Black Iron Burger Shop
540 East 5th Street, New York NY 10009 (b/n Avenue A and Avenue B; map); 212-677-6067; blackironburger.com
The Short Order: Potentially excellent burgers hampered by over cooking and a poor bun choice
Want Fries with That? Absolutely—they're golden, crispy and delicious. Don't miss the shakes either
Price: cheeseburger $7; fries/rings $4, milkshake $6.
Notes: Open 7 days a week, 6 p.m. - late night (call ahead, closing times appear to vary)
My father, a dapper and suave dresser, once told me that a gentleman should take a long time to dress, meticulously preening his tie and breast pocket handkerchief until they are absolutely perfect and then ruffling them impetuously to make them appear as if they only took a few moments to assemble. This sort of describes Black Iron Burger, whose opening was greatly anticipated here at AHT and across the blogosphere.
While, Black Iron Burger looks like the owners just stuck a griddle into an existing, possibly decades-old bar, the reality is that not much of what you see upon entering the place actually existed before the multi-month renovation began. Or if it existed, it was buried under years of prior renovations that had to be stripped away.
Irrespective of the time it took, the results are impressive. Black Iron Burger appears to have been open for decades, with its dark, worn wood interior complete with exposed rafters and brick. Tarnished mirrors hang behind the bar and on the adjacent wall, and the reflections of the warm lighting are amplified by the glass casting a golden hue over the room. Bottles of Heinz ketchup, Gilden's mustard, and Grey Poupon line the walls along narrow shelves, tall tables, and stools dominate the relatively cramped room.
No Iron Involved With This Burger
Black Iron Burger does fail to live up to its name in one crucial regard—the burgers are cooked not on cast iron as the name implies, but instead on an $8,000 Keating Miraclean griddle. Owner Jason Henning was recently quoted in New York Magazine as saying, “It doesn’t emit any heat except on the surface where the burger hits it. Plus, because it doesn’t get seasoned like cast iron, each burger comes off with a really clean flavor, and always will. It lets the meat have its true flavor.” Personally, I was looking forward to exactly what Henning is against—a griddle that by seasoning contributes its own unique flavor to the burgers, something to differentiate Black Iron Burger from the countless other burger spots using stainless griddles.
Despite the claims that the griddle is capable of a prodigious BTU output, I have yet to experience it on the two visits that I paid to Black Iron Burger. On neither occasion was I impressed with the char on the burgers even though they were cooked all the way through. I am not sure what is at play here—if the griddleman is just not turning up the heat enough on the griddle or perhaps the burgers are being flipped and moved around too much. In either case, the result is a less than optimum burger experience.
Overcooked, But At Least the Meat Tastes Good
Cooking to temperature, one of the basic tenants in burger preparation, is virtually nonexistent here. I had three burgers in a row ordered rare that came out completely cooked through while simultaneously lacking any semblance of exterior char. The party line, recounted separately by both a bartender and a waitress, seems to be that because the griddle is so hot and the burgers have such high fat content, they continue to cook even after being removed from the cooking surface, making a rare or even medium rare difficult to achieve.
I think this is absolutely ridiculous—even steakhouses that use grills that go up to 1700°F serving burgers with extremely generous fat content are able to turn out perfectly rare burgers. The problem as I see it is not that the cooking surface at Black Iron Burger is too hot, but that it is not hot enough. By the time the exterior is cooked adequately, the inside is invariably cooked through. The patty size also contributes to the problem: it is very thin but at the same time has a relatively large surface area, which does not allow for much of a margin of error when cooking.
The beef itself, reportedly a custom blend of short rib and chuck by Pat La Frieda (although none of the staff seemed particularly enlightened on the specific details) is very good, as one would expect from the city's most prolific hamburger meat purveyor. The burger has a clean, pure beef flavor and is quite finely ground while still retaining a slightly irregular texture reminiscent of hand-formed patties. While it is potentially juicy—and was adequately so on a subsequent visit—my initial reaction was that it was far too dry, although this turned out to be the result of the cooking rather than the beef. Having said that, I don't think that the fat content so lauded by the staff is anything unique, probably the standard 75/25 lean-to-fat ratio.
The bun, made by Orwasher's Bakery, is quite possible the most ill-suited bun I can remember eating. I am not an advocate of the brioche, and while the bun here lacks the sweetness of a brioche it does share with it a certain internal chewiness as well as an incompliant outer crust. Additionally, and this is a first in my book, the bun has a hole in the bottom half not unlike a bagel. It looks as if the bun is handmade and the baker used their fingers to tuck in the dough, leaving a divot in the bottom of the bread. When the bun is cut the lower half is left with a hole. Worse yet, the sandwich becomes decidedly concave when it is all assembled. The larger top half of the bun is so incompliant and the patty and lower half of the bun are so thin that they are forced to conform to the dished shape of the top bun.
The beef-to-bun ratio is also a little off, the latter being too voluminous for the svelte patty. There is a double patty on offer in the special Black Iron Burger that comes with horseradish infused cheese, but I did not try it although I suspect that the ratio is probably better.
Speaking of cheese, more disappointments abound: the horseradish, which I tried on a single, completely overpowers all other flavors, but even the regular cheddar is far too pungent, masking the beef rather than complimenting it. American cheese is not offered, which I suppose reveals Henning's higher culinary aspiration despite Black Iron Burger's proletarian surroundings.
Thank God for the Fries and Milkshakes
The shoestring fries, on the other hand, are absolutely superb, having a wonderfully fresh flavor and a golden hue denoting superior crunch. The fries appear to be par fried to almost golden and are then allowed to rest before receiving a final bath in the scalding oil. The resulting fries are among the best I have had—they are hard to stop eating even when one reaches repletion.
The onion rings are less impressive, although I give Black Iron Burger full credit for making them in-house rather than serving prepackaged ones. The problem is that most of the batter falls off the onions, resulting in a handful of naked onion and a plateful of batter chips.
The milkshakes are truly excellent, composed of quality ice cream and served in those retro steel milkshake tumblers. I like the fact that despite being hearty and thick, the shake is easily drinkable with a straw. How refreshing to not have to resort to a spoon to consume the thing.
There is a lot to like at Black Iron Burger: one of the coolest interior spaces around, late closing hours, superb shakes and fries, a decent selection of beer, fresh, locally sourced produce, and an affable and enthusiastic staff. Unfortunately the burger—which is potentially excellent given the sourcing of the beef from Pat La Frieda and the capabilities of the griddle—is a letdown because of the curious practice of overcooking the beef and the poor choice of bun. With just a few tweaks the burger could be a world beater, but in its current form it is hard to recommend.
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