Burger Joint (in Le Parker Meridian)
119 W 56th St New York, NY 10019 (map); 212-708-7414; parkermeridien.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: Solid but unseasoned burgers served up in a unique space.
Want Fries With That? Sure, especially if you like McDonald's fries.
Price: Hamburger, $7.58; cheeseburger, $8.04; fries, $3.90
Note: Cash only
April was a good month for Burger Joint. While the original—open since 2003 in Midtown's Le Parker Meridien Hotel—had settled comfortably into the recognized pantheon of NYC burger excellence, the sudden, unexpected announcement of a second Burger Joint opening in Greenwich Village (joining other locations in Seoul, South Korea, and a planned restaurant in Dubai) set off a storm of excitement within our little food-centric universe. Chief among them was Eater, whose "Burger Week 2013" coverage was uncannily timed with the opening. Their coverage culminated in a March Madness-style face-off between "fancypants" and "budget" burgers. In the end, Burger Joint pulled off a stunning victory over dark horse Brindle Room, whose Steakhouse burger is easily my favorite burger in the city—twice as good as the Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger at half the price.
Now I have to clear the air and admit that I'd never been to Burger Joint prior to this review. Can you really blame me? Le Parker Meridien is located in a neighborhood anathema to most New Yorkers. Sure, I promised myself, if I should wander into the area during lunchtime with an hour to kill, I'd absolutely try a burger, but it turns out that the only time I'm ever in the West 50s is to visit out of town relatives (and they have other plans). It was the Burger Week victory combined with the new location that made the trip overwhelmingly relevant and completely unavoidable. So late last week, intrepid burger editor Robyn Lee and I ventured to both Burger Joints in succession—a semi-scientific experiment in burgerology.
First up was the original. The marble and mirrored lobby is dominated by an incongruously beefy smell emanating from the massive maroon curtains in the far western corner. For a moment I empathized with the jet-lagged traveler who books an expensive room in a stylish hotel, only to find that a half-hidden burger spot overwhelms the otherwise staid lobby without ever being seen.
Once we pulled back the curtains, the revealed restaurant evoked the basement set in Wayne's World after Rob Lowe's character took charge. Sure, years of use has naturally added character, but the faux-'70s basement setting feels forced, especially with '60s Music 101 blasting over the speakers, straight out of a Robert Zemeckis movie. Even at the awkwardly early dinner hour of 5 p.m. the joint was jammed with tourists waiting for burgers.
The menu is short: burgers, fries, drinks, and shakes. Choose from toppings including lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mustard, mayo, and ketchup, or you can get them all as "the works." A cheeseburger ($8.04) comes with two slices, a mixture of White American and Colby cheese. Since ketchup only belongs on fries or a McDonald's Quarter Pounder (leave your hate in the comments), I went with the works minus one.
Ordered medium rare, the burger arrived after about a 15 minute wait. The texture of the five-ounce patty itself was the best part of the burger. Well-ground, pleasantly chewy and meaty without being mushy, it helped that it was cooked correctly. In a 2006 Diner's Journal article, Frank Bruni pinned the beef as ground top sirloin and shoulder, but I'm told it's 80/20 chuck, ground in-house daily. The most powerful element came from the grill, which added distinct char marks and a smoky, grilled flavor not often found within Manhattan. Sadly, the burger was unseasoned. It was fine, but unremarkable, tasting like one of the better backyard burgers cooked up on a distant summer Saturday when you went crazy at the toppings bar (but with slightly better beef).
Fries ($3.90) were better. Once we added salt, they were exactly what we craved: effectively crisp and almost exactly like a McDonald's fry. But at the price, I was disappointed (it's always difficult to meet high expectations).
33 West 8th Street, New York NY 10011 (map); 212-432-1400; burgerjointny.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: Lack of salt undermines what is otherwise a solid burger
Want Fries With That? A little soggier than at the original location, but better seasoned
Price: Hamburger, $5.50; cheeseburger, $6; fries, $2.75; milkshake, $4.75
We now rested our hopes on the new downtown location, where the vibe couldn't have been more different. When we arrived at 6 p.m., Robyn and I were the only two people in the vast (at least compared to the original) wooden space. Prices here are about $2 cheaper across the board, and, unlike the original, Greenwich Village takes credit cards. Most importantly, the music was much better, with Gipsy Kings and Harry Belafonte underscoring the meal before Herb Alpert blasted "Zorba the Greek" as we finished our shakes.
Sadly, the burgers could not compare. While the components were the same and were ordered and delivered medium rare, the burgers tasted even less seasoned than before (even though the other burgers were similarly unseasoned). They also lacked the distinctive grill flavor that I'd honed in on earlier. I can only assume this is from the extra mileage on the grill uptown.
Fries ($2.75) were better seasoned, but not as crisp. Our strawberry and vanilla shakes ($4.75) were good, but didn't leave a lasting impression, especially when compared to similar shakes around town. Either way, despite the relaxed atmosphere, the burger was ultimately a disappointment.
If I placed Burger Joint head-to-head, Burger Week-style against its most obvious competitor, Shake Shack, I can't see myself recommending Burger Joint. While I'll likely return to the Greenwich Village location once the bar area is finished, the original location is best left as a novelty.
About the author: Noah Arenstein is a practicing lawyer, freelance writer, and co-founder and managing editor of Real Cheap Eats, a site dedicated to finding the best dishes under $10 throughout NYC. He can also be found at Smorgasburg in Williamsburg on Saturdays, making "Global Jewish Sandwiches" for Scharf & Zoyer. Follow him on Twitter @ChiefHDB.