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Schnipper's Quality Kitchen

620 8th Avenue, New York NY 10018 (at 41st St; map); 212-921-2400; schnippers.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A fast food/roadside-style burger that gets the fundamentals of burgercraft right, but elevates the genre by using top quality ingredients
Want Fries with That? No; unlike the burgers they are unexceptional
Price: Cheeseburger, $5.99; Green Chile Cheeseburger, $8.99

It is hard to talk about Schnipper's Quality Kitchen and not mention the 800 pound gorilla in the room—or, rather, a few blocks north. I am taking about Shake Shack, Danny Meyer's rapidly growing chain, that recently opened an outpost by Times Square. While the Schnipper brothers received some acclaim when they opened their Quality Kitchen around a year and a half ago—George Motz, for example loved the place, noting that the "burgers are made with an attention to what goes into the American classic"—our own Ed Levine was less impressed, awarding the place a B+ for the burgers (and a lower score for the rest of the comfort food-themed menu).

Now, a B+ in and of itself is not a bad score, but in a town full of A+ burgers it's behind the curve. With the newly opened competition so close to home, it's hard not feel that the Schnippers adopted the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mantra when they started getting their beef from Pat La Frieda, the very butcher who was instrumental in Shake Shack's success. I ventured to Midtown to see if the switch in beef could turn a B+ in to something better.

While it's normally my practice to try a plain hamburger on a bun for the purposes of review, I don't see people ordering that way at Schnipper's. The menu is set up to offer you more rather than less, and encourages experimentation. A number of composed burgers are offered, homages to some of the regional styles that the Schnipper brothers tried on a cross-country pilgrimage when researching their menu.

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The regular cheeseburger looks like the classic Southern California model, topped with the standard roughage: tomato, lettuce, red onion, and pickles. They also offer a special sauce, although I'm glad I skipped it when I ordered up a rare burger. The produce was all beyond reproach—crisp, vibrantly colored, and fresh tasting.

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The beef had a steak-like sweetness (there seems to be a lot of short rib going on here) and envelopes your mouth in a rich, velvety blanket of beefiness. The patty was nicely salted and delivered rare as ordered with some decent charring, but not enough of a crust. It seems impossible to overhype La Frieda beef, despite La Frieda's one man publicity department Mark Pastore's best efforts.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the bun that I found most impressive. While there are plenty of other places serving top quality beef, I don't know of any place that has a better bun than Schnipper's—it has a perfect golden dome, comes toasted to a striking bronze hue, and has a pillow-soft sponginess. It looks like the perfect fast food bun, but feels like it comes from an artisanal bakery—the best of both worlds.

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I couldn't resist ordering the Green Chile Cheeseburger, a variation of the New Mexican regional burger style. While New Mexicans use hatch chiles, the Schnipper's burger uses a blend of poblano and jalepeno peppers to similar Scoville effect. It comes topped with a creamy blend of cheese and Schnipper's sauce. The result is a pleasingly synergistic construction.

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I thought I would test the kitchen and ordered the burger medium along with the rare cheeseburger. The bad news is that it came out beyond that, appearing to be cooked fully through with nary a hint of pink. The good news is that it was moist and flaky with a much better crust than the rare burger.

Remarkably, the beef doesn't have a problem asserting itself over the heat and smokiness of the peppers. Perhaps because said heat doesn't hit you immediately, but rather builds up on the palate before reaching a fiery crescendo, it allows the hearty flavor of the beef to hit you first. I found the combinations of fat and smoke and fire and heartiness to be intoxicating.

As much as I admire the cheeseburger at Schnipper's Quality Kitchen—and contrary to my usual minimalist tendencies—I may have to concede that the Green Chile Cheeseburger is the most compelling item on the menu. My only complaint? It's a tad pricey at almost $9.

A strong recommendation, then, for Schnipper's Quality Kitchen. The addition of the new beef blend, combined with the masterful bun, has elevated the burger from an also-ran into one of the top contenders in the city—one that can stand on its own merits. Even when compared to an 800 pound gorilla.

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