19 May 2016
A New York minute
It’s 11.30am on opening day. We push open the black door at the blazingly hot back alley of Amoy Street via Gemmil Lane, and an imposing wall of velvet maroon drapes greets us. “This way”, says a hastily (or artfully?) scrawled cardboard sign. Exciting. We wander past the curtained corridor into a windowless but cosy space.
There’s the familiar-looking counter adorned with handwritten menus on cardboard, booth seats, movie posters, a wall scribbled with messages from diners. The carefully curated shabby-cool underground vibe of the original Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien in Manhattan is apparent, but a lot more sanitised and shiny. It ain’t easy faking NYC grittiness. Also, unlike the flagship store, there’s a bar offering craft beers and whiskies here. It’s not quite lunchtime yet and the place is already half-full. “Please order here,” says an elderly gent with an American accent. Turns out he’s Burger Joint’s founder, Steven Pipes, here on a brief visit to oversee things. Because our dining partner is still parking the car, we tell him, “We’ll grab a seat first”. “No, you don't grab a seat, you order first,” replies Steven. Ah, NYC-style brusqueness.
BACKSTORY: The first ever Burger Joint opened in 2003, burrowed behind the same heavy drapes within the Le Parker Meridien Hotel’s lobby in NYC. It started out a cult fave and is now a tourist magnet, attracting queues daily. The Singapore franchise, the sixth outlet worldwide, was brought in by locally-based Brit, Nicholas Heaney. He fell in love with the Burger Joint’s “anti-gourmet” burgers on numerous business trips to the Big Apple. By anti-gourmet, he means a simple, no-frills burger made with better quality ingredients.
We visited the Le Parker Meridien flagship shop years ago. We really wanted to like those lauded burgers, but we left a little underwhelmed. Yes, the beef patty was nicely seared, but it wasn’t the juiciest or dreamiest one we’ve had in the city. It was as clean and plain as a burger could be, not quite rich, umami and gushing with meaty juices. In fact, it sort of tasted like — we’ll just come right out and say this — an artisanal McDonald’s cheeseburger. But that was then. Perhaps the Singapore outpost will change our minds? Today, we dine with a group of friends who’ve also been to the New York original but, unlike us, absolutely adored it.
19 May 2016
How to order
We walk up to the still-empty counter. A no-nonsense middle-aged American lady at the cashier takes our order. Behind her in the gleaming kitchen where oddly, there’s no smell of sizzling beef, a stout woman cooks along with some locals. She’s the head chef of the Burger Joint outlet in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and she’s here to train the local crew for a few weeks (she has left at press time).
There are essentially three burgers on the menu: hamburger, cheeseburger and bacon burger. But you can have variations of these, like double patties, or without the buns. Instructions at the counter tell you how to order: specify the preferred doneness of your meat, and what you want on it. It ends with this ominous warning: “Be ready to order or else you go to the end of the line!”. We hurriedly ask for a cheeseburger and a bacon cheeseburger with “the works” (mustard, ketchup, lettuce etc) because we’re stressed out by the cashier’s piercing gaze. We ask her if we can pay for a brownie with ice cream but collect it after our meal. “No, you’ll get everything at once, and you should probably order it now as there’ll be a long line later,” she replies. Because we don’t fancy alternating mouthfuls of beef with brownie, we get a chocolate milkshake instead, find a seat and wait for our number to be called. As soon as our butts hit the chair, a perky young waitress asks us if we’d like a beer. It’s not even noon but, oh, why not. The Omnipollo Ice Cream Pale Ale ($10 half pint; $17 pint) tastes more like lychees with a faintly bitter back note. Beers are billed separately by the bar.
19 May 2016
Our burgers take about 15 minutes to arrive. We’re lucky. Our friend, who ordered his lunch just 10 minutes after us waits 30 minutes. But that’s probably a shorter wait than what the poor souls (mostly expats and banker types) who arrive at the eatery later have to endure. That lady was right, the queue had begun to snake all the way to the entrance past noon.
The grub comes unceremoniously packed, burgers in white paper, fries in a brown bag. We unwrap our Cheeseburger ($13.80). The toasted bun is more pale, dryer and rougher than we recall. Apparently they are baked in Singapore “by a traditional Chinese bakery using the original recipe from New York”. The beef patty appears thicker than what we ate before (although Steven insists it’s the same 140g or five-ounce patty as the NYC one), with none of that sultry dark crust on its exterior. The cheese, a mix of white cheddar and red colby, looks over melted. We sink our teeth in. The burger is only lukewarm, the cross-section of the patty mostly brown and barely mottled with traces of pink. It’s cooked closer to medium-well though we asked for it medium, the cashier’s recommended doneness.
The specially imported beef from Nebraskan cows, “butchered and ground” in the kitchen each morning, is flavourful and fresh with a good clean flavour. The exact blend of cuts used is a secret, though the New York Times speculated it’s top sirloin and shoulder while seriouseats.com thinks it’s a blend of chuck and fat. Whatever it is, our disc of meat isn’t very succulent and lacks that crucial smoky char from the grill. It also needs more salt. We suspect it was cooked too long on a not-hot-enough, too-new griddle. Our friends’ Bacon Cheeseburger ($15.80) and Double Cheeseburger ($24.90) are also overcooked, though they had asked for their beef medium-rare. “This is unforgivable,” fumes one while the other, a Burger Joint super fan, is more forgiving: “Could be better, but I still like it”.
First day jitters in the kitchen, probably. Cooking a perfect burger in large quantities is tough — imagine juggling a bazillion patties on the grill, each with different degrees of doneness required, all while monitoring the melting of cheese and toasting of buns. That being said, this is the Burger Joint, and our Instagram feed tells us it has already hosted countless bloggers a week earlier. So ready or not, here we — plus the poseur DSLR-wielding foodie hordes — come. The shoestring Fries ($5.50) are good, but not any better than, uh, McDonald’s. Meanwhile, the Chocolate Milkshake ($11.80) served in a plastic cup is daylight robbery. Ours isn’t cold enough, like it’s been sitting out for a while. It tastes of melted vanilla ice cream (they use Haagen-Dazs), inferior chocolate sauce (made by the same Chinese bakery using their “secret recipe”), and diluted hopes and dreams.
VERDICT: It’ll probably take another few more weeks before the cooking here becomes consistent. But for now, you’ll find us at Omakase for a far more satisfying burger.
#01-03, 115 AMOY ST, S069935 (ENTRANCE AT GEMMILL LANE). TEL: 6221-8648.
Open daily. Sun-Tue 11am-11pm, Wed-Sat 11am-1am. Last orders 30 min before closing. www.burgerjointny.com/singapore