Lately, however, the powerful smell of cooking burgers has replaced the official scent of the UES along a busy stretch of East 86th Street. Of course I'm talking about the new Shake Shack. With the opening of the fourth Manhattan branch earlier this month (and more on the way), the Shack has assured its near total domination of the NYC burger scene. Yet, like I said in my previous post discussing Shake Shack ad naseum, this is not a bad thing-- as it has forced others to up their game, competing in an ever intensifying burger arms race which can only result in MAD, or Mutually Assured Deliciousness. (A terrible Cold War reference/joke, I know.)
I'd rather not speculate as to how many times we've used this picture.
Whenever I passed by the storefront along 86th Street, I was shocked that such a prime location, with its extensive outdoor seating, sat empty for so long. Apparently Danny Meyer is smart like me, seeing the value in this location (to the extreme detriment of Burger Heaven across the street). I've spent the past month on the UES (before moving to Brooklyn on September 1st) and every time I get off the subway I'm tempted by a rush of burger air in my face. Life is difficult.
I've talked enough about the burger. Recently I tried their hot dogs for the first time. While I enjoyed that they were split and griddled, adding a welcoming snap, they're not in the same league as the Papaya King across the street, which sadly has been in the midst of renovations for quite some time now. The fries take a lot of flack, but to me, as long as they're crispy and covered in cheese sauce, I have no complaints. Still the cheese fries at Papaya King are also better, but they require a nap to properly digest.
154 East 86th St
New York, NY 10028
Similarly crowded is the original Upper East Side burger Mecca, J.G. Melon. If you can squeeze into a spot at the bar, do this, as its the best option. Still, you'll be competing with regulars who will easily command the staff's attention before you. The waitstaff also ranges from surly to hilarious-- a friend of mine was called a "pussybitch" after he couldn't finish his burger. I'll take these insults in stride, and order up a Bloody Bull while waiting for my burger, silently mocking the WASPY, clubby atmosphere. The melon theme seems particularly apt, as this is the color dominating men's shorts, polos and women's Lily Pulitzer dresses.
Even so, they make one hell of a burger in that tiny kitchen, perfectly proportioned and intensely beefy, despite streams of grease sometimes shooting from the griddle into the bar area (the same pussybitch friend caught a particular nasty grease explosion one time and got a new shirt and free burger out of it). No lettuce, just pickles and red onions to add to your cheeseburger. Here, I always add bacon for the chewy/crunchy texture, plus a swipe of Grey Poupon. Easily one of my favorite burgers in the city.
Bills Bar & Burger is one of the above referenced places that has to up its game to compete with Shake Shack (they've recently added a larger short rib blend burger to complement their smashed burgers). Bursting on the scene with excessive amounts of hype late last Summer, BB&B has since cooled off mightily (the back room was mostly empty on my recent dinnertime visit). I first tried it during those heady days when Josh Ozersky was loudly proclaiming it the Best. Burger. Ever. I went with a Bobcat Bite, modeled after the famous green chile cheese burgers that dot the state of New Mexico. It was a good burger, with a fine char, but nothing revelatory and was quickly forgotten.
For months, I'd wanted to give it a second shot, but never got around to it, especially since I'm rarely in the Meatpacking District (I'm not much of a clubber) and the plethora of more convenient/delicious burger options. The Lee Perry concert at the Highline Ballroom presented a perfect opportunity for a quick casual dinner at BB&B. Like last time, I liked the burger, but it's nothing I'll be running back for-- simply a good option for the area. I went with the Fat Cat, a double cheeseburger with caramelized onions on a tiny English muffin. The meat engulfed the undersized muffin so that it looked like a fat guy in a tiny hat. It was beefy, but there was too much grease, which the muffin was unable to absorb. My burger craving was satisfied, but not impressed.