Having spent many hours with Pat and Mark, I now understood precisely where their meat came from. I’d toured the dry-aging room where the meat’s flavor was coaxed out by a meticulously calibrated air-filtration system. I’d seen firsthand the fanatical care Pat took in composing the company’s secret, custom-designed blends. I’d read the reviews of countless critics waxing rhapsodic about their burgers. And yet despite living on a diet that includes a hamburger or two a week, I had never personally eaten one. I wondered: Could it really, truly be all that? Is there such a thing as a revolutionary hamburger? How could anything measure up to all the hype? And so on a recent evening, I set out with the men of Pat LaFrieda to sample their purported masterwork: the Black Label burger.
As we got settled in a corner booth at the Minetta Tavern, Mark took a moment to explain how he has built up a small side business supplying meat to local celebrities—Jerry Seinfeld, Martha Stewart, James Gandolfini. “You know how I have the wall of photos with chefs at the office?” Mark said proudly. “I got another one just like it at home, but with celebrities.”
A few minutes later, the Black Label burger was placed before me. On first inspection, it looked, well, like a hamburger. Bun, meat, some caramelized onions. Yet as I prepared to take my first bite, Mark offered a bit of commentary to help me better understand what I was about to place in my mouth. “Notice how there’s no cheese or ketchup?” he said. “That’s on purpose. They don’t want anything to interfere with the flavor.”
At that, I took a bite. Like all Pat LaFrieda burgers, the Black Label left a pleasing slick of fatty goodness that kind of rolled down the back of the tongue. But there was clearly more going on here, an almost jarring richness that had little in common with my idea of what a hamburger traditionally tastes like.
A wide grin broke out across Pat’s face. “Incredible, right?” he asked. “One thing I do is, I don’t clean all the bone dust off the meat, so it retains that funkiness. You taste that?”
Indeed, the burger’s charred exterior contained the sort of flavor notes one expects from dry-aged steak, not ground beef. That intense, crusty outside then gave way to a buttery interior that seemed to dissolve as I chewed. Suddenly, the $26 price tag didn’t seem so absurd. What had first struck me as a ridiculously plutocratic experience now seemed to be a cheaper way to savor the glory of dry-aged meat—a worthwhile life pleasure.
“So,” Mark asked, “What do you think?”
I could offer only the big dumb grin of a child, which seemed to be both the response he and Pat hoped for and the one they expected. Mark pulled out his BlackBerry and began furiously typing away. It was early yet, just past nine, and if he hustled, he could stop by one or two more restaurants before the night ended. Pat, meanwhile, was anxiously checking his watch. “This has been a real treat,” he said, “but I gotta run. I just realized I’m late for work.”