For most foodie travellers to New York, a pilgrimage to the touristy icons: the Katz’s Delis and Russ & Daughters of the New York scene are a must. But when thinking of New York – there’s one iconic food item I associate with the city more than any other – the burger. The Co-pilot and I are big burger fans and we readily eschewed the long lines snaking around burger chains like In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack to lose ourselves in unfamiliar neighbourhoods, rub shoulders with regular locals and find out what and where they ate. I had plenty of tips thrown at me from friends – but for what we had in mind, we didn’t need traveller tips, we needed Insider Tips and to achieve that I needed a local filter: someone to sift out the hyped up jazz and leave behind the gems. Cue Darren Atkins, from the blog DMANBURGER, a blog dedicated to the enviable pursuit of the best burger in New York. He also happens to be an regular contributor to a number of New York columns and is an Australian chef working in New York to boot! On his recommendations, we hunted down burger establishments for three different perspectives on the best burger*.
(*I feel a disclaimer of sorts is in order. In an ever morphing, evolving city like New York, the locals are utterly spoilt for choice at every turn and trends and fads rise and fall like the crests and troughs of rolling waves. So favourite haunts and must-eat-at recommendations tend to be fleeting to say the least and may have a lifespan of a mayfly. But these three establishments have stood the test of time thus far).
1.Burger and Barrel: The Gastronomic Burger Experience
Burger and Barrel is a gastropub offering everything from share plates of sliders and tacos; bistro stalwarts like fillet mignon and of course, what we’re here for: burgers. The current burger menu includes a lamb burger and the classic hamburger, but past offerings have included an outrageously lush $47 white truffle burger. Though not so well known outside of New York, the establishment has seen its fair share of awards for the best burger in New York. In fact this year owner Josh Capon has tied for first place in the New York City Food and Wine Festival’s Blue Moon Burger Bash competition; making Burger and Barrel winner of the best burger a phenomenal 4 times in the last 5 years! With credentials like that, we had to sample the fare for ourselves!
The first thing we noticed upon arrival at Burger and Barrel is the smell. It’s divine! Vents located next to the entrance extracted a constant billowing cloud of concentrated, pungent maillard reaction fumes from the kitchens direct to the sidewalk. We stood there for a while in bliss drinking in that intoxicating scent before our salivating mouths and roaring stomachs propelled us through the door. Inside, the gastropub is a cosy, lowly lit setting with music blaring and diners all leaning in close to hear one another over the din.
We were there to try the award winning Bash Burger, but couldn’t go past the lobster sliders (being Australian, we found the price of lobster in the US is insanely, criminally cheap) and ordered the mushroom gruyere burger to round out our selection.
The lobster sliders were generously packed with luscious morsels of lobster meat, slathered with a creamy mayonnaise relish and punctuated with the occasional crunch of diced pickle. We thought American lobsters weren’t as sweet as Australian lobsters (ours are technically crayfish) but they were delicious and savoured nonetheless.
The burgers both come topped with onion rings and a side of fries. The mushroom gruyere burger had earthy grilled mushrooms cushioned in a mound of salty, cheesy gruyere all piled on top of a succulent grilled beef patty. The white bun is soft, not too sweet, not too yeasty and a perfect showcase for the burger ingredients. The onion rings and fries ensure the experience is still a casual, greasy fingered affair and not taken too seriously.
And the award winning Bash burger? It was face smearingly tasty. The patty has a good strong beefy flavour and fattiness, the molten American cheese and onion and bacon jam an umami punch tempered with the tart oniony pickle relish. It was just the right amount of sloppy and slippery. The Co-pilot and I traditionally share half of every dish to maximise our ability to extensively sample menus and I know I’ve come across a darn good burger when I’m selfishly trying to inhale it all myself.
There was only one downside for us. Unfortunately for our Australian palates – the unique taste of American cheese is very strongly associated with McDonalds’ burgers. Nothing to do with the quality of these burgers of course and we enjoyed them (and all the other American burgers we sampled) immensely nonetheless – just interference from some super strong conditioning by the Golden Arches combined with a lack of American cheese in Australian cuisine (thankfully, some might say!).
As our first taste of burgers in New York we were suitably impressed. I’d say Burger and Barrel burgers are perfect for dinner with friends.
2. Schnippers: The Classic Burger Experience
Burgers don’t need to be award winning to be really good. Sometimes, a fantastic everyday down and dirty burger is just what you need and Schnippers delivers just that. Brothers Andrew and Jonathan Schnipper originally started a soup chain called Hale and Hearty before the love of burgers made them change course. Hidden underneath the NY Times building, Schnippers’ menu reads like a wishlist of American favourites with a variety of burgers, hot dogs, mac and cheese, sloppy joes, tacos and club sandwiches. I know American cuisine extends far beyond these fast food favourites, but when I think of American food these are the usual suspects that first spring to mind.
I was lucky enough to meet with owner Jonathan Schnipper who took me through their burger creation process, and it’s immediately obvious that not only is he passionate about burgers – he is adamantly clear he knows what he wants in a burger. He tells me that the key to a great burger lies in the patty and like many other burger establishments, Schnippers uses a custom special blend of meat from Pat La Frieda, the specialist meat purveyor supplier to most of the best restaurants in New York. The Schnippers blend is a 80:20 meat to fat ratio that is specifically designed to taste “beefy” so the ground beef blend contains amongst other prime cuts, some short rib. This results is a more expensive patty but it’s the taste of the perfect patty for him. And, he asserts, it should never be cooked beyond medium.
Moving on from the patty, the next most important aspect in the burger is the bun – it should be soft (the softest you can find), white, not too sweet and provide very little resistance. To that end, Schnippers gets theirs shipped in from an interstate specialist supplier as he thinks it’s the best bun for their burgers.
Finally, you have the ingredients and Jonathan swears by the less is more rule: 4 ingredients or less to be exact. He outright rejects any fusion or faddish foreign influences (e.g. like Moroccan) and suggests sticking to tried and true flavours like peppers and caramelised onions and to use more salt than you think you need.
So, burger perfection lesson aside, how were the burgers?
The Schnippers Classic burger was a delicious sloppy beast with streaky bacon and molten cheese. They were generously portioned requiring a double hand hold for maximum face stuffing effect. The all important patty was indeed very juicy, rich in beefy umami flavour and reached right to the edge of the bun. Simple but very satisfying.
For my money and chilli loving palate, the green chile cheeseburger was even better – the deseeded and chargrilled chillies are not overpoweringly hot and providing just the right kick of heat whilst still retaining a good chilli pepper flavour.
The accompanying fries were both intriguing. Crispy shoestring fries are heaped with a savoury, meaty mountain of tomatoey meat mixture known confusingly to non-Americans as “chilli” although it wasn’t spicy at all – my first experience of sloppy fries and I was a converted fan. The sweet potato fries were surprising as they seemed more appropriate as a sweet offering. The natural sweetness of the sweet potato was further accentuated by a maple dipping sauce which tasted like creamed honey.
In a word these burgers were simply satisfying. If you have a burger craving that needs remedy, chances are, one of these burgers will elicit the type of satisfaction that makes you lean back and pat your full belly contentedly. I’d say these burgers are perfect for lunch (or as a hangover cure).
3. Minetta Tavern: The Decadent Burger Experience
For our final burger tasting we went from simple to the other end of the burger spectrum: decadent. Minetta Tavern is run by restauranteur Keith McNally, the owner of twelve fine New York establishments like Balthazar and Pastis and dubbed by NY Times as ‘the restauranteur who invented downtown’. His magic has worked at Minetta Tavern which is generally regarded as the best steakhouse in New York and it’s notoriously difficult to get a reservation there. But as Minetta Tavern happens to have arguably the most famous “it” burger in New York, we had to get in. The infamous Black Label Burger is another burger with a Pat La Frieda helping hand. The black label patty blend is said to contain an extravagant mix of aged côte de boeuf, rib-eye, short rib, brisket and skirt steak but the exact ingredients and ratios are kept a closely guarded secret to prevent imitation burgers popping up. And where you have a monopoly and hype, the public is always willing to pay more and accordingly this burger costs a pretty penny at $28.
To our delight, Minetta Tavern offers more than just the ‘it burger’. The decor is vintage 1930’s, dimly lit with black and white tiled floors, leather booths and celebrity caricatures adoring every spare inch of wall. And that’s where the nod to the 1930’s ends as the crowded space within was packed shoulder to shoulder with the thirsty post-work crowd heralding in the start of the weekend and clamouring for drinks at the bar.
We sipped on very clever, palate tickling cocktails (mine was a delicious fresh apple cider based cocktail with lashings of Chinese five spice reminiscent of a cold mulled wine); enjoyed the chunky wild boar terrine and absolutely adored the pork trotter. The Pied de Porc Pané was a standout winner for me, the Berkshire pig’s trotter had a lovely crispy exterior and fatty gooey molten interior – an unctuous emulsion of flesh, fat and cartilaginous goodness.
But it was the Black Label Burger we were there for and it didn’t fail to impress. The burger is simply adorned with pickle, lettuce and tomato all served on the side to pay full homage to the lauded patty. The burger itself just contains the patty cooked to medium rare, a slathering of onion jam served on a soft brioche bun. The hyped aged full beefy flavour is immediately apparent and sings through. It’s intense and not for the faint hearted. Non-beef lovers need not apply.
I’d say the Minetta Tavern Black Label Burgers are perfect for a dinner date to impress and as a one-off taste, I was suitably satisfied with the experience and was glad to have tried the Black Label Burger.
Was the Black Label Burger the best burger in New York? For my personal tastes, that requires more satisfaction of those basic primal burger urges. Those same urges that make you groan with happiness when you sink your teeth into that perfect burger and have you licking your fingers with a sated smile when you’ve demolished the last bite.
For my vote, I’d happily head to Burger and Barrel (and happily drink in long deep lungfuls of those deliriously intoxicating maillard reaction fumes outside), but perhaps you’re better suited to the no fuss simple perfection of the Schnippers burgers or the all out decadence of the Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger. Or maybe the title belongs to a new contender in town? Kevin McNally’s newly opened restaurant Cherche Midi reportedly has New York’s newest “it” burger. In a place like New York where global food trends are born, we can be sure that there’ll always be someone new vying for the title of best burger in New York.
A very big shout out to the amazing Darren Atkins for all his detailed generous tips and help getting us reservations as well!
Burger and Barrel
25 W Houston New York
Open daily. Lunch: Mon – Fri from 11:30am; dinner: Sun – Wed until 11pm, Thurs – Sat until midnight; weekend brunch: Sat – Sun 10am to 3pm.
The original Schnippers: 8th Avenue & 41st New York
Open daily. Mon – Fri 10:30am – 11pm; Sat 11am – 11pm; Sun 11am – 10pm
Note: other Schnippers locations are at 23rd Street & Madison and 570 Lexington at 50th
113 MacDougal St., New York, NY 10012 (Between Bleecker & W. 3rd Street)
Open for Lunch Wed – Fri 12pm – 3pm; Brunch Sat – Sun 11am – 3pm; Dinner Mon – Sat 5:30pm – 1am, Sun 5:30pm – 12amby