Some men have grilled hamburgers all their lives. I imagine some have cooked tens of thousands of burgers and could probably flip a burger at the perfect moment while finishing the tie-breaking game of a best-of-seven chess match with Bobby Fischer. Unfortunately for our nameless hero, his skills are for naught without the right meat. A lump of day-old ground chuck will never compare to the prime beef used at Peter Luger.
For the last 22 years, Peter Luger has been named the top New York steakhouse, and I've got to agree. A year and a half ago, I went for the first time and shared a huge cut of prime-aged porterhouse. To this day, I can still taste the steak as well as Luger's orgasm-inducing bacon. The thought of the porterhouse in burger form was nearly too much for me. All of that delicious meat, nicely ground, broiled, and placed between a sesame-seed bun sounded like heaven, and I didn't want to tarnish my vision. Two weeks ago, I decided to chance it and turn my dream into reality.
Going for a burger at Peter Luger can be a challenge, as it is only served on the lunch menu (lunch served until 3 p.m.). Thankfully, Luger's serves the full lunch menu on weekends, so I didn't need to take a day off work to visit. Peter Luger Steakhouse has been around since 1887, and I don't think they've done much decorating since. The rooms are covered in wood and have a rustic flavorperfect for enjoying a piece of meat. There are no exotic floral arrangements or architectural flourishes to distract from your mission. It's just you, your friends, an uncovered wood table, and your meat of choice.
My girlfriend and I both ordered our burgers with American cheese and cooked medium-rare. They arrived ten minutes later with a slice of raw onion and a side of fries. I was immediately excited by the sesame-seed buncrispy on the outside but fluffy and soft in the middle, my ideal burger delivery device. The raw onions aren't something I'd typically put on a burger, but I imagined myself as a famished working-class Brooklynite visiting Peter Luger in the late-nineteenth century and knew my fictional self wouldn't throw aside a ring of raw onion.
Finally, it was time to taste the burger. Thus far, my dream of the perfect burger was in line with reality. Then, I took a bite. First contact was delicious. The meat had a strong flavor and a smooth texture despite the coarse grind. I took a few more bites and approached the center. Uh oh. The middle of my burger was bright red and nowhere near the pink I was hoping to see. In the dead center it was nearly raw.
Like so many others, I had discovered the downfall of the Luger burger—the chefs don't know how to properly cook a hamburger. Frank Bruni discovered this in February of 2005, Andrea Strong in October of last year, and Josh "Mister Cutlets" Ozersky mentioned this phenomenon before anything else when I mentioned my visit to him.
Well, did this ruin the burger? For me, no. About 80 percent of my burger was cooked to my liking and tasted divine. Yes, the middle was undercooked and lacked all flavor as a result, but I was able to overlook this. My concern is that Peter Luger's inconsistency could be much worse. Bruni wrote:
None of the burgers hit their marks. Mine arrived medium to medium-well. The one that was supposed to be medium was much more done than that. The one that was supposed to be rare verged on raw. Its center was scarily cold.
This type of inconsistency makes it tough to say this is a top burger in the city. The meat is top notch, the accoutrements were perfect, and the ambiance is spot-on, but the possibility of getting a raw, cold center is not acceptible. Of course, if the joint could iron out the inconsistencies in the kitchen, this could possibly be the best burger in the city, which is why I think it's worth giving it a shot. Just don't say we didn't warn you.
PETER LUGER STEAKHOUSE
Location: 178 Broadway, Williamsburg, Brooklyn NY 11211 [map]
Price: $7.95 for a burger (cheese is $1.50, fries are $1.95, and bacon is $2.50)