"That's you?...You're wrong!" bellowed Kenny Shopsinwhen he discovered that I, occasional but passionate (and accepted, at least at the time of writing) patron of Shopsin's General Store, and the writer of Beef Aficionado who last year heaped lavish praise upon his sliders, were one and the same. It wasn't enough that I called his sliders the finest I have had in New York City and the closest one can get to White Manna, the appropriately named holy grail of sliderism in Hackensack, New Jersey, without actually leaving Manhattan.
"I see what they are doing," he said. referring to a video I had posted on White Manna. "They steam the onions; my sliders are better, I grill them," he stated definitively, as if that was the end of the discussion, which it actually turned out to be. "You'll see—try mine again and you'll eat your words."
I retorted that when it came to burgers I didn't mind eating my words one bit, and put in my order. I could have posited that the gooey, oozing onions on the sliders at White Manna add a particularly pleasing textural component—not to mention a sweetness that his onions lack by virtue of all the sugars being caramelized—but Shopsin had moved on, laying out a perfectly reasoned but expletive-filled diatribe against the city parking system. Of course, Shopsin's onions, like Shopsin himself, have their own particular charms. And while I still give the White Manna slider the slight edge, the ones at Shopsin's have one thing that Manna does not have: Shopsin himself.
For the uninitiated, Kenny Shopsin is the owner of Shopsin's General Store, now located in the Essex Street Market and formerly located in the West Village. Shopsin became renowned for his eclectic 900-item menu which he cooked from scratch and a set of rules that dictated customer conduct: no parties of more than four, everyone eats a meal, no cell phone use. The menu has been paired down since the move east, but the rules remain intact along with a seemingly arbitrary and amorphous set of rules that might result in one being asked to leave for transgressions real or imagined. You will either find Shopsin a pure genius on a quixotic mission—to demystify world cuisine through his own unique take on fusion food that blends classic American comfort food with the flavors of Southeast Asia and Central and South America—or you will find him the world's biggest a-hole.
For more on the man I recommend watching I Like Killing Flies, the documentary about him in his West Village location, or you can tune in to Conan O'Brien tonight on NBC and see him promote his new book Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, which comes out today.
Shopsin's sliders come in orders of three ($9) and are served with grilled onions and cheese. You can add bacon ($3), green chile ($3) fried onions ($2), or mayo and peanut butter ($3), but the regular sliders are so good that the additions are superfluous. The potato roll that is used to such good effect at White Manna and Shake Shack also graces Shopsin's sliders. The roll's soft, buttery, and moderately chewy interior and its slightly more robust golden crust is the perfect vessel for the plump little patties.
The sliders have evolved since I tried them last year; while the basic ingredients remain unchanged, now the buns appear to come glazed with butter or grease, which adds a pleasing visual element, glistening under the lights of the Essex Street Market. The beef is a straight chuck from Shopsin's neighbor in the market and fourth generation Lower East Side butcher, Jeffrey's Meats. It is wonderfully fresh and flavorful with a clean, pure beef taste. Burger places brag about getting daily delivery of meat, but Shopsin's practically gets his meat by the order, one of the benefits of having a butcher under the same roof. His cheese supplier Saxelby Cheesemonger is even closer—it occupies the adjacent stall.
Shopsin griddle cooks the sliders and, unlike White Manna, he will actually cook to order so you can get yours rare if you like. Yet even cooked through, Shopsin's sliders are juicy and flavorful. Although the onions often appear deep-fried as they are extremely crispy almost to the point of desiccation, they're also griddle-cooked. Their lightly acrid, bitter flavor is balance by the sweetness of the roll and the umami-inducing sensation of the beef-cheese-bun trinity.
The entire sandwich is just about perfect: the beef-to-bun ratio is spot on and the textural distinction between the components is pronounced, but the components come together in a synergistic manner. The tangy, oozing cheese serves to bind the charred onions and adhere them and the patty to the bun, making the burger easy to eat with one hand as it stays together perfectly. The bun does a good job of absorbing the copious juices from the beef and onions. So succulent is the sandwich that neither ketchup or mustard is necessary.
There is also a regular burger on the menu that uses the same beef and cheese,. Sadly, it uses a ill-suited ciabatta roll, which is far too rigid and incompliant, and fractures into shards of crusty bread that can painfully stab the roof of one's mouth. It also suffers from the problem that once plagued the burger at Stand—it is a back slider. Compress the sandwich to take a bite and the patty shoots out of the opposite side. It is too bad that this potentially great burger is hampered by the choice of bread; the beef is excellent and always cooked perfectly to order.
Nevertheless, the sliders are so exceptional that there is little reason to order the regular burger. Both the sliders and the regular burger are served with potato chips, but fries or sweet potato fries may be ordered for an additional $4. As I have not tried either, perhaps Ed, Adam, or Robyn can chime in with their thoughts.
Despite the fact that burgers and sliders are usually considered fast food, don't expect snappy service at Shopsin's—the food is scratch made with care and this takes time. If you want something in a hurry, Shopsin will be more than happy to suggest some alternatives. A friend of mine recently witnessed a hapless tourist couple make the mistake of of asking if their food would be ready in twenty minutes as they had an engagement. Shopsin suggested they leave immediately so that they would be early and refused them service. "This isn't the f****** Iron Chef," he is quoted as saying.
As I was leaving after our discussion about the sliders Kenny turned to me, cocked his head slightly to the side, and whimsically stated, "To tell you the truth, I never ate at the White Manna in Hackensack!" Shopsin doesn't need to have tried something to know that his version is better because he cooks from the heart. He wears his heart on his sleeve and across the entire front of his t-shirt. And despite his garish appearance and brash personality, his cooking reveals a real passion for food and flavor. This is nowhere more apparent than in his sliders, which are the best you will find on this side of the Hudson, or on either side, according to Shopsin.
Shopsin's General Store
88 Essex St, New York, NY 10002