Sitting in the bar, I knew I needed a burger. A couple of them, maybe. Big, fat burgers, mid-rare and bleeding juice over the sides of the buns. I needed the kind of burgers they show in commercials — straight-up porn-star burgers, all greasy and fat and bad for me.
Unfortunately, the bar where I was sitting didn't have burgers (or anyway, not the kind I wanted), and besides, I had other plans. So I had a very nice piece of fish instead, restrained and lovely, set over a bed of quartered sunchokes with a pale yellow citronette. It wasn't the same thing at all.
A couple of days later, I still needed a burger — my craving ramping slowly toward madness — but you know what they don't serve in most pizzerias? Burgers. So I had two slices of good New York thin and liked them well enough, I guess. But they weren't burgers.
Later that night, I found myself on the phone with an old friend, and all I could talk about was the burger joints in one of the many cities I used to call home. Big burgers and little burgers, thin ones and fat ones, messy ones (the best kind) with which I have ruined innumerable shirts. It was too late for me to score what I was after, but my friend, that little fucker, made straight for the nearest In-N-Out for a double-double. I was jealous to the point of contemplating murder and went to bed dreaming of ingenious airborne burger-delivery systems (perfect use for all those surplus Predator drones once the robots rise up and enslave us all) and how rich I would have to be, exactly, in order to have a private jet standing by at all times to fly Laura and me to L.A. for a Tommy Burger or to Rochester for a Schaller's burger with hot sauce whenever I wanted. Pretty goddamn rich, was what I came up with. Not the kind of rich that a newspaperman generally becomes. Maybe if I started my own boy band...
By Saturday, I was more or less out of my mind with wanting. Sitting on the couch, I heard Laura call down to me from upstairs.
"Jay! What's the plan for —"
"Burgers," I barked back.
"Yeah, but what do you —"
"If you say burgers one more —"
Seriously, it's a wonder I'm still married at all.
We were on the road within the hour, headed for Park Burger, a burger joint on the quiet end of South Pearl Street that, after a few delays, had opened on May 16 for exactly two and a half hours, then closed because the kitchen was so overwhelmed by neighbors and friends and long-haul burger fanatics (like me) who'd been waiting months for a taste of what Park Burger had to offer. After all, the place bears the fingerprints of the decidedly un-burgerish Frank Bonanno, who helped Jean-Phillippe Failyau, his right-hand man, build this simple, straightforward burger palace. And after Park Burger got back open the next day, a colleague (not quite a Predator drone, but whatever) had delivered me a ParkBurger, a plain-jane burger with nothing more than burger sauce, lettuce, onions and two strips of thick-cut bacon to gild its proverbial lily. It was so good that I took a picture and used it as the wallpaper on my cell phone for a few days, so good that one wasn't nearly enough.
I made my own run at Park Burger two days later, hitting right at the cheeseburger witching hour (six o'clock, by the way — that moment when you're so starved from a day at work or play that even a 99-cent double from Mickey D's can look appetizing), snagging a high-top at the community table in front (because pretty much every other seat was filled and I hated to take up an entire booth with just my solo-dining ass) and running down the menu with my finger. ParkBurger, mini ParkBurger, double ParkBurger, turkey ParkBurger, buffalo ParkBurger, veggie ParkBurger. No. I wanted something special, something unique to this place, this vision of what a truly great neighborhood burger joint could be. Also, I am a dumb sucker for Froggish influences creeping up in the most unlikely of places, so when I saw the Frenchy listed under "Specialty Burgers," I knew I'd found my dinner. One of those, an order of sweet-potato fries and a drink, because Failyau knew not to even consider opening without a liquor license in hand.
Park Burger doesn't keep a big bar, but it's big enough. Six wines, nicely chosen and international in aspect. A handful of cocktails (including the Strawberry Skyy that I would later taste on that cheeseburger-craving Saturday, borrowing the glass from Laura when her back was turned and drinking away a third of something that tasted like cold lime and strawberry cotton candy, melted in a glass and completely untroubled by even the least stinging hint of alcohol). A nice spread of beers, both local and not so, some German, others Belgians. I went for a can of PBR because I am a philistine.
The beer was fine, or at least as fine as a PBR ever gets. But the burger? Not so good. The patty itself seemed insubstantially thin and disturbingly dry. True, I'd forgotten to ask for it medium-rare (and, when given no guidance, this kitchen claims to cook all of its never-frozen Harris Ranch beef burgers to a fence-sitting medium), but I hadn't asked for it well-done and desiccated, either. The brie was a nice touch, and the ham was laid on thick enough that it fell in folds, squished down by the bun. But the heart of a cheeseburger remains the burger, and this one was simply not impressive. And since the burger had no juice, no life, left in it, the rest of the ingredients just sort of went dull in the mix — grace notes to a composition with no solid musical line.
Still, I am nothing if not persistent, so when my urge for a burger became overpowering, Laura and I headed back to Park Burger. It was a quiet Saturday, too late for the lunch rush, too early for the dinner crowds to start descending. And yet the place was almost full — the half-booths along the wall mostly occupied by people lazing against the odd upholstery (like a throw pillow on someone's grandma's couch), the patio busy, the cooks moving along at a relaxed half-speed in their half-open kitchen. There was a TV tuned to the Food Network, an eclectic mix of music playing from hidden speakers, and the smell of sautéeing onions in the air. We ordered quickly, getting a ParkBurger (again too thin and too dry — and overcooked, to boot), two orders of fries (one regular that came limp and undersalted, one the excellent sweet potato, crunchy hot, soft and sweet on the inside, and touched with just a hint of salt), and a chocolate milkshake that was almost sickeningly sweet, but thick and creamy and delicious nonetheless. And then, of all things, we got a veggie burger — handmade in-house and, unbelievably, one of the best vegetarian anythings I've ever had. It was a loose mix of black beans and brown rice, corn kernels and God only knows what else, cooked quickly on the grill and served hot, smelling like warm bread and mysterious spices. Even in a house full of meat, I enjoyed the veggie burger more than anything else on the table. And what made it even better? I ate mine with bacon.
Still, a veggie burger (like a slice of pizza or a filet of halibut) is not a real burger, so I returned to Park Burger two days later, this time for the ParkBurger Royal and the Chilango off the specialty menu, another milkshake, another order of fries. This time, both burgers were fantastic. The Royal arrived the requested, ideal mid-rare, topped with an X of bacon, a mound of perfectly caramelized onions and a smear of blue cheese, the Chilango a masterpiece of ground beef, melted cheddar, handmade guacamole and chunks of jalapeño pepper. The fries, too, were cooked just right, hot and greasy inside their little paper-and-tin container, and the chocolate milkshake finished everything off with style.
This, then, was the perfect expression of what Park Burger can be when all the elements of the experience (desire and reward, concept and execution) line up right — a true neighborhood burger joint, but one with a fine, sharp edge of upscale sensibility.
Now Park Burger just needs to be this place consistently, to keep careful track of all the niggling little details that separate the great from the merely mediocre, to make sure that all the important elements come together not just some of the time, or even most of the time, but every time. True, a less-than-great burger didn't keep me from returning to Park Burger. But then, I was a man who really wanted a burger and would stop at nothing until I got the one that I'd been hoping for.
The guy in line behind me, though? He might not be so forgiving.