"The craggy, salty crust is as thick as that on a prime steak and the impossibly juicy innards gush torrents all over the squishy bun."
127 West 43rd St New York 10036; map); 212-575-5848; hbburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Perfectly cooked juicy burger served on a potato roll. What's not to love?
Want Fries with That? Potentially scrumptious home made tater tots failed to deliver—stale and tepid
Price: Cheeseburger, $8
Thanks to Louis-Camille Maillard, we know why hamburgers are a compelling dish. Back in the 1910s, the French chemist and physician started researching amino acids and the way they react to sugars. The result of his research—called the Maillard reaction—was the discovery that when amino acids and sugars are made to react together (usually by heat) they release aromas and flavors as well as produce a browning effect similar to the non-enzymatic one that occurs during caramelization. This reaction does not so much intensify the taste of food as much as create whole new flavors and aromas. The reaction has been indispensable in our understanding of taste—indeed, it forms the foundation for the entire flavoring industry.
There has been some speculation that the browning of meat from searing—especially on lean white meats that contain very few of the reducing sugars required for the reaction—might not be the Maillard reaction at all, but rather a result of the "breakdown of tetrapyrrole rings of the muscle protein" (whatever that means). In defense of the notion that the Maillard reaction does occur during the cooking of high fat foods, such as the hamburger, I present the HB Burger—a hamburger so juicy, fatty, and toothsome, with possibly the best sear I have ever had on a patty that it could be used in place of a lengthy white paper dissertation to prove the point.
The burger menu at HB Burger is refreshingly sparse and simple. While they offer two "specialty" burgers—a Philly cheesesteak (roasted peppers, onions, and provolone cheese; what, no Whiz?!) and a blue cheese-stuffed Buffalo-style burger (oxymoronically offered with "mild hot sauce")—the menu is basically an à la carte affair with a variety of topping for an additional charge. Seven varieties of cheese, the predictable bacon, and mushrooms go for between $1 and $1.75. Rabbit food and pickles are free, but you won't need any of it. Skip the cheese too. The beef is so good and the potato roll is such a perfect vessel (despite being a bit cool) that they are all one needs to reach burger Nirvana. Let the Californians have their mountains of lettuce and "special" sauce on thin waif-like patties, the Australians their fried egg and beets-topped burgers, the fancy chefs their stuffed, neutered abominations. The HB Burger screams, "NEW YORK CITY!"
And, like the city, everything about the HB Burger is done in perfect excess—the craggy, salty crust is as thick as that on a prime steak and the impossibly juicy innards gush torrents all over the squishy bun. Biting into the burger elicits an audible squelch and even before the saltiness and acridity from the sear has registered on your tongue, your mouth will be enveloped in the pure beef flavor—as intense as drinking au jus from a rib roast. The potato roll becomes juice logged, but rather than falling apart it becomes elasticized and manages to hold everything together.
In a city that has a seemingly endless variety of hamburgers, it is no coincidence that some of the most celebrated are simple griddle-cooked five to six ounce burgers served on plain buns using exceptional beef, such as those from J. G. Melon, P.J. Clarke's, and Shake Shack. HB Burger joins this noble tradition by offering a fantastic hamburger and adding credence to the notion that a distinct and refined New York City-style of burger is emerging. Too bad Maillard, who died in 1936, never got to try it. Not because it makes such a compelling case for his theory, but because it tastes so good.