9 East 53rd Street, New York NY 10022 (b/n 5th and Madison; map); 212-752-0340; burgerheaven.com
Cooking Method: Par-griddled and then grilled
Short Order: A classic NY institution produces a burger that might not live up to its name, but is decent none the less.
Want Fries with That? Yes, the fresh skin-on spuds are worthy of attention, although pricey.
Price: Classic burger, $6.55
Not to be confused with Hamburger Heaven, the now defunct chain immortalized in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Burger Heaven dates back to 1943 but got its start under the name of Beefburger, adopting the Burger Heaven name in 1974. It has remained a family run business since opening, and there are currently six locations in Midtown.
While burgers are not unexpectedly the principle draw, the menu is broader than your average burger shack, offering breakfast and other typical diner fare. Unfortunately, a remodeling in the 1990s stripped away the vintage decor that was once a touchstone to New York's past. For that type of experience look no further than Prime Burger, a burger that Serious Eats founder Ed Levine and I disagree on—but we both agree that the place looks wonderful.
Not so with Burger Heaven; I find the look to be ghastly with its Formica and muted colors that are paradoxically somewhat gaudy. The place reeks of the 1990s, hardly a memorable decade for restaurant design.
The hamburgers at Burger Heaven are better than its decor, although they don't really live up to the chain's name. They are not dissimilar to those served at Prime Burger—they represent a distinctive New York style that gained currency in the post war years, but was negatively affected by the emergence of the fast food chain that rendered them somewhat obsolete. 6-ounce (in the case of Prime Burger) or 8-ounce (in the case of Burger Heaven) fresh beef patties are broiled and served on seeded buns. Generally cooked medium and beyond, the burgers are not the last word on succulence, but they do at least have a good sear and used to offer value for money.
The problem at Prime Burger and at Burger Heaven is that in order to compete with the fast food restaurant, they started to par-cook the patties in order to get them out faster. In the case of Burger Heaven this is done on sheet pans set over a griddle where the burgers sort of stew in their own juice before being finished off in the broiler. It's a technique that is anathema to much of the accepted practice of how to cook burgers these days.
But surprisingly, I enjoyed the burger more than I thought I would, and more so than my experience at Prime Burger. The beef was fresh but had almost no flavor, a fact that is not helped by the fact that no salt seems to be added during cooking. In fact the cheeseburger I ordered tasted mostly of the double slice of American cheese that came perfectly melted on top.
The bread also very fresh tasting, was excellent: puffy and light with a golden dome speckled with sesame seeds. It was well matched to the patty, and when I ordered a rare hamburger it did a good job of soaking up the juice. Unfortunately, the juice was mostly on top of, rather than integrated into, the patty itself. I suspect it was plucked right off the sheet pan without even being placed in the broiler. According to the counterman most people order their burger medium. Even so, the burger was closer to medium rare without much succulence; cooked to medium and beyond I can imagine it might be rather dry.
Yet despite the inadequacies in the beef, the synergy of the bread and patty, doctored with a smear of the house relish—a tangy, not too sweet tomato-based relish that is also on offer at Prime Burger—was quite pleasing. There was something comforting, reassuring even, about its flavor. The problem is that it's relatively expensive and too lean compared to the modern hamburger, and since the chain lacks the nostalgic element of Prime Burger despite serving a better burger overall, it makes it hard to recommend.
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