Root Hill Burger
256 4th Ave., Brooklyn NY 11215 (map); 347-689-9040; roothillburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A new Brooklyn burger spot delivers makes gentrification taste delicious
Want Fries with That? Yes, please! Stellar spuds are one of many worthy sides
Price: b01, $10.50; fries, $3; Garbanzo Poppers, $4; beet salad, $3.50
While there's little hope I'll ever make the move back to my hometown, visits to New York City are welcomed reminders of my childhood and a look at just how far the city and I have come. Such was the case when I recently visited a Brooklyn neighborhood that I used to call home in the mid-'90s. Back then, the strip along 4th Avenue around President Street was little more to me than where I'd go to by a used tire for my beloved '79 Ford Granada. My apartment up the block on 5th Avenue would get broken into about once every three months (ah, the NYC of my youth). The neighborhood wasn't the parade of gentrification that it's become.
One of the first bellwethers of the transformation came in 2008 with the opening of Root Hill Cafe. Now the folks behind that enterprise—lead by partner and designer Stephen Kelley—have decided to double down on their neighborhood with a shining star of a burger joint called Root Hill Burger.
The most pleasing or disappointing aspect of Root Hill (depending on your taste) is its sparkling fast casual set up. The undeniably attractive mid-century-inspired interior was designed by Kelley and looks like it's ready-made for replication. Perhaps this speaks to the very heart of the gentrification conundrum: how to make something embrace the new without bulldozing the past. The upside in the case of Root Hill is this isn't all just patina of professionalism; this is thought out restaurateuring. They hired chef Cali Rivera, who has the excellent Prune and Gramercy Tavern on his resumé.
Besides burgers, fries, and shakes, the menu has some other pretty tasty goodies as well. I started with the Garbanzo Poppers ($4), deep fried Garbanzo beans tossed in honey and served with a yogurt and preserved lemon sauce. They were fantastic, without question the very best iteration I've tried of what I had previously thought was a questionable preparation. The crunch from the frying was just right and the balance of flavors from the honey and yogurt were spot on. If I still lived up the street, I'd watch every game with a bowl of these in front of me.
Next up was the beet salad ($3.50). This was less of a revelation than the garbanzos, but still, the creamy remoulade made it a tasty little side salad.
Of course, the main event was Root Hill's burger. They have a number of options available with beef, lamb, turkey, mushroom, and veggie patties. Unsurprisingly, I went for the first option. The b01 ($10.50) is the Root Hill custom beef blend that gets a Fontina cheese crisp (or tuile), a slice of tomato, sour pickles, and mayo on a brioche roll. It's all very familiar fast casual burgering.
That said, Root Hill manages to tease out a lot of personality and deliciousness from the otherwise familiar construction. It all starts with their patty. The blend of brisket and short rib was deliberated over for quite some time. The eight-ounce patty is coarsely ground and gets a beautiful crust from the spanking new flat top. It's a rich and full flavored patty that crumbles perfectly when you bite into it. Further, the patty is beautifully seasoned and has some serious juice. The toppings are all in good order save for the Fontina crisp—it isn't so much bad as it's not as good as the rest of the burger. Even the brioche bun from Amy's is better than the classification would suggest. The bun is decidedly spongy and matches the patty's size nicely.
The fries ($3) are excellent in their straightforward execution. Cut fresh in-house, they retain a strong potato flavor along with a great crisp from the double frying. These are a worthy accompaniment to the very good burger.
Root Hill Burger is what I'd hope for from a burger spot born from gentrification. That might sound like a slight, but I don't mean it to be. The folks behind it are earnest participants in the neighborhood and have lived there for years. Their restaurant is less a thumb in the eye of the neighborhood's legacy and more of an attempt to embrace the changing landscape. "We wanted burgers for this community and that means a lot of different elements and backgrounds and ethnicities," says Rivera. I'd hoped the least a place like this could accomplish is a tasty burger. Root Hill has done more than that; it's made a restaurant that's worthy of the neighborhood.
About the author: Damon is one of our roving burger reporters and food writers. When he's not eating more than is warranted or healthful (and then writing about it) he can be found writing and producing for television and film. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.