Little Italy: Mulberry Street Bar: The Death of a Dive, The Birth of a Burger
Mulberry Street Bar
176 Mulberry Street, New York NY 10013 (map); 212-226-9345
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A fine patty of Pat LaFrieda beef, cooked well, on a great bun
Want Fries With That? There are no fries, but the homemade potato chips are thick, crunchy, and potato-ey
It seems like nearly every movie shot in Little Italy has a scene shot in the Mulberry Street Bar, the dive just north of Grand that looks like it hasn't changed its pressed-tin ceilings, tiled floors, or wooden bar since it opened in 1908. The Sopranos, Contract on Cherry Street, Donnie Brasco, and multiple episodes of Law & Order have been shot here, just to name a few. Despite this Hollywood pedigree, it remained a local hangout. The kind of place you could stop by on a Wednesday afternoon and share a pint with the old guy on the respirator in the corner, or perhaps a visiting crew of bikers from Philly.
I liked the place. There was nothing fancy except the space-age jukebox (which featured Sinatra classics alongside Baha Men), tall boys of PBR were $2, pitchers of beer pulled from clean, cold taps were $12, the servers and bartenders were comely in that slightly busted way, and you never had to worry about what to order because there was no menu.
I first noticed the change about a month ago when the back side of the restaurant was shut down for renovations. What are they doing to my bar? I thought to myself. The bartender—between getting her photo shot with a dozen dirty old men on the street and delivering a few free shots of Jameson to regulars—confirmed: the place was under new management, and they were making an effort to be "I dunno, classier, I guess."
Was Mulberry Street Bar destined to become yet another Little Italy tourist-trap red sauce Italian joint complete with menu hawker and cheesy Italian music?
Thank god when they opened it was with very little fanfare and a very small menu. Mulberry Street Bar might not be quite the dive it used to be—after all, you can't be considered a dive if you're making brick oven pizza to order and firing off Pat LaFrieda burgers, can you?—but it's still got it where it counts, and, as it turns out, cooks a mean burger to boot.
Made from a six-ounce patty of Pat Lafrieda beef, the burger starts with a mix of chuck, sirloin, and brisket, heavily seasoned with salt and pepper, and grilled over an open flame. The cooking on these patties is pretty consistently a shade under the medium rare I request, but with beef this good, it doesn't matter much.
It comes topped with your choice of cheese, along with a handful of crinkle cut dill chips, Romaine lettuce, freshly sliced red onions, and predictably bland, mealy tomatoes. I left the tomatoes off. It's a classic burger all around, and one that's executed extremely well. Seasoning, fat content, cheese melting, bun-toasting, everything is spot on—practically the platonic ideal of a pub-style fat grilled burger.
The bun itself is exceptional. A soft roll dusted with semolina for a bit of texture, it comes well-domed, but squishes down nicely when you bite into it, with a mild sweetness that complements the beef nicely. A nice even golden brown toasting helps it to stand up against the voluminous juices that squeeze out of the patty as you bite.
They've also got a few serviceable sandwiches and salads, along with some damn fine pizza (more on that later). A 1/4-pound grilled hot dog comes on a similarly great bun, though I wish they'd used natural casing Sabrett's dogs instead of the skinless kind.
Perhaps the best part of the whole deal is the house-made potato chips. They're thick-cut and robust with great potato flavor. It may be seen as a flaw, but I like that their thickness gives them some spots that are shatter-crisp, while other areas stay soft and fluffy, kind of like a potato chip-french fry hybrid.
I will still lament the loss of my favorite neighborhood dive, but a good burger is always a welcome addition, particularly in the sea of red sauce that surrounds it. I bet even Old Blue Eyes would take a bite.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.