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[Photographs: Laura Togut]

The Burger Joint

118 West 57th St, New York NY 10019 (b/n Sixth and Seventh; map); 212-708-7414; parkermeridien.com/eat4.php
Cuisine: American
Veggie Options: Grilled cheese, fries, shake, etc.
Cost: Most items in the $5 range

The Burger Joint is one of my favorite places to take unsuspecting New York visitors. The burgers are great, sure, but it's the journey that really sets the experience apart.

As you casually stride past Carnegie Hall and The Russian Tea Room into the chandelier-and-marble entrance of the hotel Le Parker Meridien, it's clear your guests have no idea what's coming to them.

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The very first time I went looking for the Burger Joint, I found myself standing in the large marble lobby looking rather dumbfounded. Blowing my cover, I asked one of the hotel staff where it was. He replied in a rather epic tone, "Behind the curtain". And sure enough, if you hang a right and walk past the curtain, you'll see it: a dark, narrow hall with only a small neon burger pointing the way. You've found The Burger Joint.

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And it really is a joint, in every sense of the word. Tiny, quirky, no-frills. The walls are covered in the signatures of celebrities and the scrawling of locals. They have a thing for movie posters and action figures. The marker-on-cardboard menu tells you exactly how to order. You can count the number of menu items on your fingers.

But what on earth is The Vegetarian Option doing here? Because the food is delicious, even without the meat.

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The place may be all about the burgers, but you shouldn't overlook the grilled cheese ($5.51), which is essentially a cheeseburger, sans patty*. This is pure gooey, greasy deliciousness. How can this burgerless burger possibly be that exciting? It's all about loading up on toppings. Get it with "the works" and you'll get lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mustard, ketchup, and mayo— all held together in harmony with plenty of melty American cheese. It's messy, greasy, falling apart, and incredibly satisfying. I didn't even miss the patty.

*Even if it's not on the menu, you can nearly always order this at burger places, which is a handy trick to have up your sleeve. It could save you from starvation—or worse—a hockey puck of fake meat.

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The fries ($3.67) are rather ordinary, and sometimes under-salted, but they happen to be perfect specimens for milkshake dipping. Perhaps it's sacrilegious to some, but my Burger Joint experience is not complete without plenty of shake-on-fry action. Just try it once.

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The shakes themselves ($5.05) are solid, but they're only available after 1:30 pm (that's what you get for trying to beat the lunch rush). You have your choice of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry—no surprises here.

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And then there's the beer and a pickle (Sam Adams: cup $5.05; pitcher $16.07; pickle $1.38). They're not necessarily meant to be ordered together, but I never get one without the other. The brine and the brew make a very happy combination: a bite of pickle followed by a swig of beer seems to set everything right in the world.

Pretty much the only other item left on the menu is a brownie ($2.30) which is really worth skipping. Stick to the shake (with or without fries) and your sweet tooth will be plenty sated.

The Burger Joint has a great little hiding spot, though word has, of course, gotten around. We were sitting next to a group of Australians who had managed to find the place on their first day in the city—even though they had never heard of Shake Shack (we set things straight, of course). But even if the novelty factor wears off, I never tire of the fun hole-in-the-wall atmosphere and delicious burgers (meatless included). When it comes down to it, this is easily some of the best affordable grub in the neighborhood.

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