The burger at National Mechanics seems to have changed quite a bit over the past year. Read the previous review from 2009 here.
22 South 3rd Street, Philadelphia PA 19106 (map)
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A hefty grilled Angus burger sandwiched between a delicately sweet brioche
Want Fries With That? It's a crime there aren't more of these steak fries.
Price: National Burger, $9
The first time I went looking for National Mechanics in Old City, I walked right by it and didn't even realize. It's not because it's dingy, beat-up, or anything of the sort, but rather...it feels too grand to be a bar. Built in the space of the former Mechanics National Bank, the entrance is unlike any other gastropub I've visited in Philadelphia. Tall majestic columns, weathered stone exterior, and a high arching roof—the architecture is downright intimidating.
The décor on the inside proves to be a confusing transition. Everything on the outside suggests homage being paid to the historical, but the interior is warm and cozy, if a bit eccentric. From the odd light fixtures to the faucet piping in the bathroom, everything feels cobbled together in an oddly mechanical fashion à la Ben Franklin meets Steampunk.
Luckily, their menu isn't as confusing as the image they're trying to push. Unsurprisingly, they serve standard bar fare. I'll admit, the $10 strip steak was awfully tempting, but that shouldn't be why you're going. You should be going for the 32 rotating varieties of beer served at any given time. Oh, right...AHT doesn't stand for "A Hangover Tomorrow," what I really mean is you should be going for that section of the menu labeled "Between Bread."
Through its description, the National Burger is another seemingly plain construction of beef and bun, dressed only minimally with lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. Sure, you can doll up your burger with bacon for another dollar, but this is yet another case of elegance manifesting itself as simplicity.
Though I asked for my burger to be cooked medium rare, the above is what was delivered to my table. My heart sank. There's nothing more distressing than a poorly cooked patty to ruin a burger. Eight ounces of overcooked beef is eight ounces of sadness. Curiously enough, despite this flaw, the burger tasted great. The fact that the patty resided on the grill for as long as it did yielded a deep smokiness to the outer crust, and this, combined with the sharp cheddar, resulted in a well-balanced and diverse flavor profile. I can only imagine how much better the burger could've been if it were actually medium rare. The truly impressive aspect of this sandwich, however, was the brioche bun. Pliant, airy, and chewy, the bun had a subtle sweetness that made it pleasant to eat entirely by itself.
Let me start with the downside to the fries that come along with the National Burger. There are not enough of them. I am a big fan of steak fries. For some reason, a lot of restaurants have abandoned these full-bodied sides in favor of their slender cousins. This, to me, is a mistake. While I don't discriminate against fries based on their weight/appearances, when executed properly, thickly cut and crispy steak fries are wonderfully delicious. And these for certain are. I happily finished my small pile without even resorting to using ketchup.
So what of National Mechanics? It's a charming, quirky bar built into the grand confines of colonial architecture that serves up a good (even when poorly cooked) burger and great steak fries.