Last updated on February 9th, 2015
Continuing his role as the resident burger expert at Good. Food. Stories., contributor and awesome husband Dan Cichalski returns today with a few prime picks for patties. Now you know where to find us most of the time in Manhattan.
“So, what is your favorite burger in the city?” our friend Lauren asked me recently as we sat at a bar a few hours after lunch.
“It depends,” I said. “It’s either the last one or the next one.”
New York City burgers are like children: you can’t pick a favorite. When forced to choose where to eat, it comes down to which burger is closest. Sometimes it depends on the company I’m with or the atmosphere—bar or table, indoors or out—I seek. And there are days when the accoutrements—fries or tots, beer or soda, tap or bottle, which beer—help sway my decision.
Lists of New York’s best burgers have been done over and over, so I’m not here to present another Top Five. Instead, this is a collection of my five favorite places to can has cheezburger in Manhattan. (Don’t worry, outer boroughs, I’ve got to save some for a follow-up.) This is no countdown, either—I’m listing them in order from the most recent visit backwards, so it looks like I’m due to hit the last place on my next burger journey to the Big Apple.
Burger & Barrel
True to its name, Burger & Barrel’s Classic ($15) comes with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and American cheese, plus two onion rings and special sauce. I’m no foodie, but I’ve come to learn that nine times out of 10, “special sauce” on a burger means a mix of ketchup and mayonnaise, with perhaps some other spices or flavors tossed in to make it unique to each location. It’s the only acceptable form of mayo, if you ask me.
I first came across this burger at Lure Fishbar, B&B’s older sister restaurant, some years ago. When I asked our server about the special sauce, she explained that it—and the whole burger, in fact—was based on the West Coast’s iconic In-N-Out Burger, and I was sold, even at that price. So when Lure chef Josh Capon branched out to open B&B, I knew I’d be drawn to West Houston St. often. Go ahead and substitute the garlic tater tots for the french fries and forget any notions of dessert. (Though the dessert menu is worth a look, so if you’re into that kind of thing, split a burger—it conveniently comes cut in half—and indulge in the sweetness afterward.)
This is the most recent burger I tried for the first time, and it’s what led me, a few weeks later, to realize that my favorite may be the last one. Marc Murphy’s award-winning Big Marc burger ($17) at Ditch Plains made me forget all other burgers for a night. It’s the most expensive of this group, but it’s also the most unique, served on a black pepper and cheddar bun with vodka-spiked ketchup and house-made bread and butter pickles, with jalapeño-cheddar tater tots and mixed greens on the side.
I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted such flavor combinations in a burger. Each bite brought a different aspect to the front: the ketchup’s drunkenly sweet tang melded with the meat in one nosh, the pickles and juices from the beef came through in the next, and so on. The tater tots packed their own punch, requiring a swig from my Brooklyn Brewery Oktoberfest after each bite, but I’m a lightweight when it comes to hot peppers. And the salt water taffy that Ditch Plains brings with your check is the perfect light ending for such a hearty meal.
Yeah, yeah, it’s uber-popular and it may have jumped the shark, but the ShackBurger ($4.55 single, $7.10 double) at Shake Shack is still a damn fine tasty piece of meat. It’s a summer staple for me at Mets games, but only when I’m at the ballpark early enough to wait in line before the game starts, or after the seventh inning, when the line is considerably shorter (but the beer sales are cut off). The same rule applies to the original Madison Square Park location—is any meal really worth waiting an hour to eat? [Editor’s note: Nope!]—so I have no problem going in a light summer rain or on a crisp December evening when the crowds are up at Rockefeller Center watching a big tree light up. I actually prefer the ShackBurger to Danny Meyer’s other popular burger at Blue Smoke, where I just can’t resist the fried chicken.
Only served at lunch, Gabrielle Hamilton‘s burger offering ($15) is simple but spectacular, featuring sharp Cabot cheddar, a slathering of herb-and-shallot butter, and a toasted homemade English muffin in lieu of a bun. At some places, I shun such burgers because the toasted muffin doesn’t seem to hold the juices as well, despite all the nooks and crannies. But at Prune, the muffin still retains some sponge-like qualities, holding all the flavors in as you chow down in the intimate space in the East Village.
Walk through the Parker Meridien’s 56th St. entrance into the hotel lobby and turn left. Down a short hallway, you’ll see a tiny neon burger lit up above a doorway, out of which a short line of people will likely be forming. If not, you’ve got great timing.
Inside the hole in the wall, you’ll find a handful of tables crowded with New Yorkers and tourists alike, all tearing into this straightforward burger ($6.89 hamburger, $7.35 with cheese). There are no special sauces or tater tots—regular, cheesy, or garlic—here, but the juicy burger on a soft bun and a bag of fries is enough. Provided the line is manageable, it’s the best place to duck into for a quick meal after hitting up the Uniqlo flagship store or gazing upon the Picassos and Dalis at the Museum of Modern Art.