If it's Tuesday, it must be time for another review from Nick Solares. Nick is also the publisher of Beef Aficionado, his blog that explores beef beyond burgerdom.
I must admit that I had high expectations for the hamburger at Junior's, the fabled Brooklyn diner that is famous for its justifiably hyped cheesecake. Since opening in 1950 Junior's has firmly cemented itself into the New York food vernacular. It is a rite of passage for any politician running for state or national office to make Junior's a campaign stop, and the cheesecake there is considered by many the best that the city has to offer.
Given the popularity and acclaim that Junior's enjoys, I figured that there must be something special going on with its burger, which is so often the staple of a successful diner.
The story behind Junior's is one of those quintessentially New York rags-to-riches tales. Founder Harry Rosen dropped out of high school and became a soda jerk during the roaring '20s, eventually opening a string of sandwich shops of his own in Manhattan called the Enduro, named after the manufacturer of the stainless steel that lined his kitchens. By the 1930s, he had opened an Enduro on the corner of the Flatbush Avenue Extension and DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn. He soon shuttered his Manhattan concerns in favor of the Brooklyn location.
386 Flatbush Avenue Extension, Brooklyn NY 11201; map)
The Skinny: It's known primarily for its cheesecake, which should tell you all you need to know. The disappointing "steakburger," dry and overcooked, shows some promise but ultimately takes a backseat to the dessert
Price: $11 for cheeseburger; comes with fries and onion rings and the usual trimmings
Want Fries with That? Steak fries and o-rings are part of the deal, but the rings are overcooked and the fries are forgettable
The Enduro, which was a bar with live entertainment as well as a steakhouse, lived up to its name, surviving both the Great Depression and World War Two. In 1950, Rosen decided to revamp the restaurant to bring it in line with the zeitgeist of the post-war boom. After a yearlong renovation, Junior's was born. It was named after his two sons, Marvin and Walter Rosen, who would go on to run the place after Harry's retirement. It was during the early years that the now famous cheesecake was developed, and Junior's soon became established as an emporium of mid-century American comfort food. It has thrived ever since, passing from Harry to Marvin and Walter and then to the latter’s sons, Kevin and Alan Rosen, making them the third-generation owners.
Looks Good on Paper
On paper Junior's burger sounds great. It is billed as a steakburger, evoking images of prime cuts being ground on premises and then charbroiled moments before they are served. The sheer size of the restaurant, which can seat almost 400, along with the high volume of traffic it enjoys, led me to deduce that the food must at least be fresh.
I ordered a steakburger, rare, with American cheese. I asked the waitress if they ground the beef in house. She said that, while they do not, the burger patties are made from fresh-not-frozen beef. The thick, charbroiled 10-ounce burger comes with lettuce, tomato, a bowl of pickles, and both onion rings and steak fries. Not a bad deal, considering it costs $10.95. I could see this meal costing substantially more in Manhattan.
The burger showed up and initially looked quite impressive. A plump patty appeared as if it was bursting with juice, some very pronounced hash marks graced the exterior. This is a big burger, served on a simple white bun (my favorite kind) along with a generous portion of steak fries and some rather overcooked onion rings.
But Looks Can Be Deceiving
The burger certainly looked like a classic example of the breed, but, unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. It had a slightly stale quality to it, as if it had been par-broiled in anticipation of my ordering and was then left to sit until needed. Cutting the burger in half further emphasized the prefab nature of the sandwich, while there was some juice in the center of the patty, most of the circumference was very dry and mealy. The burger was also slightly overcooked, which was exacerbated by the dryness. Having said that, I did sense potential in the beef itself; it had a clean, fresh flavor and a respectable fat-to-lean ratio, although I doubt that it comprised anything more than chuck. Perhaps the steakburger moniker is derived from the steak fries rather than the beef.
To add insult to injury, the bun, which is billed as being toasted but was clearly not, was also slightly stale. Rather than compressing and forming around the relatively large patty, the bun's surface split and cracked, crumbling from the pressure required to hoist the large contraption. The beef-to-bun ratio was spot on. However, the two relatively svelte and tepid slices of American cheese got lost in the mix. I surmise that you would need to double up on the cheese in order to elicit any semblance of flavor, as both the patty and the bread are quite thick.
I am not a big fan of steak fries, as they always seem to have a frozen-food quality to them, but these were not so bad, being quite crisp with a fluffy interior. The aforementioned onion rings had a heavy batter and were quite greasy. At least the lettuce and tomatoes were fresh, but I don't generally put these on burgers.
I am sure there was a time when the burger here was quite good, but sadly that time has passed. It is as if the ethos of serving fresh food at a reasonable price, the driving force behind so many diners, has taken a back seat to the marketing of the cheesecake (they now sell it online) and the expansion of the chain, which now boasts two additional locations, both of which are in Manhattan.
Junior's success is a triumph of quantity, not quality. It is hard to argue that, for less than $11, you are not getting value for money, but while your accountant might approve, this is not a burger that will stir your palate, let alone your soul.