Island Burgers and Shakes
422 Amsterdam Ave, New York NY 10024 (map); 212-877-7934; islandburgersandshakes.com
Cooking Method: Grilled... barely.
Short Order: Big, fat, mushy burgers with plenty of heft but very little flavor.
Want Fries With That? You might consider *only* ordering fries and onion rings. Both are great.
Price: Burger, $9.50 - $13.75; fries, $4
I'd only ever been to Island Burger and Shakes at its original Hell's Kitchen location once and at the time my mental capacity had been modified to a common late night state during which the only parameters I am able to judge things by are their size and moisture content. I remember the burger being large and moist, and that was good enough for me for the time being. If I was the kind of person to pick stars and write reviews on crowd-sourced review sites, I would have marked it "3.8 out of 5, would go again!," or some garbled form of that.
I recently re-visited both the Hell's Kitchen location and the newer Upper West Side location and discovered, to my embarrassment and horror, that Island Burger and Shakes was actually not anything like my intoxicated self had promised my sober self it would be.
If you're unfamiliar with the restaurant, it's the kind of place that has a massive number of topping options. I mean massive. 57 burgers on the menu. As many as Heinz has fictional varieties. It's paralyzing when you're faced with the menu, to say the least.
I'm always leery of places like this. With so many different toppings, how quick could the turnaround on them really be? And moreover, what exactly are they trying to hide underneath all those flavors? Would the beef itself work as a plain burger?
I eventually decided to order a classic cheeseburger ($10.50) and a Tijuana ($13), which comes with guacamole, sautéed onions, bacon, and Jack cheese to get a sampling of both ends of the spectrum. Both burgers were ordered medium-rare.
The plain cheeseburger with American cheese came out first. The very first thing I noticed was the decidedly un-melted American cheese. It's difficult to not melt American cheese. The stuff is scientifically engineered to start melting at the drop of a hat. I added a few toppings—great crunchy pickles, and very fresh onions and green leaf lettuce—closed the burger, and split it in half to take a look at the innards.
It was perfectly medium-rare in the center and from edge to edge. Impressively so. But biting into the burger revealed a big problem: the beef has no flavor. Strike that. The beef tasted bad, with the minerally-sour off-flavor that can sometimes afflict older beef or poorly conceived blends. Texturally, it was overground with a mushy, wet texture rather than the juicy, fatty, rich and beefy character you want out of a good burger.
To make matters worse, there was no flavor on the exterior to speak of either. Lifting the toppings and cheese slice off (when was the last time you were able to cleanly lift a slice of American cheese off of a cooked burger?) showed the problem: aside from a few hints at grill marks, there was no color, no char. It might as well have been steamed.
The Tijuana burger didn't fare much better. Again, the patty came out medium-rare, but with cold cheese and no color. This time, it came topped with a decent (through graying) guacamole, some great sautéed spiced onions, and bacon that...that looked like it had been cooked several hours if not a day in advance with only a quick reheat before adding to the plate.
With a beef patty that had almost the same level of mushiness as the guacamole, bacon so paper thin that it may as well not have been there, and a bun with grill marks inside but an exterior that felt fridge-cold, there was really nothing texturally to make this burger work. One bite caused everything to squeeze out of the bun in a mush-on-mush dogpile.
The whole experience reminded me of similar "bigger-the-better," equally unappetizing burger concepts like Jackson Hole or, say, Bartley's Burger Cottage in Cambridge.
Island Burger's saving grace may be in its sides. The french fries ($4) here are lightly dusted in some sort of starch mix before frying and come out ultra-crisp and very fluffy inside.
Likewise, the onion rings are excellent. Crisp-battered, nice and salty, with good sweet onion flavor inside.
Turns out that Island Burgers was actually my own personal version of The Corner Bistro—that is, a burger that is highly overrated because the ones piling praise on it are generally not in a state to have their praise piles trusted by any sober observer.
It's a burger that seems moist and tasty through the tinted lens of beer goggles but quickly reveals its bland, mushy nature by the light of day.
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.