I love when New Yorkers argue about the greatest burger. It starts some awesome debate, and your answer tells much more about you than you think--especially if your vote is for something like the very good but nowhere-near-the-best Shack Burger at the Shake Shack (this says you like to consider yourself a foodie but actually are more interested in who the popular kids are). Some votes are for Corner Bistro (which I have always imagined started because a writer for one of the local magazines lived near it and somehow had never had the burger; it is a version of at one of its readily available incarnations at outlets near any body of water in the continental United States). Others dig on Burger Joint (I assume you know that this is the place on 57th street and not the pathetic little slider outlet on 3rd St. called The burger Joint,). For most burgers there is an opinion, which is what makes them so much fun to debate.
Before I rock all your worlds and tell you the best burger in the world is to be had in a small town called Rumson, NJ, at a bar called Barnacle Bill’s, rendering the best in New York a fruitless struggle (around here I am in the Burger Joint camp), I feel the need to set up some parameters for this debate:
1. There are two kinds of burgers in the world: the fast food burger and the restaurant/bar burger.
2. Anything that is not one of these is, of course, the greatest of its kind because it does not fit one of these two vast categories. (So don’t post comments about weck, and don’t offer the Kobe sliders at Stanton Social, or DB’s modern burger. Yes, they rock but they are a one-of-a-kind thing or a subcategory.)
If you haven’t tried the burger at In-N-Out Burger, I don’t think you get to vote on best fast food burger. If it is not the best, it is a benchmark. Fast food burgers are small, 2.5-5oz prepared within guidelines in the interest of efficiency and uniformity, served on buns and if you change an ingredient the burger changes name. Fast food burgers are served on trays and you go to them. But that is not what this post is about.
Bar/restaurant burgers are big, in the 8-12 oz range, are cooked to order, come on rolls, and are juicy (whether or not they got past your prescribed doneness when the short order guy got distracted from his duties). There will always be at least three cheese choices, it will be made of ground beef or chuck, is served on a plate, and comes to you.
If you look at the burgers people in NY seem to favor, they straddle these areas well and probably win polls because they draw votes from both camps.
As far as bar/restaurant burgers go, Barnacle’s has the best offering. If you order a burger you get a hand-formed 10oz beef patty on a roll with a dill pickle spear and some ruffled potato chips. The patty is grilled on what is basically a huge flat-top grill pan, with a flame heat source over the back third. The burgers end up with a nice black char, combined with the smokiness of fat that has fallen on something extremely hot and vaporized, then wafted back up to perfume itself. Most of all, it has been the same for the 20 years since I had my first.
The other thing that makes Barnacle’s burger superior is its simple condiment. It comes on what is called a hard roll in that part of the world. Basically a drier, darker, and taller version of a Kaiser roll with poppy seeds baked onto it; it has a crispy shell with a light, chewy simple white crumb. Onions can be had raw, sautéed or ringed, and it can also come with lettuce and tomato on request. You can get mozzarella, Swiss, American, bleu, or cheddar (a sauce). And that’s about it (if you wish you could get some jalapeños or sun-dried tomatoes you have such little respect for the burger and yourself I will ask you to stop reading at this point. I mean a burger is about the burger, not condiments, really, if you want to load stuff on a grilled sandwich, start with chicken. And if this is the first time that thought has occurred to you, then you like a bad place, poorly making burgers out of crappy meat, you nincompoop… this rant interrupted by the editor in the interest of sanity and flow AL)
On my last visit to Barnacle's, I was with Wife, who is very good about sharing. So, in the interest of variety I had a bacon cheddar burger and she had an American burger on an English muffin, and we split them. As horrible and boring as American cheese is in most cases, one of the places it plays well is on a well-made burger. Because of Bestman and his preference for this burger, it holds a place in the repertoire with the chips actually put on it. The bacon cheddar burger is the one I have been getting for twenty years. Originally I was sucked in by the way the burger's oily juices combined with the cheddar sauce's tanginess and the salty, smoky bacon. At this point I would say I get it about one out of every three times I go to Barnacle's out of familiarity.
I could go on and on about Barnacles Bill’s burger and presuppose all arguments, but I won’t. I will simply mention as a last point that while most of the rest of the menu at B Bill’s (predominantly fish dishes; get the steamers as an appetizer when you go) and all the other restaurants in the area have almost doubled in price since my first visit back in ‘83 or so, the burger stays in the very fair six-dollar range. You have to desperately try to get this burger to ten dollars. Even if you add everything you can to it, it stays a very sensible price.
I understand that people take this question very seriously and are sure I am wrong. To them I propose a fair forum for debate. I will happily join you to sample any contender, right after you try mine. I'll even do them in the same day if both are in the greater metro New York area. So far everyone that has had a vote has been forced to concede to this one. And heck, my pride can stand being wrong if it means finding a better burger.