonus-starved stock touts take refuge in old-fashioned four-ounce cheeseburgers adorned with nothing more than lettuce and the house special sauce for just $4 a pop.
An equally good deal can be found on Sunday nights at The Smith (55 Third Ave.; 212-420-9800) in the East Village. Bargain-hunting pleasure seekers both young and old begin arriving here in droves around 5:30 p.m. for the $12 draft-beer-and-burger special. And who can blame them? The plat du jour is a bulging half-pound bacon cheeseburger just barely contained by its bun, much in the manner that the Incredible Hulk often finds himself just barely contained by his Fruit of the Looms. This Hulklike beef bomb doesn’t actually turn green and rumble around angrily on the plate, but it does come with a mountain of pretty good fries included in the price.
Alphabet City is where you’ll find the U.G.’s favorite new mini-burgers, at the breezy, spacious eight-month-old burger bar Zaitzeff (18 Ave. B; 212-477-7137), an outpost of the financial-district burger joint of the same name. The mini-burgers, a brand-new addition to an already stellar full-size-hamburger menu, come three to an order for $12 and are simply superb—plump and juicy and topped with sharp Cheddar and fried onions. The grass-fed sirloin that the brothers Zaitzeff use to make their patties is fresh and flavorful, but the key to these delectable Scooby Snacks is the miniature toasted Portuguese muffins they get from a bakery in Fall River, Massachusetts. These slightly sweet super-buns combine the sturdiness of an English muffin with the burger-melding ability of a delicate brioche and have made the Underground Gourmet reconsider a preference for the squishy supermarket variety.
One of our all-time favorite cheeseburgers is the one Ryan Skeen, working like a culinarily inclined Dr. Frankenstein, concocted from a mix of beef cheek, hanger steak, and pork fatback and unleashed at Resto a while back. Skeen has moved on, but it seems that you can’t keep a good burger-man down. We spied him recently looking tanned and fit while expediting dinner orders in his flip-flops at the recently opened Brooklyn restaurant The General Greene (229 Dekalb Ave., Ft. Greene; 718-222-1510), where he consults on his friend Nicholas Morgenstern’s terrific menu. As you might have guessed, there’s an excellent six-ounce char-grilled burger here ($11), and in keeping with the back-to-burger-basics trend, it’s made wholly from freshly ground Angus sirloin.
Sometimes you have to suffer for your art, even if your art is eating hamburgers and then scribbling your impressions on the back of a paper napkin. Take, for instance, the recent visit the U.G. paid to the Dram Shop Bar (339 9th St., Park Slope; 718-788-1444), a beer-soaked romper room of sorts with a pool table, a shuffleboard, and a crowd of drunken revelers so loud we could barely hear ourselves think, let alone focus on burger chomping and napkin scribbling. No matter. The toothsome burgers here remain permanently etched in our minds. The house style is to shove two three-ounce, square-shaped patties—loosely packed and nicely browned on the griddle—into one round sesame-seed bun, the same way Dram Shop partner Clay Mallow’s father and his father before him used to do it back at the old grocery store in South Dallas. The result, a well-proportioned double burger abundantly accessorized with two slices of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, mustard, and mayo, will run you $9. Included in the price are thick hand-cut fries and a ringing in your ears that lasts for days.
Finally, if you ever find yourself adrift in the wilds of Greenwich, Connecticut, take Exit 2 off I-95, turn left on Byram Shore Road, and then follow the unmistakable scent of sizzling beef-burgers to 302 Delavan Avenue. That is where you’ll find the ten-month-old Burgers, Shakes & Fries (203-531-7433) and where you can get a deliciously drippy one-third-pound cheeseburger simply fashioned from good old ground chuck. It comes on griddle-toasted white bread and goes for the bargain price of $3.77, which, of course, is less than the price of a gallon of gas these days.