If it's Tuesday, it must be time for another review from Nick Solares. Nick is also the publisher of Beef Aficionado, his blog that explores beef beyond burgerdom.
J. G. Melon has been mentioned quite a bit on A Hamburger Today and Serious Eats:New York lately. I listed it as one of the definitive burgers on Third Avenue as I made the case for that Manhattan street to be dubbed "Hamburger Alley." Bobby Flay named it as his favorite burger in an interview on SE:NY. And just last week Alan Richman ignobly removed it from his top burger list because of the "meatheads" who work there. The J. G. Melon burger is often listed on any legitimate survey of New York City's best burgers, and George Motz intended to feature it in his book Hamburger America, but no one at the bar would return his call. When I asked the manager about the latter situation, he was unaware of it but commented that they were probably too busy making burgers.
J. G. Melon is one of those bars that looks like it's been there forever but actually dates back to 1972. Not that that makes it a spring chicken (or should that be spring calf?) but the well-worn, kitschy decor (replete with numerous watermelon effigies) and tin ceiling all look decades older. The building itself is dark green, not unlike a watermelon, in fact, and the ceiling is red (but does not have any pits painted on). The front room that houses the bar and the kitchen is softly lighted with orange and yellow hues and leads to a rear dining room that is far darker. The kitchen is literally a shack, and despite its diminutive proportions, as many as three cooks work feverishly inside it, cranking out hundreds of burgers a day.
J. G. Melon
1291 Third Avenue, New York NY 10021 (at 74th Street; map); 212-744-0585
Heat Source: Flat-top griddle
Bun Type: Pillow-soft white bun, toasted
The Short Order: J. G. Melon's burger is just about perfect. Six to seven ounces of what tastes like sirloin, ground coarse and packed very loosely. The patty looks big but is deceptively airy and tender. Gruff service, but what do you expect? You're eating in a bar, after all
Want Fries with That? Yes. The cottage fries ($3.75) are outstanding and are perfectly bite-sized
Price: Burger, $8; cheeseburger, $8.25; bacon cheeseburger, $9
Richman's decision to delist the Melon burger because it has suddenly "succumb(ed) to bad manners" is a curious one, especially because he continues to list Peter Luger. I love Peter Luger, but the service there is hardly doting and effusive and is certainly as rough and tumble as what one can expect at Melon. It may seem an odd defense of the latter, but I don't think the service has gotten any coarser over the years. It has always been gruff, arguably bordering on the rude.
On a recent visit, the bartender bristled with indignation at the fact that Zagat called the service exactly that, but you're eating in a bar, not a restaurant, so I suppose service is relative. I think Richman had it right in 2005, when he said the J. G. Melon burger was "perfectly correct."
Indeed, the burger there is the epitome of aesthetic perfection: griddle-cooked fresh ground beef, American cheese, a toasted white bun, sliced red onions, and pickles. It is served straddling both sides of the bun, which is laid out with the two halves facing up. The burger's blend seems to be a secret, but not a deliberate one, no one I asked at the restaurant—bartenders, manager, or even cooks—seemed to know exactly what is in there. I suspect it is mostly sirloin, since it has a far deeper, heartier, and more steaklike flavor than regular chuck.
Texturally it is one of the loosest packed patties I have had. It is deceptively airy and flaky. It crumbles easily and has that melt-in-your-mouth sensation that one associates with finer cuts of beef. To call the griddle well-seasoned would be the understatement of the year. The searing hot heavy-metal slab appears to shimmer and undulate as the grease and juices from hundreds of burgers splutter and bubble away. That griddle puts a perfect sear on the plump, generously sized patties. Although I estimate that it is around 6 to 7 ounces, it is so loosely packed that it appears far bigger. The pillow-soft white bun is so airy and light that it flattens around the burger yet somehow manages to remain intact.
Interestingly for such a succulent burger, it does not release a torrent of juices. The bottom bun gets reasonably saturated but most of the juiciness remains in the beef itself. It is a testament to both the grind and the griddle that this possible.
If you are a fan of bacon burgers—I usually am not—you'll be impressed with Melon's version of the sandwich. The bacon is set on a grill rack and is cooked under a broiler rather than the griddle. The result is incredibly crisp bacon, with all the rendered fat dripping away. The bacon is not served in whole rashers but rather as a mountain of curly, crisp nuggets. They make a great topping, giving each bite a perfect portion of bacon, and you don't have entire slices sliding out and disrupting sandwich integrity.
If I have one criticism of the burgers here, it's that they tend to be overcooked—not every time, but with some frequency. I like my burgers rare, but even at medium the J. G. Melon burger is excellent, losing very little succulence and flavor.
Do not miss the cottage fries. They are delectable and are shaped like the pickles that accompany the burger—a pleasing visual pairing. They may not be quite as crisp as french fries, but they have better flavor and and a great snacking shape. You can literally pop them into your mouth.
When you go, be prepared to wait. (You can eat at the bar to save time.) Be prepared for gruff service. Be prepared for an unimaginative and pedestrian beer list (try the Bloody Bull instead, a bloody Mary with beef broth).
But also be prepared for one of the finest burgers around.