"Unfortunately there is one major flaw in the design of the hamburger at Great Jones..."
Great Jones Cafe
54 Great Jones Street, New York NY 10013; (b/n Bowery and Lafayette; map); 212-674-9304; greatjones.com
Cooking Method: Broiled
Short Order: Outstanding beef, perfectly seasoned and cooked, hampered by sugary bun. Go for the mini burgers: same beef, better bread
Want Fries with That? Absolutely. Both the regular and the spicy sweet potato varieties are great
Price:Cheeseburger, $10.95; fries, $1.75; sweet potato fries, $2.75
The Great Jones Cafe opened just off the Bowery way back in 1983. The neighborhood was quite different back then—the cafes, restaurants, and boutiques that line the Bowery were but a developer's wet dream and the area was widely considered a rather seedy part of town with its flophouses, dive bars, and the legendary CBGB's. With the latter now shuttered Great Jones Cafe represents one of the few remaining links to a very different era, one that existed under dire economic circumstances but at the same time produced vibrant art, music, and fashion scenes. Thankfully, Great Jones remains unchanged, despite the gentrification that has gone on around it. It remains what it always was—a great neighborhood joint serving honest American food.
The decor is unpretentiously kitschy yet spartan, the jukebox still plays vinyl records (remember those?), and you have got to love a place that paints its hamburger menu on the walls.
The hamburger is a big, beefy affair. I would estimate that it clocks in at eight ounces of wonderfully fresh chuck that is delivered daily from Ottomanelli's on Bleecker Street. Although the waitress defined the cooking method as "grilled," the patty looked more like it was broiled, as it had a thick, evenly burnished crust with no hash marks. No matter the method, the result was a perfectly cooked hamburger. The impressively charred exterior—crunchy and salty—gave way to a juicy and perfectly rare inner core. It reminded me of a steak from a top-flight chop house, so impressive was the char.
The beef had a clean, familiar flavor—this is chuck at its best. I may love all the exotic blends and dry-aged beef that we are enjoying in burgers these days, but there is something reassuringly honest about a correctly ground chuck. And the beef at Great Jones is perfectly ground—supremely succulent and brimming with flavor, the juice stays in the beef rather than spilling out all over the plate. I should also note how perfectly seasoned the patty was, the salt punching up the beef flavor.
Unfortunately there is one major flaw in the design of the hamburger at Great Jones: the brioche bun is too sweet by half. Maybe even more. Just when I was coming to accept brioche with a more open mind because of my recent experiences at Minetta Tavern and 5ive Steak (in both cases the sweetness of the bread is dialed way down), along comes a brioche that, through sugary excess, represents everything I find wrong with it as a vessel for burgers. It is really too bad because physically the bun is a perfect match for the patty it holds so snugly.
Fortunately, the two-to-an-order "classic sliders" (which we refer to as mini burgers on AHT lest this guy have a fit) from the specials board come served on a bun that looks similar to the big one but without the sweetness. The beef on the mini burgers is the same as the big burger as well although it was a bit more peppery in seasoning. Since I failed to order the minis to temperature they came out cooked through yet remained impressively juicy and moist.
The cheese was also melted directly onto the beef, unlike the big burger, which has the cheese melted on to the bun instead (to worse effect, it was a bit cool by the time it made it to table). Don't miss the fries either, both the regular and the spicy sweet potato varieties are superb—crisp, crunchy, and flavorful.
The food at Great Jones is just like its jukebox—packed full of soul. It is cooked from the heart, made from ingredients sourced from local vendors, and intended to nourish a neighborhood that, despite the changing surroundings and the transient nature of many of its newer residents, still exists underneath the veneer of the "new" Bowery. The hamburger, hampered by the cloyingly sweet bun, is hard for me to recommend unequivocally despite the utterly superb beef. The mini burgers or "sliders" on the other hand are not—get them, you won't be disappointed.