The burgers I ate growing up were mostly from fast-food restaurants or our backyard gas grill. I certainly liked burgers, but once I became a body-conscious teenager, I never really ordered them in restaurants. I never saw them as something to seek out or celebrate, especially as they were just hunks of cheap red meat… that were only ever eaten well done. My parents wouldn’t dare risk undercooking a burger for fear of food poisoning, and it was only until I ordered my first burger in the U.S. that I ever heard a server ask how I would like the burger cooked. In my experience, Canadians are much more fearful of food-borne illnesses in their ground beef than Americans. Anything less than fully cooked seemed too risky. Even with the rise of chef-ier burgers. I mean, I read Fast Food Nation and knew potentially how many different cows might make up what should become a bloodless puck of overcooked beef. Why would I want any bit of pink?
Well, because I’ve learned just what a better burger experience can be had with rarer meat. The kind of experience that turns you into a person who does seek out and orders burgers, looking forward to the meat juice that will drip down your chin, then to your fingers, and hopefully, then to coat your fries.
New York is definitely a city that takes pride in its burgers, and there are lots of places where you can trust the source of the meat and that it is ground right there in the kitchen, largely removing any fear that your burger is made up of 1,000 cows. I find this city very much to be a meat-forward place, even with a new focus on vegetables. I mean, a story in this week’s New York Times discussed how prime rib is popping up all over the city again. The famous Black Label burger at the Minetta Tavern was the game changer for me. Pretty confident that I wasn’t going to get sick and acknowledging that getting a $28 burger cooked well done would possibly get me kicked out, I asked for… medium. I know that medium rare is most often recommended, but I’m not quite ready to go almost red. The pink of medium is living on the edge enough for me. And yes (it’s a fantastic burger), eating a burger with pink, juicy meat turned on an internal switch in understanding burger cravings. It’s more than just a red meat craving because it involves the act of getting your hands in there, squishing the bun, bringing it up close to your face, and then doing the whole Guy Fieri dance of trying to get it all into your mouth. It is much more primal than cutting off a bite of steak.
As a priss who generally doesn’t like messy finger food, I don’t get burger cravings very often. Shake Shack can take the edge off if I’m in a particular bad way, but I tend to plot out my burger eating when the mood strikes—how and when can I get a good one, not just any one. Lunch-only burgers are good for plotting because they sometimes require a day or afternoon off work. Roberta’s and Peter Luger Steakhouse both have lunch burgers that I planned for as their homebases are too far from work. (I’ve had the lunch-only burger at Gramercy Tavern and loved it, but as I have no photo and can technically eat it on my lunch hour, it’s not included here.)
Both of these burgers have considerable fan bases, so please seek out the reviews or blog posts if you want descriptions and information better than I could ever (care to) give about what kind of meat is used or how it stacks up to all the other famous burgers around New York. I’ve had a few of the notables (these two, Minetta Tavern, Gramercy Tavern, Dumont, The Breslin, The Spotted Pig), but I’m really not well versed in the intricacies of burger making and eating to say anything beyond I enjoyed all of them and these two are worth the praise they receive and the special visiting time they require.
Both burgers are substantial, but not gluttonous, as I easily finished my plate and had room to spare. Proper lunch servings, I suppose. I had them cooked medium, and they were beefy and juicy. The cheese kind of got lost on both, but I could argue it was good for a bit of salt.
I never visit Roberta’s during the day/brunch because I know it can still be hours to get a table. I ate my burger at a bar stool, but even on a Monday afternoon, the quoted wait for a table was 45 minutes. Potato buns are always winners and made up for the lack of fries. Switching between eating a burger with your hands to eating potatoes with a knife and fork is weird.
I was able to steal one of the remaining bar seats at Peter Luger before they stopped taking lunch orders. Also notoriously difficult to get into, Peter Luger is supposed to be one of the quintessential NYC steakhouse experiences. Not eating in the main dining room means I haven’t quite yet had this experience, but bar food orders are taken care of by dining room servers, so I got a bit of the old school attitude the servers are known for. My appetite could definitely have handled more fries, but I suppose, again, it was lunch.
Because I am writing this, you know that I’m totally fine and E.coli-free. If any of my Canadian lovelies are going to shame-shame me, do it because I killed many trees from all the napkins I used cleaning my hands and chin of burger juice.