Joy Burger Bar
1567 Lexington Avenue (b/n 100th and 101st; map); 212-289-6222; joyburgerbar.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A classic retro burger joint whose execution is perfect, but falls flat with bland mushy beef
Want Fries with That? Yes, you do. Crisp and potato-y. Onion rings are also great.
Prices: Burgers, $3.75-5.95; sides, $2.25-2.99; shakes, $3.50
Notes: Despite their plethora of sauces, only the spicy or garlic mayo are worth tasting.
The concept behind Joy Burger Bar in East Harlem (with a soon-to-be second location in the West Village) is a discredit to the burgers served inside. Though their signage proudly proclaims that "the sauces make the difference," it's really their atmosphere and attention to burger detail that puts them a step above your average burger joint.
Vintage Coke memorabilia including charming stamped tin trays for every order and logoed Tiffany lamps make up the bulk of the decoration. Servers and cooks alike are outfitted in cute gray jumpsuits and red Mario-style caps. Even the walls have perfectly spider-webbed cracked paint jobs that if they are artificially aged, are done so expertly that I couldn't tell the difference.
The burgers themselves come in three sizes. The 3-ounce Munch ($3.75), 5-ounce Midi ($4.75), and 8-ounce Maxi ($5.95), as well as turkey and veggie options ($5.95 for either). The smallest is the only one in which you can't specify a temperature. It's so thin that it comes out medium-well no matter how fast its cooked. As a baseline, I ordered mine with American cheese and raw onions. Comparable in size and appearance to a Burger King burger, it sports a significantly smoky flavor with a nicely toasted sesame bun, a bit charred in spots.
Best burger ever? Certainly not, but it was expertly seasoned, and about as classic a version of a grilled cheeseburger as you could ever hope to get. I happen to like both thick and juicy burgers and the ultra-thin traditional. I particularly admire the latter when it manages to be both well-done, juicy and flavorful at the same time (a feat which is difficult, but certainly not impossible). The Munch is a good example of this form.
Oddly, the larger Midi is less successful (I didn't get a chance to try the massive Maxi). It's also perfectly seasoned and quite smoky in flavor, but the meat has an oddly off-putting wet, mushy texture that leads me to believe that it was frozen and thawed one or two times too many. It's the type of beef that is probably better off medium-well than rare.
It's unfortunate, because Joy has all the potential to be a near perfect burger: Great squishy sesame seed bun, fresh toppings (skip the mealy tomatoes), the proper amount of seasoning, nice grill marks, perfect atmosphere, and an extraordinarily low price point. All the elements and technique are in place—it's just the beef that's lacking.
But what about those sauces? There's about a dozen of them, and they're at best skippable, and at worst downright bad. A sweet Thai chili sauce is cloying, devoid of any heat, and smacks of corn syrup (it tastes straight-out-of-the-bottle), while their Chimichuri also presents an oddly disquieting sweetness. The only ones I'd put anywhere near a burger are the spicy mayo or the garlic mayo, both of which were quite tasty.
The two mayos go particularly well with their fresh cut fries ($2.25). Medium-cut, super potatoey, and fresh fried, they are crisp and salty, though they border on slightly tough. The gigantic onion rings ($2.99) are equally good, with a crisp beer-batter crust.
If you're a fan of really really thick milkshakes, you might be happy here. Personally, I prefer a shake that you can actually drink, not one that has to be spooned out of the cup like a sundae.
As it stands, Joy Burger Bar is a perfectly fine neighborhood burger joint, and one that's well-liked, judging by the number of couples, families, and kids filling the place. With a simple upgrade to the beef, it's got the potential to be a world-class burger joint.
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