the burger: The Mikey: 5oz NY Bar/Pub style meatballesque patty, topped with lettuce, tomaton, onion, corned beef hash and a mustard sauce
the bucks: $6.5
the coordinates: The Lower East Side, New York, NY
I have a confession to make: I have no sense of direction.
Feels good to get that one off my chest. So, last week I took on a rather gargantuan task of bringing Bang for your Burger Buck to New York City. One week and 1500 miles later, it feels good to say I have a fairly substantiated opinion of the burger scene in New York. But the trip was not without regret; I still long for the burgers I missed in the outer boroughs due to time, travel and stomach constraints. Because of this miscalculation, I am adopting a firm commitment to not trust any map, at least when it comes to planning burger trips in the New York metropolitan area.
The Map may well be the most misleading document mankind has ever created. For starters, those two dimensional cartograms probably helped to perpetuate the notion that the world was flat. Maps of old made certain countries appear larger as if they were enhancing their importance over others. What really gets me about maps? They make the East river out to be just a skinny little thing that borders one side of Manhattan. Live and up close, the East river is anything but. When you stand out on the FDR, and gaze into those dark little waves, the motion mesmerizes, and you start to wonder just how deep the river is. On a quiet day, like the ones leading up to Labor Day weekend, where many New Yorkers flee for that final beach fling of the summer, gazing into the East River becomes a revelation of not just how capacious the river is but just how immense all of New York is. I came to the city to try as many burgers as I could for Bang for your Burger Buck, only to realize that it is impossible to cover that much ground on a single stomach, much less in a single lifetime. The burger scene in New York is as capacious as the East River herself, it boggles my mind just thinking about it. And the stunning conclusion I have come to is that Bang for your Burger Buck is not hard to find here. In a city where the cost of living tops almost anywhere else, in the richest country in the world to boot, good food at a good price is actually abundant. Sure you can drop a month’s mortgage on a dinner at Per Se, but what about the coveted Halal Carts? Or the countless delis, bodegas and cafes that compete fiercely amongst each other, at very approachable price points? They all have to serve amazing food just to survive. Never has the survival of the fittest, tasted so good. Not an easy pace to live with as a restauranteur, but as an eater, New York is heaven.
What does all this mean for burgers? From the Bang for your Burger Buck perspective it means you can feast for well under the $8 mark. But you wouldn’t assume that from glancing at Grub Street’s 50 most important burgers list, where the average burger price should set you back deep into the high teens. This list and the burgers often mentioned by New Yorkers and the food media reflect more the state of our current burger Renaissance, tipped heavily in favor of the Chef’s evolution of the burger. And this should not surprise as New York is the home of the DB Burger, that temple of burger decadence, whose price tag rises and falls with the market value of black truffles. The burger that would transform an American Classic into “serious food” worthy of every Chef’s attention. But there is more to the NYC burger scene than a $35 burger. Look beyond that bling and you will discover a “pub/bar style burger”, more thick than wide, priced for the masses and most satisfying to the soul. I first encountered this type of burger some 11 years ago at the venerable Corner Bistro in the West Village, a gorgeously dark old school watering hole, whose cheap beer becomes as instrumental as their salamander that churns out charred thick patties at a perfect medium rare, at all hours. Corner Bistro uses a rather nondescript sesame seed bun, but more often than not around town, I find a potato roll is in play. Toppings offered will be at the proprietors discretion, usually something along the lines of the traditional lettuce, tomato and onion line up, but the heart and soul of the New York Pub/Bar burger is a thick, charred meatballesque type of patty, cooked to temp, on a potato roll. Not so huge when held with both hands, but widen your jaw you shall, in taking that inaugural bite. A simple, effective burger that pops up in good frequency in the city that never sleeps. All you need to do is find one that’s within your walking, or stumbling radar.Located in the Lower East Side, a local barista who could simultaneously curse at a bridge and tunnel customer while making the flowery shapes in a cappuccino, described Mikey’s as a burger spot to go to after an evening of heavy imbibing. She said it in an informing vs condescending way, perhaps to steer me to a more refined, chef style burger. And I took her advice. Funny thing about Bang for your Burger Buck is that sometimes an extra buck here and there is so worth it, but sometimes, often times, you’re fooling yourself. Piano’s up the street makes some decent burgers, like a grass fed patty topped with a beautifully blended cream and blue cheese sauce, but the price tag aint nothing to brag about. Feeling not quite complete and being the committed burger journey man that I am, I swooped into Mikey’s immediately after and decided that $6.50 would be money well spent to see if this “drunk burger” would be a waste of my time. Bang for your Burger Buck is also about limiting excess, though that’s more about price than consumption. I find extra meat to be needless on a burger. In fact it feels gross just typing that. But I also like corned beef hash, scratch that, I love corned beef hash and being a sucker for ordering a namesake on the menu, I committed myself to what could have been a sheer burger atrocity. I’ll further those stakes, the stuff wasn’t even corned beef hash . . it was strips of corned beef, sans potatoes, sauteed in a sort of South of the border Mire Poix of onions and spices. It should have been so so wrong. Instead, it was awesome as those burgers look in the Carl’s Jr commercials, albeit without the model in the mix. I suppose evoking Carl’s Jr is wrong as well – ok look let’s just get to the burger . . . The heart and soul of this rogue burger combo works like a Jackson Pollock painting: the collision of the ingredients appears random but it is also intentional. I chose this burger for price, naturally, but also because I love the taste of corned beef hash. When it comes to the one and only CBH, I don’t like surprises, hell I’ll take what comes in the canned version before any other deviation comes into play like, gulp, flannel hash. Yet that corned beef hash was far from the standard issue, and what still remains an absolute head scratcher for me, is that I liked it anyways. The strips of corned beef are bathed in a shimmering pan of spices, my guess would be an earthy deseeded chile pepper, like guajillo or pasilla, perhaps a sprinkle of cumin or coriander, or both. Add the tender rings of onion into the mix and suddenly this corned beef hash bore more of a resemblance to beef barbacoa than the diner breakfast staple. Now I said earlier that burgers don’t need meat as a co star. And I’ll stick behind that statement, but what happened on the Mikey burger wasn’t just a couple strips of bacon thrown in, or, perhaps more comparable, a scoop of chili con carne. The burger took on a rich earthy layer of flavor, a deeply savory essence usually seen in the moles of Oaxaca, and stayed second fiddle to the burger. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a worthy burger co star.Pivotal to the success of the Mikey burger is that all this glorious excess of flavors remains contained by the potato bun. And that pay off can be seen squarely on that bottom half, shown above. This accumulation of jus and bold seasonings is reminiscent of a French Dip or an Italian Beef, a sight of delight for sober and inebriated diner alike. As massive as it all seems, this burger weighs in somewhere around 4 ounces, post cooking weight. Decadent but not life altering, the Mikey is built for return visits. Returns built with ensured consistency of a well cooked burger by design. If the thick meatball style burger patty has detractors, they surely aren’t the kind who appreciated this:If you likey the Medium Rare, than you likey the Mikey, my friends. And as silly as that last line sounds, there really isn’t a whole lot more to it than that. Thick burgers come out well charred and medium rare more often than their flattened counterparts. For the true beef lover on a budget, the NYC pub/bar style burger could be the ultimate under $10 meal. And at $6.50 a pop for the Mikey, you can’t afford not to have one.
There are many burger joints in NYC, many burger styles abound. Yet in this surplus of burger styles, oft over looked and under appreciated in those burger round ups are those meatballesque burgers like Mikeys: the pub/bar style burger. Its size and shape allow for a well charred beefy treat, its traditional potato bun can take any concept a NYC chef can come up with. It becomes a perfect canvas for nimble and creative cooking, cornerstones of what it means to dine in New York. The very idea of corned beef hash on a burger screams of excess. The actual CBH Mikey’s uses could be called an abhorrent deviation to what we know the breakfast staple to be. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does, and it costs $6.50. What madness could have conspired to create a veritable Frankenstein of burgers and make for a memorable meal? Well, that’s New York for ya. Turn the corner and you could very well find of a burger worthy of your time, with some bang for your buck no less. Maps are silly things when it comes to New York City. Their way of breaking down a city into streets, avenues and numbers just doesn’t work in a town where emotion and creativity erupt block after block. Perhaps a Jackson Pollock painting could do a better job in laying out NYC in a 2D setting. It certainly can describe the Mikey – the way that mustard sauce is dripped on is 100% Pollock. Mikey’s isn’t a stand out burger in New York, it’s a testament to a brilliant burger style. It is an example of why the New York dining scene came to be regarded as the arguably the best in the world: they can make anything, they can make it good and you will you come back for more.
Mikey’s is all of those things. And it is Bang for your Burger Buck too.
134 Ludow St.
New York, NY 10002