"The burger is a big, bawdy-looking affair. You can hoist it with one hand, but good luck in eating it that way; it definitely requires both of your mitts to tame."
225 Park Avenue South, New York NY 10016 (at 18th Street; map); 212-533-2500; website
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Impressive flame-grilled burger in the vein of Blue Smoke using a custom La Frieda blend
Want Fries with That? Heavens no, get the superb chips instead
When it comes to barbecue and hamburgers the methods of preparation could not be more drastically different, nor could the culinary zeitgeist that the cherished foods represent. Barbecue requires the fabled low and slow technique to make cheap, tough cuts of meat palatable. It is a cuisine born of austerity and hardship and is arguably one of the few authentic American styles of cooking. It is reflective of an agrarian, preindustrial age when time was not strictly metered and one could wait until the brisket was good and ready.
Hamburgers are quite the opposite: They require rapid, violent, searing over high heat and are born of the urban, post-industrial age, whose unifying principle is laissez faire capitalism and in which the pace of life is breakneck. Despite their appearances as seemingly disparate threads, barbecue and burgers are actually deeply entwined in the tapestry of American life and, perhaps surprisingly, they are both finding high expression in the center of the most cosmopolitan of cities: New York.
There has been a veritable renaissance of both hamburgers and barbecue in the last few years in the Big Apple. The most apparent manifestations are the lines outside Shake Shack and the massive crowds that are drawn to the annual Big Apple Barbecue Festival and Block Party (a name that takes longer to say than it does to smoke a brisket). But in virtually every neighborhood, barbecue and burger-specific restaurants are opening, a trend does not seem to be abating. It was inevitable that a superior burger and quality barbecue would eventually make their ways on to the same menu, with Blue Smoke's burger being the first from a predominately barbecue-centric menu to garner wide praise.
Despite the success of the Blue Smoke burger, most of the barbecue restaurants that opened after Blue Smoke did not feature burgers on their menus. It is not surprising that Wildwood did when it fired up its pits last year. Wildwood is closer to Blue Smoke in concept than other barbecue joints in that it is not a joint at all but an upscale restaurant.
The Wildwood half-pound burger is a custom blend from Pat La Frieda. It is grilled and served on a chewy, squishy bun that is heavily bedazzled with sesame seeds. Your cheese options are New York state cheddar, Jack, blue, or provolone, but sadly no American. Wildwood is an upscale joint; the yellow stuff is apparently too low-brow. The sandwich comes with a thick slice of red onion, a wedge of tomato, and several sheaths of lettuce. I never put rabbit food on my burger, but if I did, I would be aggravated by the vegetables here—they are far too thickly cut and would make the eight-ounce burger, already bursting from the bun, virtually insurmountable.
The burger comes with french fries by default, but you can sub in some deliciously tart salt and vinegar potato chips that are supremely crisp yet remarkably ungreasy. I strongly recommend you do, as the last time I had the fries they were inexcusably poor—tepid, limp, and flavorless. I would be shocked if they didn't come out of a plastic bag from the freezer.
But the burger and the bun could not be fresher. Covered with a couple of generous slabs of New York state cheddar that are perfectly melted and appear as the points of the star on a Texas Ranger badge, the burger is a big, bawdy-looking affair. You can hoist it with one hand, but good luck in eating it that way; it definitely requires both of your mitts to tame.
But once corralled it pays off in a big way—this is a fantastic burger. I love the way that the slightly elasticated nature of the bun conforms around the buxom patty, but because the bread also has some sponginess it does a good job of absorbing the copious juices.
The beef itself is pure La Frieda—as classic as the roar of a Harley-Davidson (like the one Wildwood pit master Big Lou rode when he was a motorcycle cop). And in case you are wondering, it is indeed all natural—it comes from Creek Stone Farm in Kentucky. Wildwood prides itself on being the world's first barbecue restaurant using "natural meats," which is a highly dubious claim since "unnatural meats" (which I assume to mean those using hormones and such) have not been around nearly as long as barbecue.
The cheddar cheese was not overly pungent, and its subtle nutty notes played off nicely against the densely packed sesame seeds on the bun. While I usually prefer American, I think that on this burger it might have gotten lost in the shuffle, as the burger is so big.
I also usually prefer a gridded preparation, but the Wildwood burger makes a compelling case for flame-grilling. The hash marks were not as pronounced as I might have liked, but the burger still had a nice outer crust, and in terms of flavor a wonderful, slightly acrid smokiness evocative of backyard grilling. It was cooked perfectly rare, as ordered, and was amazingly juicy. It needed no condiments—it really didn't even need the cheese.
Just as Blue Smoke had demonstrated, Wildwood manages to successfully bridge the gap between low-and-slow and high-and-fast cooking methods and turns out a burger that is well worth skipping the barbecue for. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the burger is the most compelling item on the Wildwood menu.
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