Anyone who’s ever helmed a kitchen knows that simple ingredients can coalesce with drastically different results. Beef, bread, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and a slice of cheese: these basics formed the composite parts I sampled while scouring New York City for its best burgers. Soon after beginning, my grand investigation morphed into a more constricted inquiry: my wallet and waistline demanded certain protective parameters, lest I become Manhattan’s own Hamburglar.
1. The burger must cost $10 or less (pre-tax).
2. Geographical limitations kept me in Manhattan, and I only visited restaurants that began in New York (that’s directed at you, Five Guys).
3. Beef burgers with a slice of cheese were my staple order, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sneak in a few slices of bacon here and there.
That this topic inspires heated debate was never in question, though it was reinforced during my first outing last Monday. While enjoying my virgin trip to the Corner Bistro, fellow diners noticed my unusual dining accouterments. Camera, pencil and notepad straddled the white paper plate on which my first burger landed, oozing cheese and the right amount of grease.
“Are you a food writer?” was all it took for the gastronomical floodgates to pour open.
Before I knew it, questions, suggestions, and poorly concealed judgment flew at me like paper airplanes. I scribbled away as my new friends, native New Yorkers and genuine burger aficionados, shared their collective wisdom, built upon information I had already received from friends and blogging mavens, including the Burger of the Month clubbers, whose meticulous rankings garnered my respect (might they need a new member?).
My list slowly emerged, and with it excitement, then fleeting self-doubt. How would one reasonably petite person consume upwards of ten burgers in two short weeks? If anyone could do it, I could, by drawing upon my woman-versus-food alter ego, the Texas girl who daily brought spicy beef chili to kindergarten in a world where red meat and salsa are lifeblood to natives.
Not one of the burgers I tasted disappointed me, and though I’d originally planned to “sample” each one with a bite, or maybe two, I found that any shred of willpower I possessed became utterly powerless against the burger’s mighty force. Below is my list, with limited explanation (how does one properly describe the nuanced delight at eating an all- American cheeseburger?) and photos that will leave you drooling at your desk. So pack up your things, snag a $20 dollar bill from your wallet, and get yourself to…
1. The original P.J. Clarke’s on 3rd Avenue at E. 55th is one of my favorite places in the city. Its burger (from $9.50) is best enjoyed with decadent sides: shoestring fries, onion rings, and creamed spinach all hit the mark. Operating since 1884, this venerable restaurant represents New York at its cozy and historic best (open daily from 11:30 AM to 3 AM).
2. New York natives often prefer J.G. Melon, whose interior mirrors that of P.J. Clarke (swap blue for red, add a few melon prints, head twenty blocks north and you have JGM). It’s only been around since the 1970s, but unlike PJC, JGM has no offshoots (nor a website). Theirs is another straightforward burger: its savory simplicity never leaves me disappointed (burgers start at $8.75) (open 11:30 AM to 4 AM most days).