Mel's Burger Bar
2850 Broadway (b/n 110th and 111th; map); 212-865-7100; melsburgerbar.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Big burgers, big prices, moderate flavor.
Want Fries with That? Fries have the potential to be excellent but were a little leathery.
Prices: Burgers, $8.50-12.50; Sides $4-$6; Shakes $6
Notes: They cook everything a shade closer to well-done. If you mean medium, ask for rare.
Ever since Burger Joy and Burger-On-Flame closed down (I believe over a decade ago), there's been a dearth of decent burger options in my childhood neighborhood of Morningside Heights. It's never made much sense to me. You'd think with Columbia, Barnard, and the Manhattan School of Music nearby that the neighborhood would be rife with good cheap burgers. Bakeries, delis, high-end casual dining, jazz clubs, breakfast spots, and dives? Sure. But no burgers.
Seems that the Nick Tsoulos, owner of the successful mini-chain Patsy's Pizzerias and the equally well-liked fast-casual chain Goodburger saw the hole and jumped for it. Mel's Burger Bar opened just this past August—and just in time. Word is that there's a Five Guys opening up right across the street.
A six-foot tall lighted sign proclaims "Mel's" in strobing lights at the back of the restaurant, adding to the glow of the 6 flat screen tv's the space is decked out with. It's an odd mix of vintage burger, hollywood glitz, and college sport's bar that still manages to be relatively inviting.
Judging by their menu, it's clear these folks have done their homework. They've got their versions of several classic burgers including The Original ($8.50), an homage to Louis Lunch from New Haven (one of the supposed birthplaces of the hamburger). Like the Louis' version, they serve it on toasted white bread, though it's a cursory immitation at best, as it comes served with lettuce and pickles—neither of which are available on the Louis' original. Fortunately, their meat is a little tastier than the Louis Lunch burger which is under-seasoned and bland, but only just.
Mel's Double Double With Cheese (don't Double Doubles by definition come with cheese?) had little to do with the In-N-Out original, due to the fact that a double stack of 5-ounce patties make the sandwich absurdly large. The signature spread that adds the necessary sweet-tart-creamy note to tie together the original Double Double was also conspicuously missing.
I'd like to be able to judge these burgers solely on their taste rather than being nitpicky about their failure to grasp the concept of the originals they are nodding to, but it's tough when they are so conspicuously and self-consciously called out on the menu. You can almost hear Rich Robinson, the chef of Rue 57 who designed the menu saying "See? I did my homework: I'm a member of the burger cognoscenti!" Unfortunately, they pay homage in name only, failing to live up to the bar set by their predecessors.
It all comes down to the meat. In a city full of fantastic burgers, "good" is simply not good enough. Despite the custom Pat LaFrieda blend, it comes out underseasoned, relatively bland, and grainy. It seems sad to think, but perhaps the Pat LaFrieda label doesn't carry the weight it once used to?
That said, their regular cheeseburger (the Cheeseburger Baby, $9.25), served on a Martin's potato roll was far better than either of the specialty sandwiches, particularly when ordered medium-rare. The kitchen tends to overshoot their temps, so make sure to order a shade rarer than you'd actually like it. With a proper pink center, the meat was quite moist if not drippingly juicy.
I had higher hopes for The Broadway $10.25, their version of a classic patty melt with a burger patty, caramelized onions, and swiss on toasted rye along with a couple slices of Nueske's bacon and Jalepeños. It's a fine sandwich, but once again failed to properly grasp the concept of a patty melt. In a great patty melt, the bread, cheese, and patty should form a unified whole. This sandwich simply didn't come together cohesively.
Far better than the actual burgers was the fried Grouper Sandwich ($12), served with a tarragon-flavored tartar sauce. It's messy, but worth the trouble of eating. The coleslaw that comes standard with all the sandwiches was also fantastic. Creamy but light, the way a good slaw should be.
Good fried food seemed to be a theme. While the Onion Strings ($5) were crisp and sweet (though a little tough), even better were the breaded and fried eggplant wedges, served with spicy marinara sauce. Creamy in the center, they were crisp and greaseless.
If fries are your thing, it's better to stick with the regular Fresh Cut Fries ($4) which are intensely potatoey (though like the onion strings, slightly tough). Both the Atomic Fries ($5, essentially fries with Frank's Red Hot on them) and Disco Fries ($6) were a disappointment. The Disco fries in particular came with a sorry amount of dried out gravy under a firmly coagulated mass of cheese.
I'm not much of a shake drinker myself (how someone consumes a whole burger, fries, and a shake is beyond me), but Robyn ordered the Cookie Monster ($7) which was, frankly delicious. Just thick enough to be rich, but not so thick that you suck your face through the straw trying to get it up.
Carrying on with their homage-to-classics concept, Mel's also offers "Burgers by the sack," but their interpretation is a sad joke at best. The term originates from the earliest slider joints which would sell bags of a dozen burgers or so for about a nickel apiece. It was a cheap, filling, and easy way to bring home dinner for the family. Somehow, buying a "sack" of 2 burgers, waiting 10 minutes for them to cook and then paying a full $16 for them seems to once again completely miss the point.
If the decent-but-nothing-special burgers at Mel's prove anything, it's that simply knowing about burgers is not enough. You've got to really understand burgers, and that's where Mel's falls short.
For now, they're about as good a burger as you can get in Morningside Heights. We're still waiting for that gold mine to open up.