Everything you need to know about the trailblazing burgers at New York City's worst-kept burger secret.
The year is 2002 and New York City's restaurant scene looks totally different, especially when it comes to burgers. Daniel Boulud had sent shockwaves through the city after introducing an upscale burger with black truffles and foie gras to DB Bistro Moderne the previous year. But there's no Spotted Pig burger. There's no Minetta Tavern "Black Label" burger. There's no Shake Shack.
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It was into this burgerscape — largely dominated by old-timey classics like P.J. Clarke's and fast food monoliths like McDonald's — that Steven Pipes decided to make his move. When he dreamt up Burger Joint in a "hidden" corner of Le Parker Meridien Hotel's lobby in midtown Manhattan, his inspiration was clear. "I like burgers," he says, "and there were no good burgers in the neighborhood." He had an end-goal for his restaurant: It would be "fun" and "impactful." He had a vision for the space. He just needed the right burger.
"You want the one thing and you want it as well as it can be done."
He and Le Parker Meridien Hotel's French executive chef Emile Castillo began a journey of burger discovery that lasted a few months. The duo tried burgers all over town. Castillo created some 25 to 30 burger recipes, pitting each against the other in bracket-style burger taste tests until one burger became the clear winner. As Pipes describes it, these burgers were about "simplifying and taking away" elements to achieve a quintessentially great burger.
They've ended up with a cheeseburger that hasn't really changed since Burger Joint first opened. (Actually, the biggest change is that customers can now order a double.) There's a five-ounce grilled beef patty. The cheeses are mild and American (but not American cheese). The vegetable toppings and the trio of available condiments — ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard — are as standard as can be. Size-wise, it's "handleable," Pipes explains. "You can be satisfied with one, but you can eat two." There's no "special sauce." If there's one point Pipes and Castillo both want to drive home with their burger, it's that simplicity is a noble goal. "You want the one thing and you want it as well as it can be done," Pipe says. There's just not a whole lot he and Castillo think burgers truly need.
Today, it's hard to overstate the influence Burger Joint has had on the way its home city eats. Drawing lines of people since its earliest days, Burger Joint is an inarguable trailblazer in the world of burgers: Quality-obsessed but not "gourmet." Fast (once you order), but not "fast food." Hidden, but the city's "worst-kept secret." Even in today's multidimensional burger scene, Burger Joint still keeps its place on Eater NY's list of essential burgers, having also won top honors from the site in 2013 — even though the field is now even more crowded. Burger Joint itself has expanded within New York City and outside the country. "We built this kind of on a lark," Pipes muses, "and since then the world has exploded with burgers."
Below, the elements of the Burger Joint burger:
1. the bun
"We wanted to have something very traditional," says Castillo of why Burger Joint uses Arnold hamburger buns. (Burger Joint uses them proudly, storing bags and bags on the line where customers can see the logo.) The buns are just a bit larger than many standard buns, which works well when stacked with all the toppings at Castillo's disposal. The buns are just toasted — no butter, no tricks. It's the Burger Joint philosophy of simplicity in action.
2. The Beef
Castillo says beef is at the heart of what makes a Burger Joint burger stand out as a Burger Joint burger: "To be simple, to have a good burger, you need good, plain meat." Castillo uses Black Angus Nebraska beef shoulder clod (chuck refers to the neck and the shoulder) and his team grinds it in-house daily.
Castillo has two butchers working every day, breaking down the cuts and assembling patties: One does the burgers for lunch (roughly 600 patties) and the other does the burgers for dinner (another 500-600 patties). On average, the two butchers produce some 1,000 patties every day from some 300 pounds of beef. This happens in the hotel's more spacious prep kitchen.
It takes the butcher about six to seven minutes to trim the shoulder, creating by eye the classic 80-20 fat ratio.
The beef is sent through a grinder outfitted with a 116 plate, which produces a course grind. The beef is only ground once and is touched as little as possible. "You don't want to mix it too much because it hardens the burger," Castillo explains.
The butcher then creates a five-ounce patty. Having been on staff for several years, the Burger Joint team can often tell just by the weight in their hands that they're holding five ounces of meat. They place the meat into a paper-lined patty press, making one patty at a time. The machine helps create the uniform size of four inches wide and 3/4 of an inch thick. After the patties are pressed, they go into the refrigerator until it's time to cook them. They are cooked as-is, unseasoned. Castillo doesn't even salt the patties. "I don't season because it covers up the quality of the meat. You don't need it," he explains. "Also, salt can dry out the beef if you add it ahead of time."
3. the cheese
Because the Burger Joint burger is a study in simplicity, it might come as a surprise that there are two different cheeses used: a slice of white cheddar and a slice of Colby, a mild yellow cheese from Wisconsin. "I tried all different cheeses," says Castillo, recalling the extensive recipe testing conducted prior to opening. "The combination of these two is just great." Importantly, both cheeses melt well, and together they provide near-total coverage atop the burger patty.
4. the toppings
Otherwise known as "the works." At Burger Joint, customers can order their burger with every classic topping imaginable. In the vegetable category Burger Joint offers crispy iceberg lettuce, fresh tomato, sliced red onion, and B&G kosher pickles. For condiments, Burger Joint squirts on generous squiggle servings of Heinz ketchup, Grey Poupon dijon mustard, and Hellman's mayonnaise. "If you're doing a burger well, this is the way it's supposed to be," says Castillo. "Basic."
5. the assembly
The hardest part of working at the original Burger Joint location is without a doubt "the speed and the number of people [served]," Castillo says. While the prep kitchen where the beef is ground is relatively spacious, the actual kitchen inside the restaurant is very tight, a mere 100 square feet. Considering that there's almost always a long line of customers, speed and accuracy is paramount. There's just not time to refire. Luckily, Castillo has had "nearly the same cooking staff since the very beginning." "Speed comes with practice," he affirms.
Here's what has to be done. First, the patties go onto the gas grill that's been in place since day one. Castillo prefers the grill to a griddle. "The problem with a griddle is that the burger cooks in its own fat," he explains. "With the grill, the fat falls through onto the briquettes and they flavor the burger." There's another bonus: "The grill makes it crisper than a griddle does."
"One part of the grill is very hot, and one part is medium-hot," explains Castillo. The rare burgers cook quickly on the hot part, about three minutes per side. Well-done burgers need to be cooked slower so the patty doesn't burn, so they spend five to six minutes per side on the medium-hot part of the grill. Castillo gauges doneness by eye and touch, but mostly by eye: "With the experience we have, we can tell just by looking."
The two slices of cheese are added when the burger is a minute-and-a-half to two minutes away from being ready. Then the cheese-topped patties go into the salamander broiler to finish cooking and to melt the cheese.
The burger is built at an assembly station across from the salamander. An upturned, toasted top bun is loaded with the vegetable toppings and condiments.
The finished patty is placed atop the bottom bun, and then the cooks expertly flip the top bun onto the patty. The burger is structured so that the condiments end up spread along the patty. In classic fast-food style, the burgers are then wrapped in paper and delivered to the customer.