A Great Burger by the Beach at The Windmill in Long Branch, New Jersey
586 Ocean Boulevard, Long Branch NJ 07740; map); 732-229-9863; windmillhotdogs.com
Cooking Method: Charbroiled
Short Order: Classic backyard grill-out burger served out of vintage, circa 1964 edifice that actually looks like a windmill
Want Fries with That? Untested, but they seem to be proud of their cheese fries; they get equal billing with hot dogs and burgers on the chains tag line
Price: Cheeseburger, $4.19
I don't expect every website, particularly those of hamburger joints, to be the last word in web design, but I do expect the photos of the food they use to look somewhat like the food they actually serve—especially if that hamburger is rather good. Take the website for The Windmill, for example. If I didn't know better, and if a friend who grew up near to the Long Branch original hadn't vouched for it, I would never go to the Windmill based on the picture of the hamburger they use on their website. It looks like a stock photo from an agency: big crusty looking bun, vibrantly colored rabbit food that defies gravity by not sagging under the weight of the double serving of beef, the frilly lettuce perfectly ruffled on top of the bottom bun. The picture looks like something from a generic national fast food chain whose food is worse than shown, rather than what the Windmill is: a distinctive regional chain with a burger that is much better than what is pictured on their website.
Don't be fooled into getting the wrong burger. While The Windmill does offer a "California" burger with lettuce, tomato, and onion on a hard roll as pictured on their website, the basic charbroiled cheeseburger on a generic white bun is a thing of understated beauty. Even though I am a big proponent of griddle-cooked hamburgers, there is something that just feels right about eating charbroiled burgers near the beach. The salt in the air competes with the smoke from the grill for your attention as the taste of the hash marked patties evoke memories of backyard cookouts, beach parties, and summer vacations. There is something festive about this type of hamburger, but I think that they need to be eaten outdoors for the best effect. And that is where I recommend you eat the hamburger at The Windmill.
It may be skinny and cooked through, but the fresh, never frozen, beef is juicy nonetheless and has some delightful grill marks that have a pleasing acridity and provide a nice crunch. Underseasoned? Perhaps a tad, but you will hardly notice if you climb the winding stairs up to the outdoor balcony, sit down on the picnic tables, and breathe in the warm, salty breeze. Although the squishy bun may be a bit large for a single patty, it is an otherwise perfect vessel for the smoky patty. You might ask for a double to redress the imbalance or you could just add some pickles and a dollop of mustard or red relish.
The Windmill website might not have the best picture of the hamburgers that they serve, but it at least lets you know that the chain has eight locations throughout New Jersey with a ninth opening soon in Hoboken. I can't imagine that the burgers at any of the other outposts could taste better than the one served at the circa 1964 original in Long Branch, which is the only restaurant in the chain that actually looks like a windmill. You need to be outdoors in the sun with a sea breeze blowing to get the most out of this burger.