Custom Burger by Pat La Frieda
Cibo Express Gourmet Food Hall, Delta Terminal (Terminal D), LaGuardia Aiport, Queens NY 11369 (map)
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Although not directly owned as the name might imply, Pat La Frieda Custom Burger does the name proud by serving up a delicious burger for a reasonable price
Want Fries with That? Try the fried pickles instead
Price: Single, $4.75; Double, $8.75; Triple, $12.75
Notes: Available only to ticketed passengers at Terminal D
Talk about going from rags to riches. At LaGuardia airport's food court where there used to be a Sbarro and Burger King there's now Tagliare—the brainchild of Dom DeMarco Jr., son of the legendary Di Fara pizza master Dom DeMarco—and Custom Burger by Pat La Frieda. For the record, Custom Burger is not run or even owned by the Pat La Frieda Meat Company, which is renowned for having elevated the hamburger to heights once thought unimaginable. Rather it is owned by OTG Management, who have been doing their best to make airport food edible.
One could see where confusion might arise, especially if you've seen those La Frieda trucks scooting around town, as the restaurant is decked out in the La Frieda colors with the firms logo used prominently in the back. I imagine that all this involved a hefty licensing fee, not to mention the risk of tarnishing the brand name by serving lackluster burgers.
Fortunately for everyone, and especially anyone flying to or from La Guardia terminal D, Michael Coury of OTG Management has done a commendable job in developing the burger stand. They offer a number of burgers in various patty configurations, and prices start at under $5 for a single with cheese. That's not only a remarkable price for an airport—it's a remarkable price for New York City as a whole. The only other place I know of to get a La Frieda burger for under five bucks is Shake Shack.
Ordering is done via a touchscreen system.
The Americana comes with a single patty topped with American cheese and ketchup. It offers the best beef-to-bun ratio of the burgers I sampled as well being the most portable and easy to eat. You could, if you had to, eat this on the run, one handed with your boarding pass in the other.
The burger is an example of what is emerging as a distinct style of hamburger: griddle cooked (most often using La Frieda beef) and topped with American cheese on a potato roll (most often from Martin's). Obviously pioneered by Shake Shack (they must love Danny Meyer at La Frieda and Martin's), the essential form has been mimicked by numerous burger spots, usually to very good effect. HB Burger, Black Market, FoodParc, and Schnipper's Quality Kitchen, amongst others, all serve a variation of the theme.
Custom Burger does an admirable job of living up to this pedigree. While you won't get your burger rare, which would be ideal and elevate them even more, the custom blend (proprietary, of course) is fatty enough to stand up to being cooked medium and even beyond—It remains juicy and moist. The patties come with an impressive crust and a liberal amount of salt, the cheese wilts perfectly over the patty, and the buttered and griddled potato roll acts as the perfect vessel for the beef.
A near perfect burger synthesis—but for the ketchup. I had forgotten how much I dislike ketchup on a burger, it has been ages since I have eaten one thus topped and the sugary sweetness detracted from the pure beefineess of the patty. Said patty tasted as if it was heavy on the short rib, à la the Spotted Pig burger, with a distinct "steakiness" and a full mouth feel. Try the burger plain before dousing it in ketchup—I think you will find that this burger really doesn't need it. Nor anything else.
But that is not going to stop those who think bigger is better and who value the gluttonous, orgiastic consumption of TV shows like Man Vs Food. For that consumer I present the Gordito—three patties, three slices of American cheese, lettuce, onion, bacon, and Russian dressing all on one very overworked bun. Good luck in getting that thing on the plane, or in your mouth for that matter.
Weighing in at 13.5 ounces, the Gordito costs under $13, a remarkable price, especially considering the quality of the beef and the fact that it is served in an airport. But frankly, the value is the best thing about the burger. It is impossible to eat in a way so as to get all of the flavor in a single bite. You're much better off getting two or three singles if you're really hungry.
Not only has OTG management replaced the banal pizzeria and fast food burger joint with vastly superior operations that border on the artisanal, but they imbued the terminal with a real local spirit. You can eat what locals eat at the airport, something that New York City has been sorely lacking. And I am not sure that they could have picked two families—the DeMarcos and the La Friedas—that are more synonymous with pizza and hamburger respectively. Do you suppose it's a coincidence that they're both Italian?