At Veselka, Forgo the Borscht and Get the Burger
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.
144 Second Avenue, New York NY 10003 (at 9th Street; map); 212-228-9682; veselka.com
The Short Order: Grilled, eight-ounce burgers are perfectly balanced, beefy, and smokey. An unexpectedly well-crafted burger from a joint better known for Eastern European dishes
Want Fries with That? The skin-on fries that accompany the deluxe burger are tasty, with a crisp, crunchy exterior. I didn't request it, but they came out well-done, which I prefer
Price: Cheeseburger, $6.50; cheeseburger deluxe, $8.25
Tom Birchard is a passionate burger man, which is curious, considering that he owns Veselka, the East Village Ukranian restaurant. You might not expect to find a great hamburger in a place better known for borscht, kielbasa, and pierogies. But just as Veselka has evolved from a small corner newspaper stand to the restaurant it is today, so too has the burger, reaching its current state through what Birchard describes as "a lot of trial and error."
The story of Veselka ("rainbow" in Ukranian), is one of those quintessentially American tales. Wolodymyr Darmochwal and his family fled Ukraine in the wake of WWII, surviving a German refugee camp and arriving in the U.S. in 1944. Within a decade he was able to open a small newsstand on the corner of Second Avenue and 9th Street in the East Village. By 1962 Veselka subsumed the neighboring luncheonette and started serving Ukrainian comfort food. By 1996 it had expanded further east taking over another adjoining space and creating the open restaurant of today.
Veselka is one of the last of the Slavic restaurants that once proliferated in the East Village. Other neighborhoods had the diner, with a generic "American" menu as the budget mainstay of choice, but the East Village had such venerable institutions as Leshko's and Kiev, all serving up a distinctive Eastern European menu. While there remain a couple of greasy spoon Slavic joints further up Second Avenue, Veselka is the most venerable restaurant of its type left. It is heartening that, in a city increasingly being taken over by chain stores, Veselka is still run by the same family. Birchard is Darmochwal's son-in-law, and both of Birchard's sons, Jason and Todd, work there. Even the founder's son, Mykola Darmochwal, is still involved, having recently rationalized the accounting and computer systems.
Birchard says he has worked extensively on the burger, trying out numerous bun and patty variations.
I believe him. It is a perfectly balanced burger in every important parameter.
The freshness of the ingredients is of paramount importance to him, and he says the beef is never frozen. Said beef is a fresh ground chuck that is delivered, already pattied up, by a local butcher everyday but Sunday. Does this mean that you shouldn't eat burgers on Sunday at Veselka? Of course not. Most dedicated burger joints don't get beef delivered more than three times a week, let alone six days a week.
The patty here is a full eight ounces but is quite thin compared to, say, the extremely thick burger I had at Paul's last week (it weighed the same half pound). The result of the relative sveltness is a patty with a much larger circumference than average. Fortunately, the special bun from Amy's Bread is perfectly suited for the task of covering it, fitting around the patty like the proverbial glove. The bread is densely seeded on both sides, and it was the first time I actually found that the seeds added a noticeable textural component to a burger.
The bun, despite looking enormous in height compared to the patty, is so light and airy, with a honeycomb-like interior structure, that it compresses to form the perfect beef-to-bread ratio. It also does a good job of absorbing the juice from the burger—not that this burger exude torrents of liquid, but it is nonetheless succulent and tender where it counts: inside.
The burgers are charbroiled on the same grill that the miles of kielbasa are cooked on, and I don't doubt that this contributes to the flavor of the burger. The grill puts some extremely pronounced hash marks on the meat, but because the patty's so skinny, the rest of the burger will not become as charred if you order it rare.
While I prefer griddle-cooked burgers, the one here makes a compelling case for charbroiling. The process puts a nice crust on the outside and gives it some added flavor. Biting in to the Veselka burger reveals a sandwich that has perfect textural and flavor equilibrium. The bun, with its crunchy seeded exterior, gives way to a soft, squishy interior that has a slight chewiness. The thin layer of American cheese (or the cheese of your choice) adheres patty to bun and adds a textural creaminess that complements the meat's tangy flavor. The cheese does not melt right away (it's only placed on the burger at the very end of grilling), but once the toasted bun is placed atop, it becomes delightfully gooey.
The hearty patty has a crunch from the grill marks and seared exterior while the inside is juicy and flavorful with a hearty, smoky flavor. Think back yard barbecue, this is the type of flavor Burger King promises but does not deliver on.
Because the patty is relatively thin, the burger remains perfectly balanced with each bite. It is so well balanced in all parameters—texture, size, flavor—that I eat it without anything other than the trinity of beef, bun, cheese. No ketchup, no mustard, no bacon, no rabbit food.
The skin-on fries that accompany the deluxe burger (along with coleslaw, lettuce, and tomato) are tasty, with a crisp, crunchy exterior. I didn't request it, but they came out well-done, which I prefer.
While Veselka is perhaps an unlikely destination for a burger, it is easy to recommend for its wonderfully simple incarnation of the most venerable of American sandwiches. It is a burger that is harmoniously balanced in every way.
I just received this email from Josh "Mister Cutlets" Ozersky, a longtime proponent of the Veselka burger.
A celebration of the Veselka burger and I'm not even mentioned?? I'm the one who discovered the Veselka burger! And I can prove it: http://www.chow.com/stories/11021
Food Editor / Online
New York Magazine
This is true. Ozersky has raved to me about the Veselka burger about as long as I've been editing AHT and even wrote a moving tribute to it in his book Meat Me in Manhattan. I regret the oversight. —The Mgmt.