This is going to come across as disingenuous, but the burger is undisputedly the US of A’s greatest contribution to culinaria.
Few subjects elicit greater diversity of impassioned opinion and inspire more heated debate; fewer foods still draw one into such fevered fanatical fixation. I won’t delve into the myth and lore of the history of the burger, or its cultural and economic significance as an American icon — that’s what Wikipedia is for. But should you be a bun-and-patty fetishist, the late, great Josh Ozersky’s The Hamburger is required reading (as if I needed to tell you). Everything you ever wanted to know, and then some, about whether the spheroid of ground beef clamped betwixt a bun is the birthright of red-blooded men and women or a symbol of industrial mass production and cynically capitalistic corporate greed robotically served by wage serfs to a brainwashed, largely morbidly obese, demographic is in that spellbinding volume.
You know that value your mama tried to inculcate: ‘If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all’. In that spirit — because we love our mamas — what we’ve included here is as telling as what we’ve occluded. What follows is a highly opinionated and idiosyncratic list of The Rake’s favourite burgers in the burger capital of the galaxy. N.Y.C., natch. L.A. and an In-N-Out paean? That’s another story for another issue. And one more disclaimer: this is emphatically — I repeat, emphatically — not a breathless exaltation on the trending, majorly Instagrammed, so-hipster-it-hurts hotspots. If that’s your shtick, you can please stop reading now. P.S. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid, you don’t always find salvation there.
Criteria? Quite a few. I won’t/can’t burrow down into the rabbit hole of specifics as to what kind of bun and what kind of patty mix make for the Platonic ideal of burgers, because that would entail way more column inches than I’ve been allocated by dear Tom Chamberlin, my editor and fellow burger enthusiast (who has generously contributed his thoughts on the Polo Bar burger, above). Here, we’ve essentially culled what we reckon are holistically awesome specimens. We hope you’ll like them, too. In other words, our overriding criteria is: Is the burger delicious, whatever its value proposition? Be it a diner burger, bar burger, pub burger, bistro burger, cult burger, restaurant burger, etc. Be it that the bun is a comfortingly generic squishy white one or an artisanal lovingly handcrafted brioche/challah/potato roll one. Be it a patty minced from beef of mysterious provenance or from a fancy-pants bespoke fiercely guarded proprietary mix of cuts from a celebrity butcher.
We are looking at:
Morphology: The burger is a prime edible example of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And as a hand-held food, it needs to be structurally sound: a.k.a. hold together till the last bite without becoming an annoyingly sloppy and disintegrating mess needing either a mountain of napkins or, in the worst-case scenario, so proportionally out-of-whack you could conceivably incur temporomandibular disorder/lock jaw in the eating thereof. There’s a golden ratio of bun to patty that needs to be respected. Period.
Seasoning: Should the patty be unsalted? Surface salted just before being cooked off? Salted as the mince is being extruded? And what kind of salt? Ah, the divine mysteries of the burger universe yet to be unravelled. We’ve had amazing exemplars all employing various seasoning philosophies. And you know what? It all comes down to balance. The endgame should be a balanced sandwich… so, what kind of cheese (if one is using cheese at all), how much cheese, what kind of sauce (if one is using sauce at all), how much sauce, what kind of add-ons — say, pickles, salad leaves, bacon and tomato, to name the usual suspects — are all variables that come into play in the final outcome and thus the thoughtful determination of the seasoning strategy.
To smash or not to smash, that is the question. Otherwise known as the patty cooking method. If you ever wanna peruse a treatise on this versus that, please look up pages 544 to 559 (the 2015 edition by Norton) in James Kenji López-Alt’s magnificent tome The Food Lab.
Add-ons: A great burger should be delicious naked — sorry to come across as puritanical. Bun plus patty is the bone structure. You have it or you don’t. No amount of plastic surgery can alter that reality. At the most, a cozy carpet of molten melted American cheese. And maybe, if you are so inclined, some crisped bacon. There should be no need to gild the lily and tart it up with ‘special secret sauce’ or, God forbid, foie gras truffles what-have-you. My worst hyperbolically talked-up burger experience — maybe I’m being peevish here, because the experience came with the bonus of an hour-long wait round the block and service with a free side of sassy attitude — involved scallion butter. I won’t name names. Hmm… If the patty is plenty juicy and the bun tasty, is there really a need to add an element that sounds nice on menu-speak but in reality makes the eating experience a dripping disaster of Exxon Valdez oil spill proportions, slipping and sliding and vulgarly oozing every time one endeavours to take a bite (also known as backslide), saturating the bottom half of the bun to soggy death? The long and short of it is: whatever add-ons the kitchen has decided upon, they had better be there for a damnably sound purpose, not for the sake of frou-frou, marketeering or futzing around because the cook woke up and ego dictated the embellishment’s merits. The burger is an institution for good reason. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
All that verbose preamble, apologies. Let’s get to it. Above, we humbly present The Rake’s shortlist of our beloved N.Y.C. burgers. We do not proclaim them to be the best, because that is frankly a nonsensical proclamation: who is to say what’s best to me is best to you, especially with a subject where emotions run high?