Monday, July 20, 2015

Shake Shack and the Failure of Europe's Burgers

"Sacred Cows make the tastiest hamburger." Abbie Hoffman
We are back in Hungary now, and the difficult withdrawal symptoms are just setting in. What is it with Europe? Why can't Europeans accomplish simple, good things? Why can't they park cars? Why can't they use closets? Why can't they cut an honest deal with Greece? Why can't they stand up to Putin? And most importantly... why the fuck can they not make a decent cheeseburger? The cheeseburger is, perhaps, the culmination of human gastronomic history. First came the mastery of agriculture, leading to the development of bread, lettuce, and tomatoes. Animals were domesticated, resulting in ground meat patties and - by carefully tickling their animal tits - dairy and cheese production. All the elements of a classic cheeseburger have been laying around for thousands of years, just waiting to be combined. And it was Americans who did that. Americans. Say what you will about the land that gives us Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Fox news, kale chips and the NRA, if you want a decent burger you will have to share physical space with those pitiful critters in a land where the toilets are like weird floating poop bathtubs and every family has, like, sixteen cars. It is a strange place, America, but you can ignore that if you really like good burgers.

Shake Shack Smokeshack burger. One Jew's personal "fuck you" to entering Jewish Heaven.
I have pretty much given up on hamburgers in Europe. I have eaten them on German hotel menus, in British cafes, and in several of Budapest's newly popular burger bistros. My local district - the 7th, the historic Budapest Jewish ghetto also known as the "party zone" - is full of them, and they all suck (OK. Black Cab Burger doesn't suck, but their buns need work.) But the "gourmet" burger is new to Hungarians, and Hungarian food blogs just love them: weird round meatwads dripping BBQ sauce and piled high with eggs, cheeses, slices of inappropriate vegetables, baconoid substances, and every condiment available, placed inside a sweet brioche bun or worst of all, an unforgiving ciabatta roll. These - like most European burgers - are planned and prepared by people who may never actually have had a real hamburger. Most Europeans assume that these are improvements on the thing they first encountered in a McDonald's or a Burger King. Citoyens du l'Europe! Ecoutez-moi! Those things are not burgers! Those things are not worthy of the name! In the states we call them by their brand names, as in "I ate a bag of McDonald's last night and got sick all over the weird, water-filled poop basin." Or "Me and my family took a few of our sixteen cars out to eat White Castles last night."

"Lord, save us from Sin and the Jalapeno Sliders of White Castle"
Not every meatwad is a hamburger, nor every hamburger a compressed extrusion of ex-cow. That pile of macerated cow protein, rotten moo juice, bun and special sauce have to earn the title. The latest news on the American burger front is that hamburgers have actually improved over the last decade. One reason is the influence of California's In-and-Out Burger and that company's refusal to open franchises beyond the oversight of the California based family that started the chain. Five Guys filled the gap, opening a chain of fresh made burger joints around Washington DC that soon spread up the east coast. I became a stalwart convert to Five Guys. The menu is based on the old style smashburger: burgers griddle fry and are smashed flat after browning, resulting in extra crispy beef crust while the meat inside stays juicy.

Actual human hands making actual Five Guys burger.
You can't order your burger rare or to taste at a Five guys (or at Shake Shack) because the beef mix is intended to be griddled to slightly above medium. You can choose any combination of toppings - mine are lettuce, tomato, jalapeno, and onion - take your number and wait. Yes, wait. This is not fast food. This is time to wait and learn to be humble in the face of mortality and the nature of eternity. But unlike mortality, at the end you get a huge sack of french fries! Five guys does its french fries from fresh potatoes - not always the best idea, but they seem to embrace the soggy locavore spud aesthetic by filling all the space in your brown paper burger bag with extra scoops of fries, and there is malt vinegar to pour on them fish and chips style. Malt vinegar on soggy fries may well be the only lasting culinary improvement to have ever come out of the British Empire.

Enough fries to feed an army of ... a lot of fries.
Yeah, it costs ten bucks, but it is better than almost any ten buck meal you will find outside of Chinatown. I thought Five guys was the best thing to happen to fast food: slow it down, use quality ingredients, treat the employees like human beings. When I did a Klezmer gig with Szalonna's Band at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival two years ago we did a late night stop at a Five Guys in DC afterwards. All agreed it was one of the best meals they had enjoyed in the USA on that trip (sorry, guys, I didn't take you to Dama's Ethiopian Restaurant in Arlington. Next time!) But wait... it gets better. I have been hearing about Shake Shack for years, ever since they opened their first burger stand in Madison Square Park in the downtown of Manhattan. Hotshot restaurant owner Danny Meyer wanted to expand from his successful Union Square Cafe, so in 2004 he opened a seasonal burger kiosk in little used Madison Park. Rather than use the usual leftover bits of cow that are ground into 99% of the hamburgers eaten in the world, Meyer asked his butcher, the now legendary Pat LaFrieda, to come up with a perfect hamburger patty. Better than Five guys? Better than White Manna? Are they cloning unicorns in Pat LaFrieda's basement? I had to try it.

The Original Shake Shack burger. Simple perfection.
You bite into a Shake Shack burger and it is like biting into a fine, aged steak... it has been years since I have actually had a religious epiphany occur in my mouth, especially since I had a bridge put in, but this was it. And they even had a portobello mushroom cap burger that not only pleased the perversity of the vegetarians who were with us, but was good enough to order on its own. And cheese fries! My life was complete... and I heard a small voice saying... walk toward the light, Bob...This was my first reaction to a Shake Shack bacon cheeseburger. Need I tell you that there were four more occasions to visit Shake Shack in the next month? And need I tell you that there is a Shake Shack inside departure terminal four at JFK airport? And what does Shake Shack use for a bun? The same Martin's potato rolls that I buy at my local supermarket, the same ones that are used at White Manna. Why? Because sometimes modesty and simplicity is better. Its something called "tradition."

We come in Peace, Earthlings, but do not resist us!
The whole epic story of the American hamburger's rebirth was just published in NY Magazine here, Meat Wizard Pat LaFrieda used actual marbled steak cuts to make his ground meat mixture, not just ground beef with fat added. The result is amazingly steaky good beef flavor. With beef prices soaring due to climate change affecting feed costs (in Quebec, for example, beef costs twice what it did last year) people will think twice about ordering at $79 rib steak at a restaurant and go for the flavor contained in a hunger satisfying $19 bistro burger. Or just get it for $6 at Shake Shack. And this is where Europe will always fail at burgers. There is almost no good beef produced in Europe. There are great dairy cows all over the place, but for quality beef - marbled fat beef - you need grass and for grass you need ranches, and for ranches you need land, and it looks like we are saving all that land for a football stadium for Putin's birthday gift. Europe gets most of its quality steak shipped in from Argentina, which is expensive. For the local burgers, we toss retired dairy cows into the burger bin.

We come for your cheese fries, puny Human!
Oddly enough, Hungary used to be famous for the quality of its beef, supplying the Austrian empire with free range long-horned cattle driven across the plains to the markets in Vienna. The good flavor of grass fed ranched Hungarian beef lasted until the end of communism. But when the beef ranch operations were de-collectivized, ex-members of the state farm took their shares and formed dairy farms that could be handled by a single family business. Efforts are being made to raise the old grey long-horned cattle again as a beef producer and "Hungarikum" ( the designation for any product uniquely, or puzzlingly Hungarian) but I expect to be eating the retired bits of Daisy the Milk cow for years to come.

Cevapcici: what the near future holds...
After next weekend, I will be traveling in Croatia... and I will not be lugging a laptop around with me, so don't expect much in the way of blog updates. I can not blog on a tablet. I am sure there will be offerings of burgers, but one of my jobs will be to order and eat actual nice foods provided by actual nice restaurants (my Significant Otherness is a travel writer too!) So the closest I will get to burgers will be pleskavica, the Balkan answer to the burger dilemma, and cevapcici, Bosnia's answer to ground meat nirvana. It will be a challenge, but I promise: I shall endure!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ovus Mundii: The Egg Platter of the World

"Oh Jersey, oh thou gutsy state. O, Jersey, thy state with human yeast, oh Jersey, thy moiling state of incessant activity and unbelievable slobs, oh Jersey, the great state stands as a legend... and so, Jersey, we salute thee tonight. Possessed of devils, hounded by a consistent sense of just having missed out on history." Jean Shepherd, "The Jersey Devil"

21 Egg Plate Varieties! 
As I often explain, New York City - my birthplace - is a small island nation located a short distance off the coast of America. In 1966, in the hopes of making a living duping rubes in the construction industry, my father committed the unpardonable sin of moving the family across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Although not far in distance - we were four miles from Manhattan - life in Jersey both made me and scarred me for life. North Jersey is both an extension of the NY metropolis and a defiantly independent entity in itself. It boasts sprawling factories exuding toxic smoke and sludge into the vast Jersey swamps, vapid shopping malls for the worker drones to consume, and hideous Trump-owned casinos to sop up the remaining wages not yet consumed. Patches of old time Americana vie with ethnic neighborhoods offering "home" to some of the world's less publicized communities:  Coptic Egyptians, Meshketian Turks, Kalmyk Mongols, Ramapough Indians, Syrian Jews, Armenians, Scots, Albanian Vlachs, Plattsdeutsch speaking Germans, Cubans, Vietnamese, and of course, that breed most unique to the region, the Jersey Italian. All brought their unique cuisines, but all shared one acquired Jersey trait: the day starts with eggs at a diner.

The Egg Platter, Paterson NJ
In New Jersey you drive to your job, usually along outdated roads that reflect the infrastructural needs of a more bucolic era. Route 4, once a jaunty country road extending west from the George Washington Bridge, remains just that except that now there are millions of commuter SUVs and semi trucks rushing along it every day. Route 46 was the road that trucked fresh vegetables into Manhattan... Route 17 carried vacationers into the Catskills... none were designed to handle the traffic they receive today. Unless you grew up driving here, they are all death traps: outdated, overcrowded, badly designed, constructed by the semi-literate in-laws of the local mayor, and liberally littered with the mortal remains of all those who failed to reach their exit ramp at the proper speed and angle. Modern four lane superhighways do exist in New Jersey, but just not where you are driving at any given time.

I-hop. Breakfast endures.
And if you have to drive to work, you stop at a diner for breakfast. Eggs, of course. With bacon... home fries, toast, and watery coffee that would make a Romanian train station snack bar sneer with superiority. New Jersey is still an empire of diners. From the 1930s to the 1970s, small, sleek metallic roadside eateries were churned out by New Jersey builders on custom order. NJ probably has more surviving steel domed diners than any other state: they are just too successful to tear down. I worked as a city garbage collector in Hackensack after High School, and the sight of the gleaming, shiny dome of a diner promising an egg breakfast halfway through the workday at 7 AM was the high point of a busy morning spent trucking trash down to the Lyndhurst dump.

Paterson's Egg Platter: the best preserved New Jersey breakfast diner.
One of the diners we used to stop at was, in fact, Harry's Corner in South Hackensack. Harry's gained a measure of fame with the confession of Richard Kuklinsky - AKA "The Iceman" - a professional hitman for the NJ Mafia with over 100 murders to his name. In 1982 Kuklinsky killed pharmacist Paul Hoffman (beating him with a crow bar after his gun misfired - so very Jersey!) in a drug deal gone sour and stuffed the body into an oil drum which he carefully placed on the sidewalk outside Harry's diner. For more than two weeks Kuklinsky would drop in for a meal at Harry's to see if patrons had noticed anything strange or if cops had shown up. Nobody noticed. One day the oil drum wasn't there. Case closed. In Jersey, we just simply do not give a shit. Also in 1982 Kuklinsky fed a cyanide laced hamburger to one associate in the York Motel in North Bergen (near our favorite Korean supermarket!) and stuffed the body under the box springs of the motel bed. Over the next four days patrons renting the room never commented on the odd smell. Because, what the hell, its a motel in North Bergen, New Jersey!

The State Sandwich of New Jersey
New Jersey's classic working class breakfast is the Taylor Ham, egg and cheese sandwich. Like sushi (slice of raw fish, chunk of rice, seaweed) it looks simple but is so much more than the sum of its parts. Taylor ham is made in the state capital, Trenton. Nothing else - literally, nothing else - is made in Trenton. It is sold throughout the state, but as you get into Bergen County near New York it starts becoming rare, a shameful reminder of Jersey's Boardwalk Empire past that would offend the delicate urban sensibilities of the Whole Foods crowd. It isn't ham, and it isn't quite salami, and has a flavor someplace between Canadian bacon and ham. It is spam for people who don't admit that they like spam. Sliced and fried - and always cut with three notches to prevent it puffing up into cups on the grill - it becomes a crispy, salty base for an egg and sliced American processed cheese piled onto a kaiser roll.

The King of Mystery Meats
The Egg Platter in Paterson is a classic diner specializing in, as its name would suggest - eggs. Yes you can get burgers and sandwiches and daily specials as well, but essentially it is for breakfast and closes after lunch. It sits on Crooks Avenue amid the Arab and Turkish groceries and felaful shops attracting delivery truckers from nearby Corrado's Family affair, a quirky NJ megamarket that deserves a post on its own. The Egg Platter proudly offers "21 Egg Platter Novelties" including such delicate rarities as spanish omelette and sausage and eggs, but the Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich is the one to go for. Jersey takes its eggs very seriously: in 1992 the State banned runny eggs: soft boiled, poached, sunny side up joined heroin and monkey meat on the list of things the State considered forbidden consumables. The idea was to protect the good people of the Garden State from Salmonella bacteria, but due to massive outrage and threats of violent rebellion, the law was quietly dropped soon after.

The White Manna: Origin of the slider.
While on the subject of tiny diners it has been a while since I sang the praises of the tiniest of diners: Hackensack's White Manna hamburger stand. It has stood alongside the polluted, muddy Hackensack River since 1946 and was once managed by my friend's father, a Cherokee Indian married to a Hungarian. I never ate there until I had my driver's license and began working for the Hackensack Sanitation Dept: it was just somewhere that Jews did not eat - an attitude that extended to the soul food luncheonettes and sub shops that were the mainstays of garbage man lunch. The attitude seemed to be that neighboring Teaneck was full of delicatessens and bagel shops, so leave the egg diners to the gentiles. The White Manna has been caught in a time warp ever since then. The White manna was designed as a perfect morning egg destination, but is best known for its sliders, a tiny hamburger (preferably with cheese) that is slow steamed atop a bed of onions.

Artisanal, historically correct lunch at White Manna.
Back in the depression era 1930s, sliders developed as a way to stretch out a tiny bit of meat into a full hamburger sandwich: add onions. Onions and ground meat are the Romeo and Juliet of cheap eats. From this we get both the White Castle burger as well as various tiny burgers available along many of New Jersey's less repaired roadways, such as River Ave in Hackensack, which was enjoying a massive sinkhole at the time we visited. White Manna may be the tiniest of tiny diners in New Jersey, but that hasn't kept it off of many top ten hamburger lists in the USA, and it is a regular stop for foodie porn TV shows.

The kitchen and 2/3 of the dining area at White Manna.
It is not rare to see somebody come in and order thirty for an office lunch or road crew. At lunch there is always a crowd, sometimes a line going out the door. We came at a much more civilized three PM, mainly because it is across the street from the Giant Farmers' Market, a Korean-Mexican-Pakistani budget outlet for fish and veg where I do most of my NJ shopping.

What Jean Shepherd eats in Jersey heaven.
But it is a damn good burger. Prices have risen since the good old days when burgers hovered around a buck a burger, but our bill came to $16 for five burgers, fries, and three drinks.including unsweetened ice tea (for all you Whole Foods fans!) The burger could use some seasoning beforehand, but topped with the chunks of US commodity cheese and sliced pickles it is folk art burger heaven. Jersey: don't ever change. We'll have lunch sometime, OK?

Friday, July 03, 2015

Paterson, New Jersey. Part One: Ramadan in Silk City.

Ramadan mubarak from New Jersey!
I actually like New Jersey. Not the boring, rolling suburbs, not the huge shopping malls, not that New Jersey. My New Jersey is three story brick, dilapidated, and often has a Tatar bakery and a Mexican taco place on the ground floor. My Jersey is served by a private bus company that doesn't speak English. My Jersey eats ugly fish that Anglo-Saxons won't touch and stews it with okra and peppers that are not bought in gourmet shops. My New Jersey smells bad, but not from chemicals. My New Jersey comes in vanilla and chocolate and has no smoosh-ins.  My New Jersey remembers when muskrat trapping was still a viable part of the suburban economy, and the Overpeck Creek attracted more rat trappers than dog walkers. My New Jersey is  funky. My New Jersey is red hot. Your New Jersey ain't diddly squat! Jersey manages to maintain pockets of Olde Jerseyness here and there, hidden treasures of community and heritage that very often include strange takes on hot dogs or middle eastern foods that may possibly be illegal in many western states. One of my favorite places when I tell people in Europe that I am visiting "New York " is actually Paterson.
Easily and cheaply accessible from the George Washington bridge by Spanish bus.
Paterson, New Jersey, is not widely known as a tourist draw. Actually, I may be the only person on Earth who considers it a tourist magnet destination. Most New Yorkers have never been here. Heck, most New Jerseyites give the state's third most populous city a wide berth, rarely venturing near Paterson, a mere twenty minute drive down Route 80 from the George Washington Bridge. If they come at all, it is to see the Great Falls of the Passaic River, one of the east's most dramatic waterfalls after Niagara Falls.

Ever watch The Sopranos? This is where Micky Irish got whacked. 
The water power drove the industry that powered factories and mills, especially silk mills, which led to the city being known as "Silk City." Silk also drew merchants from the middle east, and today the area around Main street in south Paterson is home to a booming ethnic community of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian Arabs - known as Shaami Arabs. Shammi Arabs are those whose dialect of Arabic echoes earlier Aramaic languages, and the culture of the Shaami is characteristically Levantine-Mediterranean in cuisine and heritage.

Lahmacun from Oz Karadeniz Turkish Restaurant
With neighboring Clifton, Paterson is also home to America's largest Turkish community, not to mention smaller communities of Circassians, Karachay, Tatar, and Abkhaz from the Caucusus region. And that's just the southern bit of Paterson. If you are the least bit Islamophobic, perhaps this isn't the neighborhood for you. Or maybe it is: nothing can convert a bigot like friendly faces serving good food. Since we were in the middle of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, a lot of my favorite Turkish places were closed during the day, or preparing for the evening iftar feast that breaks the fast, but we managed to find some excellent lunch last week at Le Vie, a Lebanese cafe and hookah place that was empty because of the fast but happy to serve us lunch.

Lunch special at Le Vie
Twelve bucks gets you the mixed kebab plate of your dreams - ground meat kofte, extremely tender marinated lamb, and yogurt marinated chicken breast - but the real prize went to their hummus and baba ghanoush. Shaami style hummus goes very thick on the sesame tahini, and adds cooked raw chickpeas as a garnish. This was smooth, thick, and almost sweet, swimming with excellent olive oil. Six bucks. Olives and pickles come with. Why haven't I ever discovered the joy of olives and pickles with hummus?

Best hummus I have ever eaten at Le Vie.
Not only was the food amazing, but La Vie has a large terrace space for relaxing urban outdoor dining, something that is sorely missing in the NJ suburbs. This is because hookah bars - cafes where you can smoke water pipes on outside terraces - are all over this area. They might not serve booze, but you can smoke and sip coffee and argue about football and Syrian politics all night and... it drives the non-Arabs neighbors nuts, unfortunately. I felt like I was back in the Balkans for a moment. I could easily waste hours here, sipping coffees and watching Arabic videos on the giant TV screens.... but shopping duty called. Just down the street, Fattal's Bakery is  much more than a bakery: it is a grocery, a jewelry shop, a lunch counter, and a top notch butchers shop where all those middle eastern goodies you seek in a gourmet shop are for sale at half the gourmet price.

The butcher section of a bakery. A bakery!
There are a lot of halal meat markets around Paterson. Actually, there are not "a lot." There are gigatons of halal meat markets around Paterson, avalanches of halal lamb, beef and goat everywhere you look, vast universes consisting of halal butchers upon halal butchers. Pigs can safely retire at old age in south Paterson knowing that - as long as they avoid Hispanic neighborhoods - they can sleep soundly and never fear the butcher's knife in their wildest nightmares. And amid this heaving mass of halal butchery there is the meat counter at Fattal's, a shrine to legs of lamb, sheep kidneys, beef heart, premixed ground meat kofte mixes, and lamb sausage. And there is the sweets counter - The Magic City of Pistachio Baklava. Two bucks gets you a tub of fresh halva bits, and if you are planning a post fast BBQ, why not spurge on some pigeons and quail?

Ramadan is a fast, but also a feast.
A street away is Nouri's Syrian Bakery, which basically offers exactly the same stuff in a similar space as Fattal's. Za'atar spices mixes? They both have them. Tahina? Choose from dozens of brands from all over the middle east. Take home some of Nouri's freshly-made-ready-to-fry falaful mix, rumored to be one of the best in the New York area. It is certainly one of the most authentic. Still feel like shopping? Drop by the Dollar Depot across the street for all kinds of ramadan gifts!

Every girl wants a fully covered Burqa Barbie!
Paterson is also home to a large Hispanic community, especially recent arrivals from Mexico and Peru. Downtown Paterson is known as "Little Lima" and is full of Peruvian restaurants competing with each other for the best ceviche. The downtown is full of Latin American restaurants and small businesses. If you come from Mexico or Salvador and want your family to live in a house, not a tenement, Paterson is perfect for you.

Where else can you find a hairdresser speaking Nahuatl?
North Paterson is still mainly black American, and Paterson still has one of the few remaining stadiums dating to the era of segregated baseball teams: Hinchcliffe Stadium was home to the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues. Satchel Paige played here. Paterson native Lou Costello (of Abbott and Costello) started a career as a boxer here and used to do shows here. Is this not a noble heritage?

Who's on first?
I was warmly invited by some locals via the comments to to contact them for further investigation into the delights of Paterson area cuisine. Sadly, guys, my time is short and I have a lot in my basket (much of it from Fattal's, actually) but I appreciate the invite and extend the same to you if you ever get to Budapest. I am still scratching the surface of the area - I don't drive and I have to convince friends with cars that they won't get whacked and tossed over the falls Soprano-style if they dare to explore in Paterson or Newark. And I simply can not eat that much in one day. I have covered the local hot dog scene (Texas Wieners!) and at least one of the Jewish delis of Newark (Hobby's!) as well as the Portuguese seafood... and I have yet to try the ceviche in Little Lima but some papusas always seem to get in the way. Next up: Taylor Ham and Twenty One Egg Platter Novelty Dishes!