50 Carmine Street, New York NY 10014 (map); 212-929-5050; fattycue.com
Short Order: A very solid cheeseburger that, with a few tweaks, could be excellent
Want Fries with That? Certainly—they're thick cut, crispy and potatoey
Price: Smoky Johnson Burger ($14 w/ fries)
About a year ago, a single moment came to define my relationship with Zak Pelaccio's hamburgers. Frank Bruni, in his Upper West Side neighborhood guide, dubbed Zak Pelaccio's Fatty Crab a "can't-miss neighborhood spot" that served a dish he particularly "loved": the Fatty Sliders. Soon after reading the piece, I headed to the restaurant without hesitation and ordered the sliders—if Bruni loves them, I would too, right? Unfortunately, I paid $12 and received two spice-laden lamb and beef mini-burgers that only left me craving White Manna. Feeling cheated and hungry, I headed home and swore off Fatty burgers forever.
Yet another well regarded Fatty hamburger recently came to my attention: the Smoky Johnson Burger ($14) at Fatty 'Cue in the West Village. Given the New Year, I figured a fine resolution would be to disregard my burger prejudices and give all patties, even Zak Pelaccio's, a fair chance. With my open mind, I headed to the 'Cue for lunch one afternoon (the burger is lunch/brunch/late night only) and hoped that my first burger of 2013 would be a good one. Good it was, but it could have been great.
As it arrived at the table, the plate was impossibly pretty—a well-seared patty set cleanly on a fresh-baked sesame seed bun with a heap of thick, golden fries on the side. And the beauty was not just skin deep. Cutting the burger in half, I found the thin eight-ounce patty grilled to just under medium rare as ordered, which still produced good crust on the outside. (Note: the staff informed me that the patty was eight ounces, although the one I received on my trip seemed closer to six.) Moreover, the patty's texture was on point—coarse ground and loosely packed—and the patty retained moisture without being overly juicy. I assumed, given these aesthetic accomplishments, the burger would blow me away.
Alas, my first bite tasted of mustard, onions, and pickle. The thin red onion slices and "mustard aioli" (essentially a creamy whole-grain mustard) completely dominated the patty. When something finally cut through those elements, however, it was not the beef, but a "b&b" pickle that tasted more like the quick-pickled cucumber one would find on a Chang-style pork bun. I was about to give up on it when a third bite finally delivered the beefiness I sought. The well-seasoned, house-ground Brandt blend tasted as powerfully beefy as any great LaFrieda blend. At this point I realized that the 'Cue's burger is not a bad one—it simply lacked thoughtfulness. The ingredient ratios, so crucial to all sandwich construction, are rather unrefined. All the pieces of hamburger greatness are present, but without precise and considerate burgercraft they produce a lackluster whole.
Swiping some of the mayo and veg (and initial disappointment) from the patty, I could appreciate that the Smoky Johnson accomplishes something special with its beef and cheese interplay. Most burgers boast American because it's standard or cheddar because it's there, but the Smoky Johnson uses an aged cow's milk cheese to draw out a subtle funkiness from the beef that is more characteristic of a steakhouse burger. In fact, the cheese is a "Raclette-style" variety from Spring Brook Farm called Reading which, in addition to boasting rich flavor, also melts particularly well. If the Fatty Crew decided to go lighter on the aioli, onions, and pickles (or simply put them on the side), this achievement in cheese and burger pairing would shine even more. That said, I could also see a larger patty doing wonders for the burger's topping-to-beef ratio and its overall flavor profile. The beefiness was there, but I could have used two to three ounces more of it.
The burger does possess two elements that transcend all criticisms: the bun and the side of fries. The sesame seed bun, a fresh-baked number, was one of the better sandwich rolls I've had in New York. Crackly on the top with an airy crumb, this is the bun that all cheffy burger buns aspire to with limited success. Furthermore, the bread's slight sourness ensured that its flavor held up even amidst the potent toppings.
Additionally, the french fries are about all an AHT'er could ask for. The thick steak fries are cut fresh, fried to the border of crispy and crunchy and sufficiently salted. A large handful is included with the meal and helps justify what would be a rather steep price for a burger alone. Though April Bloomfield's Thrice Cooked Chips are still the gold standard for this style of fry, Pelaccio's spuds certainly deserve an honorable mention.
Although the Smoky Johnson did not knock my socks off, it did prove to me that there is still some burger hope within the Fatty restaurant empire. The burger demonstrated its promise with its constituent parts: first-rate beef, excellent bun, and great cheese. Tactless construction and topping application, however, limited and distorted these strengths. Still, with a bit more thought and care this burger has potential to be something special—a dish any Serious Eater would go out of his or her way to try. 2013 is still young, and perhaps Pelaccio and his cohorts will commit the time necessary to help this burger live up to its potential.