New York has always been a burger-obsessed city, so to say that there is a current “wave” of burger frenzy going on is merely an understatement. This place has gone just plain burger nuts, bordering on insanity.
Which isn’t to say that maniacal minced-meat madness isn’t fun, or tasty. But it can lead to extremes. Take my experiences the past week. First, I paid $41 – forty-one American smackeroos – for one of Manhattan’s reputed “best” burgers. Then I waited in line for a half- hour (considered a short wait, with regularly reported waits of 1.5 hours) to get one of Danny Meyer’s patties at Shake Shack, which bring in the kind of excitable crowds you’d expect at a Miley Cyrus concert.
I won’t get into the nitty-gritty details, because, let’s face it, just about everyone else has. Just Google it and read until your eyes get blurry. This is going to be the Cliff Notes version.
First off, Old Homestead – that classic meat establishment opposite the Chelsea Markets, with its landmark life-sized cow sign – serves up a Kobe beef burger with undeniably quality meat, cooked well. The accompanying sauces, a chipotle ketchup and spicy stone-ground mustard, are terrific, as is the side of tater tots (deep-fried potato cylinders for you non-Yanks) . But in the end, you can only get so excited about condiments and fried potatoes. And that’s that.
Is it mind-blowing? Nup, although the formal service is a nice touch. Is it very good? Yep, and reportedly weighs in at a whopping 1.25 pounds of meat (I say reportedly because I forgot to pack my digital scale in my laptop bag). Will I rush back to have another one? No. Was it worth the money? Only if someone else is paying.
That Old Homestead sits right across from the very spot where the Food Network does its business may have something to do with the hoopla. That it’s on the edge of the overhyped Meatpacking District, and has been around for yonks, may also have something to do with it. That’s it’s a quality establishment doesn’t hurt either. In the end, though, it serves up what I’d call the Cadillac of burgers: big and bulky, from an old-school manufacturer and of questionable high cost.
Then there are the celebrity burgers of Shake Shack, born in Madison Square Park, then expanded to the Upper West Side, now at the NY Mets’ new baseball stadium, and soon to appear at a corner near you (probably).
Shake Shack is THE hottest restaurant in New York. Don’t believe me? Just have a look on Yelp. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, the top-rated restaurant in the whole US, has received 160 reviews. Nobu has 246. Shake Shack’s original Flatiron locale, in comparison, has 892 reviews, plus another 232 for the Upper West branch. The only arguable competition is Magnolia Bakery, which isn’t a restaurant (it’s an unstoppable force of icing proportions aided by Sex in the City cross-marketing).
I got there at 1.45pm, and waited patiently for 30 minutes while wresting with my laptop to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi, which gets spotty in the southeast corner of Madison Park. After doing some online research, I ordered the Shack burger, the lauded cheese fries and an Arnold Palmer: a classic mix of lemonade and iced tea. Yes, I still need to try the shakes, but I needed a bit of relief after a double-cheeseburger and French fries doing the backstroke in a pool of melted cheese. I’ll be back for another round to try to dessert options.
The burger was excellent: the buns were soft and thin (overly thick, flour-powdered buns are a personal pet peeve), the meat moist and tender, and the cheese with a hint of flavour personality that you don’t get in standard cheddar. The special sauce was nice, but as memorable as a role as an extra in a Robert Altman film. The crinkled fries were very good, and reminded me of the famed cheese fries of Philadelphia renown. And the Arnold Palmer was, well, a nice cold drink.
If this was a competition – and maybe it is with all of the talk about NY’s burger wars – Shake Shack would win. Even if Old Homestead cost me the same $11.25 that my whole meal in Madison Park, Shake Shack would win. It had more flavour in the meat, was cooked better and was juicier. That I could go back nearly three more times to equal the cost of one Homestead burger speaks volumes.
So is the Shack burger the best I’ve ever had? Well, it’s the best burger I’ve had this year, although the best I’ve ever had is not in NY – it’s the ‘Lark burger’ at the bar at the Larkspur fine-dining restaurant in Vail, Colorado. It was as flavourful and moist as I’ve encountered, and accompanied by an impressive side of truffle fries. That was a few years ago, so I’m hoping it’s still as good, now that Larkburger off-shoots have sprouted in the Colorado towns of Edwards and Boulder.
Is there are better burger in New York? Very possibly, as just about every celeb chef in the city seems to be putting out their own meaty masterpiece – when they’re not on those other NYC food bandwagons: short ribs, sliders (mini burgers), hot dogs or gourmet pizza. I’ll keen an eye out for worthwhile contestants, but for the moment, I’m minced out and craving some vegetables and a nice fish. Before burger heaven leads my body to hell, I’m going to give the arteries some r-and-r.
Old Homestead Steak House, 56 9th Ave, New York, NY, www.theoldhomesteadsteakhouse.com
Shake Shack, Madison Ave and East 23rd St. Southeast Corner of Madison Square Park, New York, NY, +1 (212) 889-6600, www.shakeshacknyc.com