At the Troy Waterfront Farmers' Market (indoors November through April at the Uncle Sam Atrium); 518-618-2333; nighthawkskitchen.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A coarsely ground smashed burger that balances meaty intensity with tangy, spicy toppings.
Want Fries with That? None; opt for mac and cheese instead (which can also go on top of your burger)
Price: Green Chile Cheeseburger, $6.50; toppings like lettuce and tomato, free; special toppings like green chilies and bacon, +$1
Notes: The market is open every Saturday year-round from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Ed has said it before about farmers' markets, and I have to agree: in most cases, the food is pretty skippable. A farmer's prowess growing peaches is no guarantee that he makes good pie; a shepherd's lamb may be the best in the region, but that doesn't mean her sausage is.
But there are exceptions, of course, and fortunately for upstate New Yorkers just across the Hudson River from Albany, the Troy Farmers' Market is full of them.
Troy, the major city of Rensselaer County, New York, boasts one of the largest and most diverse markets in the state. During the winter (the market runs year-round, but is indoors from November through April) over 50 vendors come every Saturday; in warmer months that number grows even larger. Unlike New York City's Union Square market, where fruit and vegetables are the star of the show, the Troy market gives equal billing to winemakers, brewers, cheesemakers, food artisans, bakers, and pop-up food stands. The most enterprising of those stands, and arguably the tastiest, is Christian Noe's Nighthawk's Kitchen. His griddle-based operation draws the longest line at the market, and after a taste of his steak-y smashed burger, it's easy to see why.
Noe believes in a griddle without boundaries, and his menu gives equal billing to bacon-egg-and-mac-and-cheese sandwiches, ham biscuits, burgers, and homemade hot dogs. Those burgers come in a few topping iterations, each $6.50: Hatch chilies and locally made white American cheese, bacon and cheddar with fried onions, and mozzarella and tomato with sautéed mushrooms.
But it's the meat that makes them count: a 50/50 blend of brisket and chuck ground the day before market and shaped into 1/3 pound patties. The patties are cooked like classic smashed burgers: the griddle is hit with salt and pepper, then the meat is pressed right into the seasoning.
The resulting crust delivers: salty and intensely meaty with a crackle on first bite. Though what really sets Nighthawk's burger apart is the grind, which is coarse enough to leave little steak-y chunks strewn throughout the loosely packed patty. If I have a complaint with this burger, it's that the medium rare interior could stand to be more evenly salted and more juicy, but the satisfying bite of those larger chunks alleviates any hard feelings.
Pictured above is the Green Chili Cheeseburger, and though I didn't get to try the other toppings on my visit, this is still what I'd order next time. The roasted hatch chilies are more about tanginess than heat, and they give the meat all the brightness it needs. The American cheese comes from nearby Sycaway Creamery, and I'll applaud them for making a cheese that melts like Kraft but still tastes like real dairy. Noe uses Martin's potato rolls for his burgers, and to get them extra soft, he steams them on top of the patties once he adds the cheese. (There's no extra charge for the party streamer that's stabbed into the bun.)
Nighthawk's doesn't currently offer fries, so if you need something starchy to go along with your burger or breakfast sandwich, spring for an order of the Buffalo Mac and Cheese ($4 for 8 oz., $8 for 16 oz.), which is studded with blue cheese and spiked with hot sauce. The mac and cheese is pretty cohesive without much in the way of excess sauce; it performs admirably as a burger topping, which many customers request.
Nighthawk's is still a relatively new business, and the Troy farmers' market remains Noe's current base of operations. But he's keeping himself busy with caterings and cooking classes around the capital region. And more exciting: he's aiming to expand down in New York City, where he's already done a few catering jobs. Considering the constant growth of NYC burgers that cost three times what Noe charges for a less satisfying bite, here's hoping that he does so.