Monthly Archives: May 2006

The burger, the myth, the legend…

Many burger fans I know swear by the venerable California mini-chain “In-N-Out Burger,” claiming it to be the ultimate in ground meat sandwiches.  Enough, in fact, that I became instantly skeptical – I guess I just don’t believe that a fast food restaurant could be both extraordinarily popular and very good.

Taking this past weekend’s 36-hour trip to California for my sister’s college graduation as an excuse, I managed to take my first-ever meal at an In-N-Out Burger – the one located at 1065 E. Harriman Place in San Bernardino.  My sister, bless her, had convinced the relatives to skip the college’s post-grad brunch, and took all attending members of the clan to this strip-mall hotspot instead.  Runs in the family, I guess…?

The In-N-Out menu, as it appears in the restaurant, is deceptively simple.  It includes basic burgers, fries, and shakes in the three primary ice cream flavors.  There’s more to In-N-Out than first appears, though.  I said “as it appears in the restaurant” because, as I found out from my sister, In-N-Out has a “secret” menu.  Nice of her to tell me after we ate, right?

Well, other than possibly having an extra patty on my burger, I can’t say I’m THAT sorry she didn’t mention it.  The Double Double at In-N-Out is nature’s most perfect fast food creation, or close to it – no alterations necessary.  Beyond the ultra-thin yet juicy and flavorful patties that somehow avoided the grease-laden pratfall that Blue 9 frequently takes, the burger’s accoutrements (lettuce, tomatoes that weren’t crunchy, and onion) and two slices of cheese gave it the perfect ratio of burger-topping-bun.

My sister prefers the “animal-style” burger cooked in mustard, avec sautéed onions, pickles and extra sauce.  While I’m usually a bigger fan of the cooked onion than the raw, freshness counts for a lot – rather than being assaulted by the raw onion’s toxicity, I was seduced by its pungency.  Sautéed didn’t measure up.

The fries were similarly exemplary – made with what the burger wrapper claims were Kennebec potatoes (from Maine?) and cooked in oil that, while cholesterol free, accorded the spuds the perfect grease and flavor.  Once again, my sister was the contrarian, ordering her fries well-done, but I think she was barking up the wrong tree on this one, too.  They tasted…well…well-done.  It may appeal more to those who can’t bear variations on the McDonald’s formula, but I can live without.

Good ingredients, good preparation, and friendly staff (although, coming from New York, I think practically anyone who doesn’t is friendly) have contributed to In-N-Out’s cult status – but also to its financial success.  Indeed, at noon on a Saturday, the joint was ROCKIN’.  Thank goodness for that, and I hope In-N-Out can keep its standards high through its rumored expansion plans.

Sam Jackson once said*, “Mm-hmm.  This IS a tasty burger!”  You will too.

*I’m aware he was saying it with regards to the Big Kahuna Burger, but…

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Gratuitous Bob Marley reference.

Stir It Up, on Atlantic Avenue just west of 3rd Avenue, holds the title for “closest restaurant to my apartment,” just narrowly beating the diner on the corner, the new-ish pan-Asian “Mai,” and the perennial favorite Bedouin Tent (which my roommate insists on calling “Pita Pit”).  It even got some press recently – a generous write-up in the NYT – which strikes me as totally unusual for a restaurant that’s nearly in a no-mans land.  However, I had never visited Stir It Up, for no particular reason other than (mostly) forgetting it was there.

I was craving roti after a run last night, and given that I was in a rush to get to a friend’s place, I decided to stop by Stir It Up and grab one.  Good idea, in retrospect – the bread and potato combo was excellent, and the curry chicken ladled on top was well-flavored, though you couldn’t eat it without staining your hands (it was bone-in).

The mac and cheese, something I rarely have a complaint about in a Caribbean restaurant, I was less wild about.  Soul Spot’s is better, and none of these places really measure up to the places that nuke the pasta with some kind of pepper or hot sauce (scotch bonnet, usually).  Still, it might be the only palatable vegetarian option.  All of the other non-meat dishes on the menu featured the soybean-based fake meat of my nightmares (interesting for a restaurant bearing that name, as most Rastafarians are vegetarian).

I’m going to head back to Stir It Up very soon and try more stuff, and I’ll report back if I run into anything interesting.  Right now, I’m just happy I might be able to convince my roommate to stop ordering “Pita Pit” three times a week.

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Fatima’s fish.

The list, the list.  Sometimes I think Sietsema has paired two so vastly divergent entries consecutively that it’ll be a cold day in hell before the same person goes to both of them.  See, for example, the Nos. 27-28: Shake Shack and Fatima, the Guinean restaurant on Franklin Avenue in what I suppose is Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The weather forecast must be a little chilly down there today, because I’ve now been to both places – last night’s trip to Fatima taking care of the less-obvious choice.  And I will say that I enjoyed the food I had there, to a point.  Roughly the same price as a double shack burger at $6, Fatima whip you up as different a kind of feed from the Shack as exists in the world.

Entering what Mr. S. describes as a “pleasant café,” I was surprised to note its barren-ness.  Despite the threadbare nature of the place, it was busy enough – it reminded me of the Bangladeshi places on Macdonald Avenue in Kensington, which are generally packed full of men chowing down after work, and whose attention is generally occupied by the TV in the corner.  The programming differed, though – while the Bangladeshis offered news from home, the Guineans offered what looked to me to be French sitcoms and some kind of equivalent to “Candid Camera.”  There were also women around, unlike at the south Asian places – indeed, one was sporting a kind of traditional African dress that

The food was equally intriguing, but I wouldn’t call it amazing.  I walked to the back counter and asked for the chicken in palm oil – no dice.  I suppose a better option would have been to ask what was available that day, but I ended up with the proprietor-recommended hacked up fish parts in a red-brown sauce (it had a little kick) with the most enormous plate of rice I’ve ever seen – the same as everyone else in the restaurant, except that my rice was served on a plate instead of in a bowl.  The sauce was excellent and the rice was fine – I’m just not that wild about bone-in fish chopped into large chunks, though.  If I had managed to procure a different meat option, this would have been quite the gut bomb meal (I mean, seriously, that looked like a whole box of Uncle Ben’s).

I also sampled the unmarked drink in the refrigerator, which turned out to be a gingery mix ($2).  I brought it home to my ginger-fan roommate and stuck with the pitcher of water on my table – grab a cup from the counter after you order.

All in all, an interesting experience.  It’s not far from the botanical garden, so I can easily imagine returning on some sunny Saturday.  And that red-brown sauce requires further investigation – hopefully sans fish this time.

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From death to dearth: 5th Avenue from Greenwood to Ratnerville.

The South Slope/Greenwood Heights area has changed quite a bit in the last few years.  I can remember, as a freshly arrived resident of 3rd St. in the early part of 2004, the first time I ventured below 9th St.: my roommate at the time suggested we traipse down 5th Ave. to this bar called Buttermilk.  When I learned that its latitude was 16th St., I was both confused and concerned.  As we had looked at housing near Prospect Ave and 7th Ave and not been too impressed with the local area (read as: there wasn’t anything there but plastic-sided houses with bars on the windows), I wasn’t terribly eager to cross what I considered at the time to be the line of familiarity.

Of course, that’s totally ludicrous, and we probably now would be among the hippest people on earth if we had just taken that 2br-plus-rec-room apartment on Prospect Ave.  The lesson, of course: I’m a moron.  But the spread of Park Slope-style hipness DOES have a boundary, right?  Obviously the cemetery forced a redirection of the cool folks: some went southwest towards Windsor Terrace and certain doom.  Others, apparently, have hugged the corridor between the dead people and the fumes-sucking Gowanus Expressway driver-zombies – at its narrowest, two blocks between 3rd and 5th Avenues.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it all comes to a screeching halt on 5th Avenue, at least temporarily, at 25th Street, where one side of the avenue is all cemetery, and the other is all gas station and tombstone wholesale (someone needs more than one?).  But ambling north from that intersection provides an ever-increasing number of interesting gentrification-signifiers, starting with perhaps the first between 23rd and 22nd Sts: D.F. Taqueria.  Covered recently in all of the major press (including by Mr. Sietsema), this is probably the furthest south restaurant that caters primarily to the deracinated whiteys spilling in from points elsewhere (for the record, I was the sixth such customer at 6:40pm on a Monday, with nobody darker in sight).

I wish I could say that I wanted to end up there, but really I was aiming for the OTHER taqueria mentioned in the VV article in question – the one that actually serves tacos and has zero portraits of Frieda Kahlo.  It was, unfortunately, closed (these are the breaks on Mondays if you don’t call first).  That said, the “mission-style” burrito that arrived on my plate for $7 and change was both enormous and the best I’ve had in NYC thus far – ordering it with “meat chili” will produce a chewy mixture of beans, chewy meat chunks, and a vaguely chilified flavor, along with the usual rice, sour cream, and tiny portion of guac.  I chopped up the ‘rito and pretended it was like chilaquiles, except with an un-fried flour tortilla.

Speaking of the fried tortillas, the chips are bagged but the salsa might be fresh.  Ask the waitress – if you’re not too obnoxious (like the two guys sitting at the bar were), she might tell you.

After the burrito bomb, I walked up to Prospect Ave to catch the B63 bus, passing a hip-looking café at about 20th St., and stopping at a lovely-smelling bakery to buy a rather disappointing (but still rapidly-consumed) lemony-chocolate chip cookie approximately ¾’ in diameter.  Then I stared out the bus window at the south and center Slopes.  Many changes since the last time I was down there (I lost 5th Ave. between 9th and Prospect in a breakup more than a year ago), but the most saddening was the closure of the pork store Pollio.  While it wasn’t the greatest pork store around, before A&S was open Sundays (and long before I was turned on to Alidoro) it was my go-to spot for Italian hero loveliness.  Sad, but when you’ve got a space-age/Manhattan-style Commerce Bank across the street from the formerly hip Great Lakes bar (further up on 5th at 1st Street), it’s not really surprising.

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Another beautiful bacon cheeseburger.

I can now vouch for another bacon cheeseburger in the world – the one at P.J. Clarke’s, to be specific.  At 55th Street and 3rd Avenue, near the reputed former nexus of male prostitution immortalized in a Ramones song, P.J. Clarke’s is located in an ancient building that’s a somewhat of a throwback to those grittier times both inside and out.  The bar itself is still dominated by men, so it’s no wonder every review of the place seems to mention the enormous urinals as a kind of tourist attraction – women, apparently, are not the primary customer base.  Part and parcel with the male aesthetic and the Midtown office happy hour demographic, the number of suit jackets present outstripped even the “hippest” places in the L.E.S. or Williamsburg during last year’s blazer-craze.  In that regard, I’m not sure Dee Dee would know what to make of it.

None of this mattered to me, though I was kind of mad that my seersucker coat is still at the cleaners.  After all, I was there for the burger, and to meet one of my readers, Krissi.  She also grew up in Salt Lake City, so we had much to catch up on – we agreed that the frozen custard and Mexican options in the city leave much to be desired when compared with their SLC counterparts, for instance.  As she was there for a few years longer than me, she had some excellent suggestions, too – I’ve got some new things to try the next time I’m home, for sure.

Anyway, as to the burger at P.J. Clarke’s – very nearly as good as the Donovan’s masterpiece of two weeks ago.  The burger ($9.70) was perfectly cooked to medium rare, very juicy without being raw, and with an appealing flavor (both the meat itself and with the bacon and cheese).  Warning: the burger arrives without any sides, other than a slice of white onion and a half-sour quarter-pickle.  You may want to complement the burger with the excellent French fries, but they are a little pricey at $3.50.

Krissi opted for the mini-burger trio ($13), which arrived with home fries on the side (a choice of French fries or the potato and sausage concoction known as bubble and squeak were also available).  Though I didn’t try the mini-burgs until the end of the meal, when they were at a somewhat less-than-optimal temperature, I found the bun to be a bit dry, and the meat not as juicy as my larger version (to be fair, it’s tough to cook mini-burgers, and she ordered them medium rather than medium rare).  Still, a fair choice for a somewhat lighter meal.

It ain’t exactly cheap (Guinness pint $6), and it ain’t exactly convenient if you’re not in Midtown already (though it’s close to the 53rd and 3rd E/V exit), but I’d definitely make the hike to P.J. Clarke’s for a bacon cheeseburger.  Thanks to Krissi for giving me an excuse to indulge.    

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Falafel on Hudson Street?

I’ve been pretty lazy lately with regards to lunch, and the weather this week hasn’t exactly made me regret the decision – however, the quality of food I’ve gotten has, for the most part.  Let’s see…other than the usual Alidoro sandwich array, I’ve had Malaysian delivery from Penang (mediocre, and the delivery guy yelled at me for not tipping enough – considering this was a Seamlessweb order and the tip was pre-calculated by their site, I felt like it wasn’t my fault, but gave him a few bucks anyway), bad Thai from Morakote (close to the abymsality of Kai Kai, formerly in the space), and probably one too many cheesesteaks from the cart outside.

Today was going to be different, I resolved, and I wandered up Hudson St. in an effort to find something relatively healthy and not too expensive.  Sushi would have been a good option, but the sole Japanese on the street (En Brasserie) is both not open for lunch and way out of my price range.  I considered Ray’s Super Deli, home of the $4 bucket o’ rice, meat, and beans, but they’re closed for six weeks for what looked like some major renovations.

I ended up instead at the previously unexplored Hudson Falafel – other than its location near W. 10th St, I can’t figure out why I haven’t been there before.  It offers a slightly expanded version of the usual falafel hut menu – the sandwich filling options include the garlicky eggplant spread moutabel, shrimp, and burgers made of veggie, turkey, and beef.  Salad options are relatively extensive as well, and there are (praise be!) miniature ouzi pies in both chicken and vegetarian varieties.

Today’s order included the pumpkin kibbeh sandwich ($4), which I can describe only as a ground meatloaf-like concoction that looks superficially like an orange falafel ball.  (No meat in this one, though a lamb-based kibbeh is also available.)  It proved a delicious sandwich accoutrement with tahini sauce, though the lettuce and barely acceptable tomatoes ended up taking most of the volume between the layers of pita.

I also tried the fava bean salad (foul moudamas, $2.25), which made me wonder if these favorites of Hannibal Lecter are supposed to be undercooked – having only had them previously in a stew-like foul, I’m a little confused by the hardness of these beans.  Nevertheless, the flavoring was intriguing, with the featured ingredients being parsley, lemon, garlic, onion, tomato, garlic, and olive oil.

I’ll probably be back to Hudson Falafel – it’s certainly a better option than sketchy Thai or cheesesteaks, and cheaper than ordering from Seamlessweb any day.

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Burgerbajagal.

Reader Question: I love Shake Shack as much as the next guy, but I waited an hour and fifteen minutes from the end of the not-that-long line until I had my burger, and I’m just not sure I want to continue doing that on a regular basis.  What are my excellent burger options that don’t involve waiting in line?

I’m glad you asked, mystery reader.  As it happens, I’m on record as saying my favorite burger in NYC is Corner Bistro’s, and this usually necessitates some kind of waiting in line, too – a task that I seem to have less enthusiasm for lately, too.

The answer may be at hand, however – I happened to have a super-excellent burger this weekend that didn’t involve more than the usual 10-minute entrée wait.  The source of this deliciousness?  Donovan’s Pub in Woodside, Queens (57-24 Roosevelt Avenue under the 7 tracks).  My USC-bound friend and I were headed to the Mets’ game on Friday and needed to get a solid foundation under us for the 7 innings of drinking that were sure to follow.  Donovan’s obliged with the only iteration of the bacon cheeseburger I’ve ever truly liked.

Now, before you start the fire to burn me at the stake, let me just say that I don’t have anything against bacon, except for the fact that I rarely truly enjoy it in its American form.  Maybe it’s the quality of the meat, or maybe it’s the fact that it’s either leathery or cooked within an inch of its life, but bacon drives me nuts, usually.

Not so at Donovan’s – the bacon was tender, not too crispy, and full of flavor.  Perhaps this was a different or higher-quality cut – I’ll have to go back for another to inspect it more closely.  On Friday, glued to the sloppy, juicy, perfectly-cooked burger with a slice of American cheese, it disappeared too quickly for extensive critical evaluation.

For the pork-phobic, the naked burger would also do nicely.  The meat is of high quality and the patty is clearly hand-patted.  Sautéed onions are available on request, and bleu cheese seemed also to be a menu option, if you like your cheese with a little more pungency.

Next time I go back, I might try a “bleu bacon” burger – it’s like the Training Table favorite, except actually halfway decent.  With any array of toppings, Donovan’s burger makes an excellent pre-game meal AND has no line to speak of.  What could be better?

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