A Hamburger Today
Midtown: The Empire Strikes Back at LT Burger, Falls Short
8 West 40th St. New York, NY 10018 (map); ltburger.com
Short Order: Mediocre burgers at tourist trap prices fail to prove their worth
Want Fries with That? Absolutely—a delicious fresh-cut take on fast-food shoestrings
Price: The Standard, $9; +$1 for cheese; LT Backyard, $12; fries, $3.75
Before I associated it with a catchy jingle and post-WWII hegemony, the word "empire" meant one thing: the bad guys from Star Wars. These dark, coercive (and scarily austere) guys with accents were trying to take over the galaxy and their name evoked fear within the galaxy. As a naive child, I was petrified at the thought of an empire ever being real. Perhaps this is why the phrase "restaurant empire" still leaves such a bad taste in my mouth anytime I hear it. Yet restaurant empires make burgers, too, and therefore the newest addition to the LT family deserved consideration.
Despite his messy split from esquared Hospitality, Laurent Tourondel is still alive and kicking in the (restaurant) empire-building game. And after losing BLT Burger and GO Burger in the divorce, Tourondel has wasted no time reasserting himself in the burger realm. Enter LT Burger, a fast casual burger joint near Bryant Park, which bears Tourondel's now ubiquitous initials.
Housed in a former Tesla lab on West 40th Street, LT Burger exudes the peculiar essence of a Midtown concept restaurant. From the calculated modern decor to the absurd prices ($9 for a plain hamburger, no fries) to the hostess command center by the entrance, the place feels more like a stereotype than a dining establishment. Despite this refined appearance, my experience was rather bumpy.
On my noontime visit, I faced a substantial wait for a seat at the bar. Instead, I opted for take out, figuring I could enjoy the burger in the park on a cold, but sunny, afternoon. As the hostess took my order I, as a responsible AHT'er, asked about doneness. She responded: "Our kitchen cooks to medium/medium well by default and don't usually make accommodations for takeout orders." I exhaled slowly and quietly to mask my vexation and sat down to await my order. Within ten minutes my burgers were ready. I double-checked with the staff that utensils were in the bag; they weren't.
I unwrapped the first recycled paper package to reveal the Standard ($9), a straightforward hamburger with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion. Besides appearing a bit overdone, the burger looked relatively harmless—perhaps the empire wouldn't be so criminal after all.
Sadly, the burger tasted less like beef and more like a grilled salad. The Certified Angus patty, seven ounces of "2 way chuck," was cooked to medium/medium-well as promised, which left it tasting only of char and a bit of salt. The pickles and onions were distractingly potent, so I discarded them only to reveal a burger that looked as if a child had scribbled grill marks on it with a black magic marker. A fire-kissed burger can be a beautiful thing, but this densely packed patty was more fire-ravaged than fire-loved. The sesame seed potato bun was nicely toasted, but its dry, brioche-like interior only compounded the overcooked patty's shortcomings.
Fortunately, the LT Backyard ($12) was a better burger on all fronts. In a testament to the kitchen's inconsistency, the patty was cooked to a solid medium rare. This doneness allowed for a better assessment of the beef. While relatively juicy and well seasoned, the patty still tasted overwhelmingly of grill. The bacon and cheddar cheese surely helped matters by adding fat and salt to the equation (they have a way of doing that), but only after I relieved the burger of its overwhelming salad doused in LT sauce (spiced mayo). Still, after the changes and the serendipitous doneness, the resulting burger was okay at best; and certainly failed to justify its $12 price tag. In the age of fantastic and thoughtful burgers under $10, LT Burger is for those who simply don't know any better (or put great confidence in a brand name).
The french fries ($3.75), on the other hand, overshadowed both burgers in flavor and execution. Essentially a fresh, hand-cut take on McDonald's shoestrings, these fries are thin, salty sticks that boast a bit more potato flavor than their fast food counterpart. Most impressive of all, the fries stayed crispy and relatively tasty after a long subway ride back to SEHQ. In the end though, no matter how good the side order, it cannot resuscitate an unimpressive main.
Thus, Tourondel's empire has attempted burger greatness and fallen sorely short. With lower prices, LT Burger's offerings might be acceptable, though still far from great. And while the New York burgerscape has no need for Laurent Tourondel's overpriced patties, the bizzaro universe of gaudy midtown concept restaurants will likely keep these mediocre burgers around long enough to crush another place like Prime Burger. Maybe everything will take a turn for the better in the sequel.
About the author: Sam Levison is a college student, food TV lover, and kinda wishes Big Kahuna Burger were a real thing.