The Black Label Blend Shines at City Burger

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Photographs by Robyn Lee

City Burger

1410 Broadway, New York NY 10018; map); 212 997-7770; cityburgerny.com
Cooking Method: Griddle
Short Order: Griddles replace grills at the revamped City Burger and while the regular burger is very good, the Black Label is the best burger out there for the steak lover on a budget
Want Fries with That? Go for the rings instead; the fries are serviceable but frozen
Price: Black Label Burger, $10.95 (cheese + $.0.95); cheeseburger, $5.95; fries, $2.75; rings, $3.35
Notes: Mon. to Fri., 10 a.m. - 9 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Closed Sun.

When it comes to burgers, Josh "Mr. Cutlets" Ozersky and I are on the same page. Ozersky is the erstwhile editor of Grub Street, author of The Hamburger: A History, and currently the restaurant editor at Citysearch and editor of The-Feedbag. We both like small, griddle-cooked burgers served on generic white buns with American cheese, but when it comes to steak we couldn't be more different. I like extremely moldy tasting dry aged beef served black and blue (charred exterior, cool center)—he likes his steaks cooked closer to medium, un-charred, and prefers beef that is wet aged, or at least does not taste like blue cheese. "Why even bother eating steak?" I asked him recently. He retorted that he respected my position before shoveling a burger into his mouth, the carnivore's equivalent to taking a moment with Twix.

It is thus not surprising that we diverge in our opinion of the Pat La Frieda Black Label burger, which uses dry aged USDA Prime beef. I mention Ozersky not only because it was he who announced to the world that City Burger would be the first restaurant to carry the blend, nor because he considers me the second best meat writer in New York City (I will leave it to your imagination who he considers the best), but because our diverging views illustrates the choice that burger lovers will face when confronted with the Black Label.

City Burger opened last April, somewhat improbably by the Abitinos, whose principal vocation had been running a chain of pizzerias. Perhaps with the increase in the price of flour and the continuing popularity of burgers they saw the writing on the wall and decided to diversify their portfolio. They did do one thing right from the get-go by going to Pat La Frieda for their beef.

As I noted in my recent feature on the meat wholesaler, "Using La Frieda beef does not guarantee a great burger, but it is a good start." While City Burger's initial offerings bore a striking resemblance to the burgers served at The Burger Joint and Goodburger—large flame-grilled patties, in this case eight ounces, served with "The Works" of lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, mayo, ketchup, and mustard—City Burger recently underwent a drastic makeover by replacing the grills with flattops and scaling back the sizes of the patty and bun.

Despite an initial flurry of interest both here and over at Midtown Lunch, City Burger sort of dropped off our radar. Apparently it dropped off the public's radar as well; what other reason would there be for the makeover? I never ate at the original incarnation of the restaurant, but given the choice, I prefer a griddle to a grill. In addition to radically changing their cooking method, the revamping has also led to the adoption of the vaunted Black Label.

The Standard Pat La Frieda Burger

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But let's start with the basics. The regular cheeseburger uses the standard La Frieda blend, which, until the introduction of the Black Label, could rightly have been considered the gold standard of burger blends. The reworked burger appears to be a mash-up of Shake Shack and Goodburger—griddle cooked La Frieda beef served with "The Works." At its best the regular City Burger approaches both of its competitors by providing a burger with a pleasing synergy, but the consistency is not there yet. I will get to that later as well.

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The patty does not appear to get the smash treatment like they do at Shake Shack, but the griddle still puts a nice char on the exterior and all of the several burgers I have tried were cooked perfectly to the requested temperature. The cheese melts completely and the plain white squishy bun is a thing of beauty—so simple and unassuming, while at the same time so vital, absorbing the juices and providing the perfect vessel for its cargo. Unfortunately, on my last visit the bun was a little past its optimum consumption period and featured a large crack rupturing the golden dome. It could have been warmer as well—you might ask for yours extra toasted if you are phobic about cold bread, as I certainly am. I noticed a similar freshness problem that day with the toppings—the lettuce was wilted and the onions were flaccid. I did not care for the pickles either; they too were limp and rather Sysco-like with a flavor that was too sweet and lacking tang.

Despite the inconsistency, at its best—when the supporting ingredients are fresh—City Burger offers a very good burger. The beef has a hearty, beefy flavor, the condiments are applied judiciously, and the contrast in texture between the components is exceptional—the squishiness of the bread, the snap of the lettuce, and crunch of the patty's exterior giving way to a succulent flesh.

Some work has to be done to ensure that every burger lives up to its potential, but the griddle and the beef are clearly up to the task. If City Burger only served the regular La Frieda burger it would likely be considered an also-ran in the New York City burger derby. City Burger arrived late to the starting gate and has some catching up to do&madsh;can the Black Label help City Burger catch up and pull ahead of the pack?

The Black Label Burger

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The Black Label burger is best served rare and completely plain; there is no reason to obfuscate this patty. The flavor profile of the beef is nothing short of Prime dry aged steak: musky, tangy, and mineral-rich with a distinct Roquefort cheese-like finish. Unlike a contiguous cut of steak where these notes are usually found only on the meat's circumference (unless the beef has been aged for a longer period of time than the standard 28 days, in which case the flavor will eventually permeate the entire cut), the dry aged flavor is present throughout the entire burger in the Black Label blend. Despite only containing about a third dry aged beef, the patty has an abundance of its flavor.

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Texturally, the patty also has more in common with steak than with a burger. There is a solidity, vibrancy, and firmness to the beef that makes even excellent burgers, like the regular La Frieda blend, seem somewhat mushy and mealy by comparison. At the same time it is ethereally buttery, blanketing the tongue in velvety richness. While the dominant flavor is the dry aged strip, the brisket reveals itself texturally by providing a stickiness on the molars.

The Black Label is unique in my experience for being the only burger in my memory that does not benefit from a slice of good ol' American cheese. In fact, the cheese has a difficult time adhering to the patty and ends up collecting around it a gooey mass. I suspect the high fat content and the nature of the fat itself are the culprits for this disunity. If you look at the copious juice that stream from the patty you will observe that its structure is markedly different from the juice of regular burgers—it has far more fat globules and a deeper red hue, which translates into a more luxurious mouth feel.

The plain white squishy bun it comes in is just about the perfect canvas for the masterpiece of a patty. The beef-to-bun ratio is spot on and the bread does a good job of absorbing the torrent of juice that the patty unleashes. The simplicity of the unadorned beef and bun belies the intensity, depth, and richness of flavors that the burger holds.

In case you haven't noticed, I am completely enraptured by the Black Label burger. I don't consider it an expensive burger as much as a cheap steak. In these times of economic austerity don't be surprised if you see Wall Street executives, their expense accounts suspended, lining up at City Burger to satisfy the cravings that they used to sate at expensive wood-paneled steakhouses. For the steak lover, particularly those on a budget, this is the best burger in the city right now. And that is coming from the City's second best meat writer.

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