Bill's Classic with Cheese

The Bill's Classic with American Cheese is phenomenal. Liberally seasoned with salt, sear-crusted to perfection, and just juicy enough, it's good enough to eat plain—though it does come with pickle, tomato, and lettuce. $5.95. [Photographs: Adam Kuban]

Bill's Bar and Burger opens to the public today, but A Hamburger Today got a sneak peek and tasting yesterday. Of course, mileage may vary once the place has to deal with the strain of burger-hungry Meatpacking magpies, but based on yesterday's round of burgers, the place is killer. Dare I say it ... dare I? If the burger quality holds up at Bill's Bar and Burger, then the Shake Shack, long my gold standard for this type of burger, will have a serious—and I mean SERIOUS—rival for my top-of-the-pops favorite burger in NYC. Like neck-and-neck. Like Spy vs. Spy. Like trying to choose which is cooler, Lion Force Voltron or Vehicle Voltron. More pics and analysis, after the jump.

Bill's Classic with Cheese, Autopsy

Yeah, I said it was good enough to go without toppings, but a thin slice of raw red onion is oh so nice on it.

I was rolling my eyes a little when Josh Ozersky declared it "the best hamburger in New York," but I had to eat a little bit of crow after tasting this thing. Is it the best? You simply can't declare that after one very controlled advance tasting, but it's damn, damn fine.

Smash it down

Bill's uses the "smash technique" along with an ultrahot nonstick Miraclean griddle to create a salty-crunchy sear on the patty, a now–de rigueur LaFrieda beef blend.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because this is largely what the Shake Shack does. And I suspect part of the narrative you'll see will be, "This is Steve Hanson's answer to the Shake Shack." One vital difference: Bill's uses a five-ounce patty whereas the Shack is rocking four ounces. That little bit extra makes a surprisingly big difference, allowing the patty more spread room and hence more surface area for crusty goodness.

The cook employs the smash technique, really putting some muscle into it. Oh, did I tell you that these burgers are nicely seasoned? The cooks have a tray of salt that they basically dredge the patties in.

A Tale of Influences

The Vitals

  • Burgers range from $5.50 (Bill's Classic) to $6.95 (Fat Cat); my favorite, Bill's Classic with American Cheese, is $5.95 and comes with lettuce, tomato, and pickle slices; ask for some raw onion on it, and you've got perfection, my friend
  • The best sides were the tempura-like veggie fries and the disco fries
  • The shakes and malts are off the hook. Like crazy-ass drinkable sundaes
  • Bill's Bar and Burger is the latest Steve Hanson/B. R. Guest venture. Other restaurants in the group include Vento, next door; Blue Water Grill; Dos Caminos; Ruby Foo's, and Primehouse New York, among others

Yes, the Shack-Bill's comparison is probably inevitable, but you know what? While fans of this burger style owe the Shack a huge debt of gratitude for popularizing it in New York City, the Shack didn't come up with this idea on its own. The Steak 'n Shake chain and its cooking method were a large part of the inspiration behind Shake Shack. And Steak 'n Shake itself, founded in 1934 in Illinois, merely reflects the way burgers were cooked at that time—fresh-not-frozen ground beef, smashed down on a hot griddle, served with little in the way of accompaniment. It's a burger style you still see at unassuming mom-and-pop burger joints, diners, and greasy spoons in the Midwest.

It's the type of burger I grew up eating, which explains why I love an plain Shack cheeseburger so much and why Bill's Bar and Burger now has me so jazzed.

One of my favorite Kansas burger joints is Bobo's Drive-in, and the Bill's Classic burger comes as close to approximating Bobo's crusty patty sear as almost anything I've seen in NYC. Better yet, the Bill's patty is thicker than Bobo's, so you don't need to order a double to get the right beef-to-bun ratio. It's well-balanced as is.

In fact, it's kind of funny to see a burger style I grew up with, cooked by anonymous Joe and Jane griddle jockeys, get the kind of treatment it has at the hands of highfalutin' restaurateurs (not to mention watch a new chain like Smashburger spread like wildfire by making the technique a central part of its image and branding). Things have come full circle; the five lions have joined to form a Voltron of unstoppable burger deliciousness.

And Now It's Time to Look at Bill's Burger Pr0n

The Fat Cat is a double-patty burger in which the patties sandwich a layer of American cheese. Sure it's served on an English muffin, but that bunnage actually suits it well. The muffin is toasted and buttered, and the burger is topped with caramelized onions. It's not quite a true double, though. The two meat discs are bigger than half patties but smaller than whole ones so they can fit on the muffin. Here's the autopsy:

Traditionalists, shut your traps. The muffin stands up well to the butter, juices, and onion. But, if you ask, word is they'll serve it on a regular bun for you.

Here's The Sunset and Vine. Yes, the name gives it away, doesn't it? It's no surprise that it's sort of a California-inspired (read "In-N-Out–inspired") burger, with crisp lettuce, fresh tomato, and a secret sauce. The flavors worked well together, but this burger was a little messy.

Other burgers on the menu include a turkey burger that was almost sausagelike, the patty being mixed with provolone, parsley, and garlic to give it some honest-to-goodness flavor. It was actually good, but with the Classic with Cheese and the Fat Cat on the same menu, I'd only see a beef-but-not-poultry-averse eater going for it.

The one burger we didn't get to try was The Bobcat, which true burgerheads will recognize by the name as an homage to the New Mexican green chile cheeseburger served at places like Bobcat Bite. Almost no one in New York has a green chile cheeseburger on the menu because these chiles are hard to get (though Schnipper's approximates one with roasted poblanos). But B. R. Guest restaurant Dos Caminos uses them, and Bill's is using that connection for its burgers.

The Sides

These crispy veggie fries ($4.50) were surprisingly great. The batter was light and delicate, like a good tempura, and the vegetables came out crisp-tender. I didn't expect to like this item as much as I did, but I will say right now that this is the side to get.

I'm not a french fry guy, but these were good ($3.50). Maybe could have used a little more salt. They're cut fresh from Kennebec potatoes.

Disco fries ($4.50) are a New Jersey–diner thing. Fries covered with melted cheese and gravy. I've actually never had the real thing, but I understand that "the real thing" is covered with mozzarella and brown gravy. At Bill's, they use a Cheez Whiz–like sauce. I preferred these to the plain fries. Yeah, because I'm not a fry guy.

I was hoping that the onion rings ($3.50) would use the same light, delicate batter as the veggie fries, but if they did, these must have been left in the fryer a little longer. The batter here was a little too thick and well-done.

As far as sides go, I'd be all over the veggie fries as a burger accompaniment. But, hell, if you're with a group, the sides are inexpensive enough that you could all order one of each and split them. It's a bit more fun that way, anyway.

Bill's will open for dinner at 6 p.m. (Friday, October 16) and will start lunch service on Monday (October 19) at noon. Take-out will be available at launch with delivery to come later.

Oh, and who's Bill? It's named for a place Steve Hanson used to go to as a kid in Westchester County.

Bill's Bar and Burger

22 Ninth Avenue, New York NY 10014 (in the old Hog Pit space at 13th; map)
212-414-3003; @billsnyc

Video Bonus: Lion Force Voltron vs. Vehicle Voltron


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