Garden State Diner
Newark Airport, Terminal C, Newark NJ 07114 (map); 973-648-6791; gardenstatediner.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: This airport terminal eatery makes a burger that's actually good!
Want Fries with That? Yes; nothing revelatory, but solid, diner-style spuds
Prices: Cheeseburger Deluxe, $8.59
It's a particularly worn cliché to talk about the lack of quality of food on airplanes. Of course, making food taste good at high altitude presents myriad challenges, not the least of which is that you don't taste very well at high altitude. What is less clear is why airport food is so often so bad. There isn't any reason the fare on the ground needs to resemble the quality we get when hurtling through the air in an aluminum tube. Yet it's so often the case that it does.
A recent movement to make airport food offerings more upscale is clearly underway, but I'd yet to come across a burger worth a second look. That was, until a recent trip back to my homeland, New York City. On my way back to Los Angeles I found myself waiting out a delay in Newark Airport's Terminal C. It's a sprawling 21st century airport with loads of options, but most of them failed to inspire much hope. Then I saw the kitschy, retro Garden State Diner and decided to roll the dice.
Despite the overdone '50s diner simulacra that abounds at the Garden State Diner, there isn't much fuss when it comes to the menu. The burgers are listed as "deluxe" like the diner burgers of my youth, but for those of you who have Greek diner experience, you know that deluxe just means fries, lettuce, tomato, onion, a pickle spear, and (maybe) coleslaw. I ordered my cheeseburger deluxe medium rare and the waiter didn't bat an eye, which was a good sign.
When the plate arrived I was sad to see no coleslaw in attendance, but everything else looked in order—especially the little sticks that signified my medium rare temperature.
The most noticeable difference between this burger and what you'll usually find in a Greek diner burger is the bun: This one is noticeably larger. But even though the bulbous bun looked as though it could only overwhelm the eight ounces of standard ground chuck, it didn't. The bun definitely had a heft, but it squished to form around the burger and balanced against the nicely charred beef really well. The temperature of the meat could be criticized as a bit closer to medium, but I wasn't disappointed since the beef still had a lot of juice.
As testimony to this being a burger of surprisingly high quality, I ate the first half without the toppings; It was satisfying with just meat, cheese, and bun. I added some toppings for the second half and it wasn't so much better, but different. Build it as your preference dictates and you'll find a burger that is straightforward and pleasing.
The fries are similarly without flair and still very good. They were medium cut and nicely fried to a near-perfect crispness. I had to discipline myself to stop eating them even though I knew I was long past full.
This kind of unfussy food is diner fare at its best. The idea is to deliver familiar quality food at a reasonable price. Garden State Diner delivers on both counts (the Cheeseburger Deluxe is a very fair $8.59). It proves airport food can be tasty; maybe the airlines should give them a call to do something about that airplane food.