M. Wells Diner
21-17 49th Avenue, Long Island City NY 11101 (at 21st Street; map); 718-425-6917; mwellsdiner.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: The 24-ounce burger's tastiness is overshadowed by its unwieldiness, but if you want a giant burger you probably know what you're getting yourself into
Want Fries With That? Comes with great onion rings
Price: Hamburger, $42
Note: The big hamburger is served at dinner, Tues. to Thurs., 6 p.m. - 11 p.m.
You know how sometimes menu descriptions heavily skimp on the...description? A burger may be simply described as "grilled, topped with cheese," and then when you get it you're surprised to find out it's a 10-ounce behemoth topped with caramelized onions and jalapenos (and cheese) on an aioli-smeared pretzel roll.
That has the potential to happen at French-Canadian diner-that-doesn't-serve-diner-food M. Wells. Under the "Big Dish" header on their dinner menu, the hamburger is described as such: "Beef & Lamb, Onion Rings, NJ Ketchup." For the burger's $42 price tag, the description could afford to have a few more details. But I wasn't completely surprised by the price; two weeks ago I saw Kathryn Yu's tweet portraying the gigantic-ness of this burger. And that's the little thing I would add to the menu's description: that the patty is 24 ounces (1.5 pounds), and with the 14-ounce bun it amounts to 38 ounces (2.4 pounds) of burger. Yup, that qualifies as a big dish.
But unlike other burgers of its size, this burger isn't meat to be eaten competitive eater-style. There's no prize if you finish it within a certain period of time, unless "drifting into unconsciousness at the table due to intense food coma" is a prize. Chef and owner Hugue Dufour, formerly a chef at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, first made the giant burger at the restaurant's hockey game viewing event a month ago to easily feed a large group of people at the same time. He added it to the dinner menu about two weeks ago. Although he serves an 8-ounce version of the burger for lunch, he wants to sick with the giant burger for dinner as a communal dish that's meant to be shared. It's not like the burger is the only giant dish meant for sharing; the "Big Dish" section of the menu also features a super-sized meatloaf, Abbaye de Tamié (cheese-for-four), and salmon coulibiac. (Don't worry; there's a "Small Dish" section too.) The burger feeds at least four people, more if you're ordering other dishes.
And that's where I went wrong, considering I only had one friend to help me eat. We ordered two small dishes in addition to the burger. This would've been fine if I had that thing called "self control," but after working at Serious Eats for almost four years, stretching my digestive system to dangerous limits, I have learned nothing. I ate more than I should've before the burger arrived (if you're curious, we shared a fried head cheese sandwich—yup a sandwich featuring a round of breaded and deep fried head cheese—and a Caesar salad, both of which I'd be happy to eat again), so when the burger did arrive, I sort of whimpered and internally moaned, "Ohhnooouuhhhwaauhfffuuonooowhyidothis?"
But she's a beaut, so I dug in. The burger comes impaled with a knife supporting a tower of six thick golden onion rings. The 24-ounce patty consists of 40 percent lamb, 60 percent beef from Pat La Frieda. Pat La Frieda provides the patties pre-made in 8-ounce portions—Dufour combines three patties to make the dinner burger and seasons it with salt and pepper. The patty is topped with a thin layer of sharp cheddar and mayo, and is bottomed with Rick's Picks sriracha-habanero pickles chips and First Field's small-batch ketchup made from New Jersey tomatoes. The hefty 14-ounce sesame seeded bun is baked in-house. Dufour described it as an Amish brioche-like bread that's eggy and buttery, but not as sweet as brioche.
When I asked about doneness—I'm go medium rare whenever I can—our waitress said the chefs would cook it to the most suitable temperature. I'd say it was, for being more difficult to cook evenly compared to a thinner patty: Any less and the middle would've been too raw, but any more and there would've been too much gray meat near the edge. The griddled patty was moist, although not oozing juice, and it had a notably crisp, salty crust. Despite that the patty was so thick though, it was hard to discern its flavor over the ketchup and the spicy pickles. The pickles would've been less aggressive if they weren't spicy, but even without the pickles the ketchup probably would've been overpowering on its own. I say this as someone who isn't a big fan of ketchup on burgers—if you are, then this burger may be for you.
So I took a fork to the meat to try it on its own. Ah, finally, I could taste the lamb funk—not too much, but enough to know you're eating lamb. It was far from bland, but I would've appreciated a bit more salt. The cheddar, despite being about as thick as tissue paper, was noticeably sharp. As hefty as the bun was, you need a big bun to go with a big patty, and in this case it held up well. The bun tasted good on its own—partially because it was well toasted and buttered (butter is awesome, guys; I wish more burger joints generously buttered their buns), but also because it had a great soft-with-a-bit-of-chew, substantial-but-not-overpowering texture, and every bite was met with the warm nutty scent of toasted sesame seeds.
I wish I had had more room for the onion rings made of tender, sweet onions coated in a salty, craggly crust. Each bite was fairly clean—the crust didn't shatter into crumbs and the onion didn't separate from the batter—and gave a hearty crunch.
Sadly, I couldn't get very into this burger as a whole, even if I liked the individual components. I'm totally down with Dufour's enthusiasm for communal eating—I love sharing dishes even when they're not made to be shared—but to me a giant burger isn't as successful as, say, a giant meatloaf, because supersizing the burger changes the structure to something too far removed from its typical state. Slice a meatloaf into smaller pieces and it's good to go; a huge, thick burger cut into wedges (we cut ours into quarters) can no longer be eaten like a regular-sized burger, assuming you normally eat burgers by taking bites of bread-meat-bread and not just bread-meat. Since M. Wells' burger is too thick to fit in your mouth all at once, you end up getting a bite of meat and bread with whatever condiment happens to be on the side you're eating, not a bit of every part of the burger. (I'm basing this on my mouth, which I consider to be normal-sized. Your mouth may vary—if you're a horse, for instance.) This probably seems obvious, but as it was my first time eating a burger that big, now I know that deliciousness doesn't trump unwieldiness.
That's not to say you won't enjoy eating the burger. It'll will surely satisfy your hunger and you'll have fun with your friends as you all collectively tackle it, but it didn't satisfy that part of me that wanted...bread-meat-bread. I'm sure I'd like M. Wells' lunch burger more since it's almost the same thing (with the additional topping of caramelized onion) in a more manageable size.
Having said that, if you really want to eat a huge burger that's thoughtfully prepared with good ingredients but isn't too fussy, all while in a super friendly and relaxed environment*, head to M. Well's for an atypical, potentially overwhelming burger-eating experience. More overwhelming if you eat two appetizers beforehand, which I don't recommend unless you're sharing with a large party or know how to pace yourself. (And further overwhelming if you top your burger with a 1.5-pound seared lobe of Hudson Valley foie gras. They'll do it for an extra $100.) And if you don't want a burger, it's worth going to M. Wells to try the rest of the menu—preferably with at least three hungry friends in tow.
* Hugue Dufour and his wife/restaurant partner Sarah Obraitis along with every other waiter we encountered was exceptionally courteous and helpful. Like. Super. Nice. They made a good meal more memorable.
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