First meal back in the States, I hit the ground running with a burger.
After two months of nothing but Italian food I felt a deep yearning,
patriotic surge in my breast for that purest symbol of American North
American Americanism – the hamburger.
It seems there are two major philosophical schools – or camps — in
the hamburger wars. There are those who judge their burger by what’s on it
– the toppings, the trimmings — the presentation, so to speak – and there are
those who judge their burger by the taste and texture of the meat. Maybe it
has to do with your childhood, your earliest burger experience. When I was
a child, for example, toppings had not yet been invented – I mean other than
ketchup and the occasional pickle on the side. I was child before there was
special sauce, before Macdonald’s served its first hamburger – that’s 245
billion light-burgers away from now. I ate my earliest burgers at Mandel
and Ballow’s delicatessen on Reisterstown Rd. in Baltimore with my cousin
Nelson before we went to the Crest Theater to see a movie on Saturday
afternoon. It was a good – albeit greasy – burger. It was my baseline.
Then when I was around fourteen I worked as a runner for my Uncle
Benny’s jewelry store. At around one o’clock I’d get lunch for all the
salesmen. That meant either Klein’s Billiard Academy where they had a
steam table with legendary brisket sandwiches or a little coffee shop across
the street whose name has long since faded for me. But they had a great
hamburger – truly great – iconic.
It was a nice-sized hockey puck of a burger, well salted, then flattened
onto a grill (nowadays we know it would be better in a hot cast-iron skillet).
Just at the right moment – when the dark brown on the bottom crept a half-
inch or so up the sides but with the center still red – it was flipped onto the
other side and grilled until perfect. Then it was spatulated onto a seeded
Kaiser roll with paper-thin-sliced raw onion on top and ketchup on top of
I delivered the lunches to the salesmen and then I snuck down to the
storeroom in the basement. I got comfortable, sitting on a box that a toaster
came in and unwrapped the aluminum foil around the sandwich. The burger
was still hot. The bite – salty char on the outside, a mouthful of juicy
steak-tasting burger inside – yes, the little drip onto my shirt, which was
to become my trademark later in life. The onion held it’s own, of course,
powerful and sweet against the beef. You could feel its fumes opening your
sinuses until the ketchup tamed it down a bit. I learned as I got older that If
the beef is juicy and tasty enough, you don’t need the ketchup. Just salt.
This is my benchmark. Every burger is measured against this one.
So off Jill and I and the kids all went on our first night back from Italy
to the new pleasure palace of the Upper West Side, the pride of Broadway
and 84th, Five Napkin Burger, and we tried their signature offering.
Everybody loved it but me. I take that back – I liked it — it was good – I
scarfed it down happily. But it’s a tarted-up burger. And I mean that in the
nicest sense of the word. It has all sorts of high-quality items piled on and
around it: gruyere cheese with a nice nutty flavor and lots of it; caramelized
onions – nice touch, almost could be a side dish on its own; rosemary aioli –
now we know that a little rosemary goes a long way – it’s the most assertive
of the herbs, so this is another singular, strong aroma in your nose that’s
keeping you from tasting the meat itself. As a presentation, it’s great. But
what happens if you take it all apart? What does the burger actually taste
like? As anyone who has previously read this blog knows, I’m basically
a deconstructionist when it comes to food and eating. I prefer to have an
intimate relationship with the primary ingredients rather than be dazzled by
So I went back two days later – all by myself, sat at the bar and
ordered a nudie – just a burger, medium-rare on the bun. Then I asked for
some sliced onion on the side and a slice of tomato. Ketchup was available
on the counter. When it arrived, I performed my scientific experiment,
mentally taking exhaustive notes. I cut the sandwich in half and took a bite
– nude, but for the bun. It was excellent. Good, juicy, beefy taste – a little
overly juicy, but that’s their trademark. But good, fresh chuck, properly
fatted. Then I added a slice of onion, a bit of salt and tasted. We were now
approaching heaven – very, very good. Then I added a slice of tomato –
not bad, but the addition of something cool didn’t really light me up. Then
I tried with a little ketchup over the onion. And I have to tell you — I know
why there’s been ketchup on all those counters for all these years. There’s
something about that processed, chemicalized, stabilized goop that goes
good with a hamburger, what can I say?
The bun is the Achille’s heel of this burger. The Achille’s bun.
It’s taste is neutral, which is okay; it’s soft, easy to get down and digest –
that’s all fine. But a bun is primarily a delivery system. It gets the meal
to your mouth. And when you bite down on this baby and all those tasty
juices run out, the delivery system starts to get soggy and break down. Not
completely, but some. It doesn’t make you feel secure.
Other than that, I have top marks for this place. I’ll be back for sure.