Paul's Da Burger Joint
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.
Paul's Da Burger Joint
131 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10003 (at St. Mark's Place; map); 212-529-3033; paulsburgers.com
Heat Source: Flat-top griddle
Bun Type: Seeded Wonder bread roast beef roll, un-toasted unless you request it toasted.
The Short Order: Paul's burger has a lot of problems. The bun is too small and doesn't hold up to the patty. The patty is flavorless and needs to be heaped with toppings in order to taste like anything.
Want Fries with That? No; they don't have much flavor and you should be full enough from eating the burger alone.
Price: Burger, $4.20/Deluxe, $6.70; cheeseburger, $4.80/7.30; bacon cheeseburger, $8.10/$10.60
I remember when Paul's Palace (now known as Paul's Da Burger Joint) opened back in 1989. It was an audacious move to open a burger joint in the bohemian East Village during a time when wheat grass, alfalfa sprouts, tofu and other health food fads dominated the hood's culinary zeitgeist. Juice bars and sushi were trendy; big greasy burgers and fries, not so much. But Paul apparently knew something, because when the tragically hip sprout eaters got drunk, wheat grass juice was no match for a big, greasy burger and fries.
He also knew that working people wanted a decent meal at a good price. Almost two decades later Paul's thrives, still curing hangovers and ensuring that the steady stream of city workers, truck drivers, college students, and mailmen flocking here were satiated.
Paul's serves a burger style first popularized by Jackson Hole back in the 1970s—a hefty eight-ounce griddle-cooked burger that is so thick, it requires a metal dome to be placed on top during cooking, so the beef reaches the proper temperature. Paul's is not alone in the immediate neighborhood in offering this type of burger—both Silver Spurs and Cozy Soup 'n Burger over on Broadway offer variations of the theme, albeit with far less success. I have heard that Paul actually worked at Jackson Hole at one point; if so, he clearly picked up a thing or two.
What Paul's Is Not
In some ways it's easier to define Paul's by what it is not, rather than what it is. It's not a trendy chef-driven burger joint designed by architects with a custom Pat La Frieda beef blend with organic veggies. Rather, Paul's is decorated in an eclectic style: black-and-white checker board tablecloths, colored lights, snarky signs, and a menagerie of kitschy tchotchkes lining the walls. While they do offer fresh beef, it's just a simple ground sirloin and the lettuce is plain ol' iceburg, as white as the buns they use.
Paul's does not serve, despite the spirited claim emblazoned in neon on the facade, "The best burger in NYC." In fact it does not even serve "the best burger in the East Village" as another sign claims (certainly not with Veselka around the corner). But what Paul's does offer is an honest-to-goodness bargain, especially in this day and age. A plain burger here weighs a full half-pound yet costs less than a gallon of gas. Even a loaded bacon cheeseburger deluxe with onions comes in at under $10. If you got one of those economic stimulus payments this year, you could stay full at Paul's for days.
It's been a few years since I actually saw Paul, but when I did, I noticed how little he's aged since the joint first opened. Sure, maybe he put on a few pounds, but the boyish charm and devilish grin remain.
The Paul's Vibe
There is a definite attitude at Paul's. Not rude, although the uninitiated might feel that way. Sardonic and snarky are more accurate, as reflected in the signage, or more important, the attitude between customers and servers. Try asking for another napkin and the deadpan response will be "sorry, one to a customer." Also be prepared for insane waitresses. I often wonder how Paul managed to pick the most extroverted, quirky characters. It's a burger with a side of Vaudeville.
The burgers are cooked on a Toastmaster griddle under the metal domes. Burgers are cooked to order and griddlemen do a great job getting temperatures just right. Even a plain burger is dauntingly massive, while going deluxe adds a mountain of fries and some sad-looking lettuce and tomatoes. There are numerous specialty burgers, such as the St. Mark's burger (a cheeseburger with mushrooms and onions), the East Side "house specialty" burger (bacon, cheese, ham, mushrooms, tomato and onion) and even a Beef Tartare burger, served with raw egg and capers. As a purist, I went for the classic American cheeseburger, which may not be the right way to go here.
The Problem with Paul's
It's sad, but there are a few problems with Paul's burger, and they are big—or in the case of the bun, far too small. Paul's Wonder Bread roast beef rolls with seeds are no match for the hefty, juicy burger. The bun's bottom half completely disintegrates from burger juice while the other half sits helplessly like a beanie on a rotund child, unable to cover much. Eating even a plain burger here yields messy results; a grease-dripping-down-your-sleeve experience. Add the heaping toppings and you'll need silverware. The bun is also served un-toasted and on a recent trip was slightly stale, so be sure to order a toasted bun.
I often discuss beef-to-bun ratios when critiquing burgers but it's pointless here. There is virtually no ratio with this meaty sandwich. For the sake of comparison, imagine a patty double the Shake Shack burger, stuffed into the same-sized bun. The burger requires three hands to eat, and the proverbial five napkins to clean up (of course to get five napkins you would have to order five burgers).
The beef, even though it's fresh-ground sirloin and quite juicy, is virtually flavorless. Not underseasoned, as that would imply that something was added. Rather, the beef lacks even a hint of salt and pepper. Given the bland situation, pile on the toppings: bacon, cheese, onions, mushrooms, ham, whatever. This beef needs all the help it can get. Bacon fan or not, the crunchy strip is almost required here, adding essential saltiness and crunch to the bland and texturally mushy sandwich. Skip the steak fries—though crisp, they, too, lack flavor. Besides, the burger is so massive, you don't really need them.
I Really Do Wanna Like It
Writing this review caused me some consternation. I don't like writing negative reviews about places that I want to like, and I really want to like Paul's. As a staple in my neighborhood, Paul's offers an unpretentious, value-driven burger with a side of attitude. This is real food for working people at a fair price.
But for the burger lover, it falls short in what really matters—taste.