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.
92 Third Avenue, New York NY 10003 (b/n 12th and 13th streets; map); 212-979-0053
Price: Blue 9 burger, $4.62; cheeseburger, $3.55; hamburger, $3.15; fries, $2
Notes: Open late! Sun.–Mon., 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m. to 5 a.m.
People often ask me what the best burger in New York is. It's a question I don't feel comfortable answering for a number of reasons, but most important because I haven't tried every burger in New York City.
And that is the problem I have with those "top" burger lists that seem to be bandied about with such frequency these days. There is an implied supposition that the author has indeed tried all of the burgers in the city, which of course is impossible.
You might think that the ratings derived from the mass consensus of the Zagat reader survey or of various online opinion sites or "guides" would be a bit more balanced, but I tend to find them unreliable at best. For one, I have found that in the case of the latter, people tend to post reviews out of anger derived from a negative experience. There is also the problem of context and sensibility. If you are reading this blog, you probably have a fairly evolved concept of hamburgers and can separate a great burger from its less-than-salubrious surroundings.
I always find it humorous when I read a negative review of a burger spot and the service and decor are discussed in great detail but there is nary a mention of the burger itself. Even funnier are those reviews that complain about the burger being overcooked and dried out, and then it turns out that the author was referring to a turkey or veggie burger.
So when people ask me what the best burger in New York is, I tell them that I couldn't possibly know but I can tell them my favorites. One of my favorites, and it is very high on my list—sometimes in the top spot—is Blue 9.
If you have not eaten at Blue 9 or have not eaten there as recently as the last year and a half, I implore you to go. It has improved markedly since being taken over by new management. While the recipes, save an improvement in the beef patty itself, remain the same as when Blue 9 opened about five years ago, the execution, which had always been the Achilles heel of the Ancient Regime, is now far more consistent, and the service is far friendlier.
The menu at Blue 9 will be instantly familiar to anyone who has dined at the venerable California In-N-Out Burger chain. Blue 9 is an obvious copy (or homage,, if you're feeling charitable). The menu is spartan, offering only single or double griddle-cooked patties served on generic white buns, along with fries and shakes. Just as at In-N-Out, the burgers at Blue 9 are served by default with American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and Thousand Island, with onions added by request. All the ingredients are fresh, never frozen. I spend about three weeks a year in Los Angeles and eat at In-N-Out frequently. Blue 9 really is the closest burger we have to In-N-Out in New York City.
Last week in my review of Veselka, I commented that a lot of dedicated burger spots don't get beef delivered fresh six days a week. Blue 9 does. It takes delivery of fresh patties every morning except Sunday, from London Meats. The burger mix appears to be a straight 80-20 chuck, but it remains a secret, as does the exact provenance of the potatoes used for the fries. Owner Shaun Zishan will only divulge that the latter are from Idaho. The fries are par-fried in advance to ensure a crisp product when they are ordered. They generally come out supremely crisp but can get a bit soggy. They are decent, although not world-beating. Try them with the mango-chili sauce. All the food at Blue 9 is cooked to order and the buns are delivered daily.
My favorite burger at Blue 9 is a single cheeseburger with a dab of ketchup cooked medium-rare with nothing else added. It is a simple, understated little sandwich. Easy to eat with one hand yet somehow it evokes flavors and textures far greater than the sum of its parts. The pillow-soft bun is squishy and compliant yet robust enough to hold the beef and cheese in place. The bun is toasted on a separate griddle and if you ask for it well done a dark ring will be burnished on its outer circumference contributing a pleasing snap to each bite. The generous slice of American cheese is in perfect proportion to the bread and beef and becomes delightfully molten binding the other ingredients in a gooey embrace. The beef itself is finely ground and the searing griddle puts a nice char on the outside, sealing in the juices. Each patty is sprinkled with a adobe seasoning adding a subtle salty garlic flavor to the patty. Once nestled in the bun the flavors and textures meld creating a lovely synthesis. And that is what makes a great burger in my book, it is far greater than the sum of its parts. In fact I have to say that the plain cheeseburger here attains true Umami, striking the delicate balance necessary to achieve that elusive savory taste sensation. If I had a sole criticism of the naked single it is that the burger patty is perhaps a tad too skinny, especially if you get it cooked beyond medium rare which results in a flatter burger. I don't recommend getting your burger beyond medium as it tends to get a bit dried out, because of the intense griddle heat and the sveltness of the patty.
The best selling burger at Blue 9 is the Blue 9 burger. It is a double patty with lettuce, tomato and sauce. Patterned on the In N Out Double Double, it is a well designed burger offering a nicely balanced sandwich both in terms of flavor and texture. It adds some crunch and snap to the plain cheeseburger by virtue of the lettuce and some tang thanks to the thousand island dressing. I actually prefer it as a single because it is easier to eat and the beef is flavorful enough so that it does not become obscured. But either a single or a double is good in my book, most people will probably prefer the double.
In a further adoption of the In N Out menu Blue 9 offers burgers "medieval style" which mimics In N Out's "Animal style" were the patty is cooked in yellow mustard and onions and is served with pickles and extra lettuce. Original or not it makes for a delicious variation of the standard Blue 9 burger. The pungent mustard adding a distinct tang balanced by the caramelized sweetness of the sauteed onions. All this adds up to a large sandwich that gets wonderfully sloppy, the bun so perfectly proportioned for the other burgers is a bit over matched for the torrent of medieval toppings, but it is fun to eat none the less. It is wrapped in an extra wax paper sleeve in an attempt to subdue as much as possible. There is also a "Firecracker" burger on offer that adds hot sauce. I don't recommend the latter unless you have no taste buds, or don't want to keep the ones you have. It is so spicy that it completely obscures the deliberate layering of flavors that works so well on the regular burgers.
Blue 9 may not be part of the new breed of chef driven fancy pants burgers that are gaining such popularity these days but they offer a a great burger at a reasonable price using fresh ingredients. It may not be a strikingly original concept owing as much as it does to In N Out but never the less it is at least as good as the chain and on occasion, and this will be blasphemous to fans of In N Out, surpasses it. The inconsistencies in execution and service that formally plagued Blue 9 appear to have been exorcised under the new management. I don't have any idea if it is the best burger in the city but it is certainly one of my favorites.