A Flavorful, Nearly Excellent Burger at OTB in Williamsburg
141 Broadway Brooklyn, NY 11221 (map); 347-763-1481; otbbk.com
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: A deeply flavorful burger with some minor texture issues.
Want Fries With That? Absolutely. Don't sleep on these crisp, chili-brined fries.
Price: Cheeseburger, $12
Before Mayor Bloomberg shut them down in 2010, off-track betting parlors, or OTBs, were a bastion of classic NYC seediness. Earlier this year, the OTB was revived in the form of a bar/restaurant in a prospering section of South Williamsburg. Though the smiling blue ox from a long-defunct tenant above the facade puts to rest the possibility that this was once an actual OTB, there's a lot to like in this new incarnation. Pushed up against the also recently revived Motorino, OTB sits on a wide intersection on the northern bend of South 6th Street as it flares away from Broadway at Bedford Avenue, forming a triangle as it approaches the Williamsburg Bridge. It's easily one of the most pleasant blocks in the neighborhood.
Though there's an inherent risk in co-opting a culture that most, if not all, of OTB's current patrons likely have never experienced, it's wisely understated. Beyond the menu made up to look like a racing ticket and some vintage phones, there's few other signifiers of gambling and horse racing. More comforting is that this bar/restaurant is run by Alla Lapushchik, an owner of Post Office, which is easily the best place in Williamsburg for whiskey, bourbon or rye. With chef Sam Glinn at the helm, Post Office also serves better food than necessary, especially a chicken liver and baguette sandwich, which anyone looking to riff on a banh mi would be foolish to miss.
At OTB, Glinn has expanded the oyster selection from Post Office to a more fully realized raw bar while developing a succinct, French bistro inspired menu.
On entering, the front of the bar is dominated by a long, low table featuring Hunter S. Thompson aiming a gun, pleasing my 21 year old self to no end. But now I was much more excited by the comfortable chairs, bar stools and well-crafted cocktails. Though the low Hunter S. Thompson table is a little awkward for a conventional meal, its the perfect spot for drinking with a small group (or for their $1 late night oyster special). Better yet, relax in the wooden chairs that evoke your grandfather's country club (or favorite betting parlor) or even one of the wooden booths lining the wall opposite the elegant, marble bar.
The cheeseburger ($12), is a classic, straightforward rendition. Served on a Martin's potato bun and garnished with homemade pickles, lettuce, tomato and mayo, the six-ounce burger is composed of equal parts chuck, short rib, and Pat LaFrieda dry-aged beef. It's this distinct, dry-aged flavor that dominates the burger, which oozed funky, flavorful juices, and plenty of fat.
Flavor aside, though there was a solid sear from the grill, the texture of the meat had become unfortunately sausage-like, possibly because of pre-seasoning. I've argued this a lot lately, falling firmly into the non pre-seasoning camp (see the exaggerated effect of pre-seasoning in this Burger Lab post), but I'm willing to (begrudgingly) accept this as a matter of personal preference.
For those seeking to up their fat intake, a house-cured foie gras torchon can be slipped on to your burger for an extra $8, but it's not really necessary. Ultimately, OTB's burger is so close to being excellent that the disappointment is felt more keenly than something that's wildly off the mark.
Alleviating any disappointment were the incredible fries. I'd go back just for these along with a cocktail. The skin-on fries were perfectly crisp with a lingering, slow-building heat thanks to being chili-brined (new to me). They're also offered topped with chili, cheese, and jalapeños if you think this is something your stomach can handle. If you're going that direction, you should probably also go ahead and ask for that foie gras torchon on the fries, too.
For as much as I've enjoyed OTB, it's mystifying how little press it's received apart from a few reports praising the food and cocktails. If I'm being selfish, this is a good thing, since it means I can eat and drink comfortably even at peak hours (or over late night cocktails and oysters). For everyone else, this should be a bugle call to post yourself up at OTB.
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 making "Global Jewish Sandwiches" for Scharf & Zoyer. Follow him on Twitter @ChiefHDB.