What with the Shake Shack and Bill's Bar and Burger mini-chains, not to mention the dozens of other awesome independents around the city, New York has no shortage of great burgers. Any newcomer is bound to have a tough time breaking through the barrier. But at least four burger chains started in other states are trying to just the same.
Last week, I visited Elevation Burger, an organic burger chain from Falls Church Virginia, The Counter, a high concept design-a-burger chain from California, Go Burger, a brick-and-mortar version of the truck based on a Los Angeles burger joint, and Smashburger, the rapidly expanding Denver-based chain that just opened its first New York location in Brooklyn. At each restaurant, I ordered a few burgers, tried all of their sides and special menu items, as well as a milkshake.
How'd they compare to each other, and more importantly, are they going to be key players in the New York burger landscape? Let's take a look at them one at a time and see.
Home Base: California
New York Location: Times Square
Cooking Method: Grilled
Prices: Extremely high. $9.50 to $15.50 (!!!) for a burger, $6 sides, $5.50 shakes
The Burger: Their whole schtick is a sheet of paper in which you have to fill out your order by checking off boxes with a choice of four patties in three sizes, a dozen cheeses, 21 regular toppings, nine "premium" toppings, 21 sauces, and five different buns. The marketing department might consider this high-concept, cutting edge, anti-establishment type s*&t. If you want my word for it, it's stupid. Rather than a single, well-prepared product, you have your choice of over 300,000 combinations, each one of them as mediocre as the last. The restaurant is all concept, no substance. The burgers themselves are almost an afterthought to the menu design.
The burgers are large (from 1/3 to 1 whole pound post-cook weight), and cooked to the right temperature. Indeed, just looking at one, it's tough to see how there could be anything wrong with it. But bite into it, and you soon find out. The beef is flavorless and dry with a pasty, pulpy texture. Underseasoned and puck-like, it reminds me of the burgers at any fast-casual TGIFriday's-like chain, and with crazy prices to match (a meal of a burger, fries, and a milkshake cost well over $20, before tip), it's absolutely not worth the price.
The Sides: Like the burgers, the sides look great. The ultra-skinny fries and onion strings come out golden brown with a grease-free, crisp crust. But again, your mouth tells a different story than your eyes. The fries are alright, but the onion strings have absolutely no onion flavor to speak of. No sweetness, no pungency, and worst of all, no salt.
The Shakes: A high point in an otherwise dreary meal. Just the right thickness, hand-spun, and tasty. Albeit, perhaps not $5.50 tasty...
Will it Matter?: There's a line here, which can be a good sign (think: Shake Shack), but you quickly realize that it's populated pretty much 100 percent by Times Square tourists and kept long because it takes so darn long to tick off the little boxes. I'd be very shocked if Counter Burger manages to expand beyond anywhere but the tourist havens and midtown lunch deserts of New York.
Home Base: Denver
New York Location: Downtown Brooklyn
Cooking Method: Smashed onto a griddle and scraped off
Prices: $4.99 to $6.99 for burgers and sandwiches, $1.99 to $2.99 for fries, $3.99 shakes
The Burger: 1/3 or 1/2 pound patties smashed down onto a buttered griddle using a custom tool. The burgers cook almost 100 percent from one side, whereupon they're scraped up with sharpened spatulas (does all this sound familiar?), and are served on a toasted soft egg bun with a wide range of toppings that vary by location (f'rinstance, in their New Jersey locations, you can get them with fried pork roll). The burgers are big, bold, and messy, but have massive beef flavor and are very well-seasoned. This is the burger that Five Guys could be if they used better beef and had better technique. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Unlike the Counter, this is a clear example of a company that started with a great product, and designed a restaurant concept around it. It's a product and concept that work.
The Sides: The regular french fries are better than the signature smashfries, which come with olive oil and rosemary, and are pretty greasy. In fact, on my visit, all of the sides, including the sweet potato fries, haystack onions, and fried pickles were overcooked and greasy. I mean, tasty, but leaking-out-of-the-box-and-through-the-bag-into-your-clothes greasy.
The Shakes: Made with Häagen-Dazs, reasonably priced, and nice and creamy. Good deal.
Will it Matter?: This is the one to keep an eye on. It might never stack up to the Shack, but it's certainly going to give Five Guys a run for its money. In my opinion, if they can get their sides in order, it'll be the most important burger chain in the next few years. They've taken what Shake Shack started in terms of cooking technique, and put it into a format that seems more appealing to the average American, with more options and a more casual style.
Home Base: Los Angeles
New York Location: Upper East Side and Midtown West
Cooking Method: Griddled
Prices: $5 to $7.50 for a burger, $3 to $5 for sides, $5 milkshakes
The Burger: Decently juicy griddled patties made with a combination of short rib, chuck, sirloin, and brisket. They're denser than I'd like them to be, and they don't pick up too much char or browning from the griddle, but I've had worse. Toppings are fresh, the pickles are particularly nice wide slices, and the BLT Burger Sauce (which you should ask for even if you order a regular cheeseburger) has a nice tanginess to it. The main drawback is the bun, which is tall, fluffy, and cottony. It overwhelms the patty.
In addition to burgers, they've also got hyper-expensive "Kobe" hot dogs ($8!). Don't bother with these. They're mushy, with no snap, and you can get a better frank at Gray's or Papaya King for 1/6th of the price.
The Sides: Quite good. The onion rings in particular are fantastic, with sweet, thickly sliced onions in a grease-free, thin and crisp batter. The fries are par for the course, and the sweet potato fries, while tasty, are a little mushy (as sweet potato fries inevitably are).
The Shakes: Small, expensive, and from straight out of one of those churny soft-serve machines. They don't have the character of a hand-spun shake. Skip'em.
Will it Matter?: It'll survive, perhaps opening a few more midtown locations for the lunch crowd, but it'll certainly never compete with the big boys.
Home Base: Virginia
New York Location: West 14th Street
Cooking Method: Griddled
Prices: $4.59 to $6.99 for burgers, $3.59 for fries, $3.89 shakes
The Burger: They may use all-organic beef, but the diminutive patties (3.2 ounces per patty) are nearly indistinguishable from a McDonald's patty in appearance. Toppings are fresh and decent, the buns are good quality Martin's potato rolls, but the meat just kills it. Cooked to within inches of death, bland, dry, and generally unpleasant, these burgers can only be described as organic fast food. They've taken everything bad about fast food, wrapped it in an organic package, and added a few bucks to its price. Add to this a completely unmelted slice of cheese (they claim it's "6-month aged cheddar," though it certainly doesn't taste like it), and without taking into account price point, you've got what's definitely the worst burger of the bunch,
Their vegetarian patty is equally abysmal, with a mushy texture and a flavor that doesn't even vaguely bring vegetables to mind. All I could think of was, "MOCK MEAT MOCK MEAT WHY?!?" Word of advice: Do not order the "balsamic mustard" if you would like to taste anything else in your sandwich.
The Sides: "Cooked in 100% Olive Oil" is a sign written by someone who clearly does not understand the science of deep frying. It's simply impossible to deliver a crispy french fry fried in olive oil because of its low saturated fat content. The fries that were delivered were decent in flavor, but completely limp and horrendously greasy, even straight out of the fryer. Their slogan says "Ingredients Matter," but technique and basic know-how also matter.
The Shakes: Hand-spun with Blue Bunny ice cream and your choice of several toppings, they were quite tasty. Real strawberries!
Will it Matter?: It's got the feel of a McDonald's and food only slightly better. They use humanely-raised organic beef, so they've got that going for them, but there's no shortage of restaurants and chains serving humanely-raised beef in New York at a similar price point with way better flavor and an atmosphere that doesn't feel like a fast food restaurant. I'd be surprised if Elevation lasts through the end of the year.