Published 1 May, 2008 on A Hamburger Today
It is no accident that I picked a decidedly downmarket and untrendy restaurant to review for my initial posting on A Hamburger Today. I think that it speaks to the way I feel about burgers; they should be unpretentious and low-brow, a culinary delight for the everyman. I have yet to be impressed by a chef-designed truffle, foie gras, and Kobe beef short rib–stuffed “gourmet” burger served on date nut bread with a 50-year-old balsamic vinegar reduction and caviar—at least not to the degree in which a simple $5 cheeseburger might stir me.
I have a basic rule or tenant when it comes to burgers: Individually the ingredients should not be as great as the sum of their parts. If they are, just make something else. I don’t think there is any great achievement in making a delicious sandwich out of ingredients that cost as much as a prime steak. But take some fresh ground chuck, American cheese, and a generic white bun—ingredients that in and of themselves are not that compelling—and combine them to make an extraordinary burger. That is something that impresses both my palate and my egalitarian sensibilities.
Joe Junior, a restaurant that typifies the term “greasy spoon,” located somewhat improbably on the corner of a historically landmarked block in Gramercy, impresses me thusly. There is another Joe Junior, located on Sixth Avenue, and both were once owned by the same family but operated independently. I have never had the burgers at the Sixth Avenue location, but Josh “Mr. Cutlets” Ozersky recently named them among his top ten burgers in New York.
Joe Junior serves what is admittedly a generic burger. It does not have a custom meat blend from Pat LaFrieda, the bun does not come from a fancy bakery, and the bright-yellow American cheese is anything but artisanal, yet there is real magic here. The burgers are cooked on a well-seasoned flat top, which you can often smell from the street half a block in all directions from Joe Junior’s corner location, creating the enticing aroma of fresh burgers sizzling away, beckoning the steady stream of Con Ed employees, police cadets, college kids, and quirky locals who fill the place.
The beef is fresh chuck. I found that out when I asked the counterman if it was frozen. He looked at me in a perplexed way—not defensively as he might if the beef was indeed frozen, nor as if I had insulted him by suggesting that that it was frozen—but in a more mystified manner, as if he had never even considered the fact that beef could be frozen. Frankly, given the size of Joe Junior itself and the sheer number of burgers it sells (at least a hundred a day, according to the aforementioned counterman), I don’t know where they would keep the patties; there is simply no room for a freezer in the cramped confines of the little restaurant.
My favorite burger at Joe Junior is the plain cheeseburger; it has a Zen-like simplicity that far more renowned, expensive burgers cannot somehow attain. Composed simply from chuck with a generous amount of fat, two slices of American cheese, and a seeded white bun from Sabrett (the famed hot dog makers), the Joe Junior cheeseburger is as classic an example of the "diner-style" cheeseburger as you will find.
The cheese is set on both sides of the bun and melted under a broiler while the burger cooks on the flat top, the corners drooping down as if to embrace the bun. Once the patty is set on the bun, the juice from the patty drips off the little cheesy protrusions leaving pools in four corners around the burger. The beef to bun ratio is spot on—the patty’s circumference is slightly larger than that of the bun revealing the glistening cheese and charred flesh beneath, but once the bun is compressed it spreads out enough to insure that every bite is in perfect proportion. I do advise that you request the bun be well toasted as they can be a bit on the cold side.
A further word of advice when ordering the burger here, you should request that they leave the patty to cook without weighting it down with the “plancha” (the Spanish word for a slab of iron). The burgers cook a lot quicker with it in place, but the juice gets squeezed out, sputtering and depressingly evaporating away on the grill top. I can understand why one might use it as it literally cuts the cooking time in half, but it cuts down the juiciness by the same factor. Cooked sans plancha, the burger at Joe Junior can be amazingly succulent when cooked rare to medium. The patty releases torrents of steaming juices that quickly overpower the bun's ability to absorb them, leaving a delicious dunking pool on the plate.
The beef has a very fresh flavor and is well seasoned; the grill achieves a crisp crust even when cooked rare, which juxtaposes perfectly with the squishy white bun and gooey cheese.Personally I don’t allow vegetables to interfere with such perfection, unless one considers, like Ronald Reagan, that ketchup is a vegetable, but you do have the option of having yours served deluxe—giving you a generous serving of lettuce and tomatoes along with some decent fries (order them well done). I don’t like bacon on my burgers, but if you do I think you’ll like the bacon cheeseburger here because the plancha, which has such a deleterious effect on the burger, makes for some wonderfully crisp bacon.
Is the Joe Junior burger the finest in New York? No. But it is certainly one of the most honest and unpretentious—a burger that only aspires to feed the belly but ends up feeding the soul, not fulfill some chef’s need to feed his ego.
167 Third Avenue, New York NY 10002 212-473-5150