Shopsin's General Store
Stall 16, Essex Street Market, 120 Essex Street, New York NY 10002 (b/n Delancey Street and Rivington Street; map); 212-924-5160; shopsins.com
The Short Order: The sliders remain excellent, but the reworked burger using "Big Marty" buns is also worth getting and a big improvement over the ciabatta that was formerly used
Want Fries with That? Yes, the skin on, hand cut fries are irresistible
Price: Sliders, 3 for $10; hamburger, $10; green chili cheeseburger, $12
Notes: Tues. to Sat., 9 a.m. - 3 p.m.
When I reviewed Shopsin's last September I raved about the sliders, but found the ciabatta bunned burger to be less than desirable. It was thus with some trepidation that I ventured back to Shopsin's to try his cheeseburger soup and Conan Burger for my piece on hamburger variations and inspirations. I half expected to have a ciabatta roll thrown at me, but Kenny did not even mention the review until I had finished eating and he had plunked himself in a chair next to me to write out the check.
I don't think Kenny likes giving out the check—he finds it somewhat distasteful. It is the one thing that Shopsin's has in common with every other restaurant in the world: They have to charge for the meal. It's not that Kenny wants to give away the meal for free; it's that as far as he is concerned the significant transaction occurred when you decided to eat at his restaurant and he allowed you to do so. As he says of new customers, they "have to prove it to me that they are okay to feed." Shopsin considers the relationship between new customers and his restaurant essentially adversarial until a particular threshhold is met—once you eventually become an old customer—at which point the relationship becomes "really intimate and family-like." I am almost getting there. At least, I think I am.
After he had finished scrawling out my check and handed it to me, Kenny reached into the pocket of his dungarees and produced a shopping list that he furtively turned in my direction, as if he were showing me his poker hand. "You are absolutely right" he said, and pointed to the first item listed on the scrap of paper: "hamburger buns." (I must admit that when I realized that I had not unduly offended Shopsin with my comments on the ciabatta, I felt relieved, letting out a faint sigh that went unnoticed.) He began to tell me he was thinking about using Martin's Famous "Big Marty's" buns instead of the ill-suited Italian loaf.
I have always admired the Big Marty's buns on the supermarket shelves—they have a regal-looking golden dome that is lavishly studded with sesame seeds—but I have never tried them as I usually make sliders and use Martin's potato rolls instead. I was thus quite enthused by the prospect of sampling the new burger. Of course, about a dozen burgers and trips to Los Angeles and London, not to mention the holidays, came between me and the reworked Shopsin burger.
I managed to make it back to the Shopsin's twice last week and dine on separate (but equal) occasions with two of the world's leading authorities on hamburgers: Josh "Mr. Gout" Ozersky and George "Hamburger America" Motz. Shopsin, despite his disdain for bloggers and food writers, is quite familiar with their work and mine, and wastes no time in telling us how awful it all is. I had made plans to meet Ozersky for lunch a while ago and neither one of us realized that we had scheduled it at the exact time as the inauguration. I received a panicked call from Ozersky asking, "Do you think he will be open?" I reassured him that Shopsin was far to cynical to care about watching some ceremony, irrespective of its significance. I felt the same way and relished chomping in to a hamburger while everyone else was glued to the television. Ozersky seemed more conflicted, but we went ahead with our plan to meet at the Essex Street Market.
Kenny might mince onions into a microscopic dice for his lip smacking chili, but he doesn't mince his words. "The Feedbag sucks these days," he tells Ozersky in no uncertain terms, a hint of disappointment lurking underneath the brashness of the statement. "You need to put more of yourself in to it, make it more personal," he advises. Ozersky decides to oblige him and the next day reveals, and indeed revels in, the fact that he has contracted gout—the king of diseases and the disease of kings. The internet piles on poor Josh, gloating at his misfortune. But Kenny was right—The Feedbag got linked to from all manner of obscure corners of the internet and the post received more comments than any other on the blog.
I was eager to try the burger with the new bun, but Kenny had even more surprises in store for me. "I have a new technique for making them," he stated. Instead of the griddle he now uses a very small pan just big enough to hold the burger and cooks it at a very high heat. He packs the center of the burger with butter and then covers the pan with a lid. "People don't realize that when you cover a pan it actually makes the bottom hotter." Sure enough, the burger had an impressive char on the outside and remarkably tasted vaguely char-grilled, having that unmistakable sweet but acrid flavor of flame cooking.
Who knows what lunacy Mad Professor Shopsin is up to in the kitchen to achieve this—he is known to bore out his burners to make them deliver twice the gas, so I can only imagine the heat transfer that is going on back there. Perhaps he uses a lid that is larger than the pan and the flames are directly hitting the beef. Kenny is a molecular gastronomist, but he approaches it from the hardware store rather than the science laboratory. When Ozersky asked if he had seen the recent Feedbag video revealing that Shake Shack uses a paint scraper on their burgers, Shopsin produced his own scraper that looked like it had been in use since his original location on Bedford Street in the West Village.
The paint scraper might be old news to Kenny, but his new burger is superb. It had a subtle smokiness, but it also had the virtues of flattop cooking: a uniform crust and an impressive succulence. The fresh ground chuck from Jeffrey's Meats has a bold, beefy taste and a flaky texture. "That Black Label is bullshit; all you need is regular chuck," Kenny stated unequivocally, as if he had tried it, which, of course, he has not. I disagree with him vehemently—the Black Label is my favorite blend—but Kenny's effort makes a compelling case for his view. It really is a wonderful burger, especially with its fancy new bun that is perfectly compliant with a pleasing chewiness. The American cheese comes melted in a molten neon yellow mass and the beef-bun-cheese trinity is all that I need—no ketchup or mustard required.
Although the burger may not need ketchup, Shopsin does provide individual Heinz ketchup bottles to each customer. They are expensive, costing him $0.75 each, but he uses them because when people get them, "they smile." I didn't even think that the skin-on fries needed ketchup—they were perfectly succulent and flavorful on their own, and that is coming from someone who usually does not enjoy skin-on fries at all. I polished off the bowl of fries while Ozersky took care of Shopsin's famous and fantastic mac 'n cheese pancakes with maple syrup and hot sauce.
Ozersky wouldn't eat the burger as I ordered it since it was too rare for him, although he said he would have liked to try the edge that was cooked through. I might have let him if he had not wandered off to the next stall, ostensibly to watch President Obama take the oath of office, leaving me alone with the burger. At least that is what the self-confessed cold war liberal claimed. I suspect it was the charms of Ann Saxelby that allured him away from the burger—it was his red blooded manhood more than his blue state loyalty.
We both agree that the sliders we shared as an appetizer prepared by Kenny's son Zach were sensational. "He found a way to improve them," Kenny said of his son's effort. "He griddles the bun before steaming them. I'm lazy; I just steam them." Sure enough, while the potato roll retained that puffy, soft quality of the steaming process, it also had a crispy component that added a pleasing textural contrast. Motz loved the sliders as well when I ate with him a couple of days later, calling them "incredible" and later noting that they are "authentic sliders, not over-crafted, over-touched, fussed with mini-burgers that some high-end restaurants are pushing on their bar menus. Kenny actually cares about what he serves people and the attention to detail shows."
The Green Chile Cheeseburger
Motz and I had been meaning to have a burger together for a while and since I had noticed that Shopsin was serving a green chile cheeseburger, I suggested we meet there. The green chile cheeseburger was brought to national prominence by Motz who featured the Santa Fe, New Mexico, restaurant Bobcat Bite and their signature burger in Hamburger America. Since he has eaten more than his fair share of green chile burgers and from the original source, I was curious as to how Shopsin's version measured up. Shopsin gets his green chiles "fresh frozen" directly from Hatch, the very same place that the Bobcat gets theirs from. Since the chiles are seasonal even the Bobcat Bite uses frozen ones during much of the year.
When the burger showed up George commented, "That's a green chile cheeseburger, alright," after surveying the sandwich. The green chiles are not overly fiery hot, but they do have some respectable heat to them that tends to build up as you make your way through the burger. I liked them just fine, but did not think the burger really needed them—it can stand on its own just fine.
If I had to choose between the sliders and the regular burgers I would still go for the sliders. They really are superb and receive a ringing endorsement form both Ozersky and Motz. But the burger with the new bun is also easy to recommend and is probably a better value. Either way, you are in for a great burger at Shopsin's.