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Editor’s note: If there’s such a thing as a celebrity butcher, Pat LaFrieda, whose name is on more great menus than Benedict and his eggs, is it. (Ever heard of the Black Label burger?). LaFrieda gushes about the bite that made his family business famous. Want to try his bespoke blend? He is now serving his burger in Time Out Market New York.
I’ll take a burger over a steak any day. Everything, from the beef to the bun, is just amazing. It’s America’s comfort food.
My first burger memories are of my dad grilling in the backyard in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. We couldn’t wait for him to get home. He would make us four-ounce doubles—for a 10-year-old, that’s gigantic—always with American cheese. I think that’s as sophisticated as we were then; that’s all we knew at the time. Being in that part of Brooklyn, you didn’t get hamburger buns from the supermarket. We used Italian sesame-seed bread from the corner bakery. Burgers were a real big delight.
I love a nice crust sear. My favorite burger is something that’s thick yet still medium-rare—that’s the only way you can taste all the love and passion that went into it. A burger will taste like it smells, and that aroma of beef and the sweet scent of corn, which our steers are finished on, would be lost if it were cooked well-done.
“In New York City, we have the strongest demand for quality and the least tolerance for anything that’s not amazing.”
Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern
Photograph: Courtesy Minetta Tavern/Emilie Baltz
Beef is one of the U.S.’s last natural resources, and it’s the best in the world. Japanese Kobe beef might be more tender, but nothing has the flavor of American beef. The richest cities in the world import it. And while, traditionally, a hamburger is the most economic cut available in New York City, we have the strongest demand for quality and the least tolerance for anything that’s not amazing. Butchers try to get the most from each cut and sell the entire animal, but when it comes to a burger, there are no shortcuts. My grandfather, the original Pat LaFrieda, taught me that you can’t hide your sins in the meat grinder. I took that to heart when I started creating our burger blends. During grilling holidays—say, the Fourth of July or Labor Day—very famous chefs would come and buy our chopped beef for burgers. I just thought, Why don’t we sell them their meat for the rest of the year? I really worked on that.
You have to understand that we’re taking meat from 40-pound pieces down to 5/32 of an inch. I thought, How can I get a dry-aged steak experience into a burger at one-fifth of the price? That was the birth of the Black Label burger, which was well before Minetta Tavern even opened. That burger really made the restaurant. During the 2008 financial crisis, you’d never think that someone would buy the $26 Black Label burger when they could order the short-rib burger for $16. But in its first year, Minetta Tavern sold 13,000 Black Label burgers, compared to 6,000 orders of short rib.
I could send the best meat out into the world and chefs could ruin it, so what we do is only half of the job. Just when you think you’ve created something so unique, you need to come up with something that beats what you did the day before. It’s like Gladiator: “Are you not entertained?!” Look at Mike White’s White Label at Ai Fiori: He scrapes marrow from the femur bone and melts it over the burger. Those are the details that propel restaurants, especially in the most competitive city in the world.
ShackBurger at Shake Shack
Photograph: Courtesy Shake Shack/Evan Sung
At Shake Shack, we pushed the burger down to get that sear on the flat-top griddle; that was a real game changer. I needed to come up with a blend of the right fat content—not too dry, but not so fatty that it would cause a kitchen fire. To achieve the Shake Shack burger, I tweaked a blend of flat-iron steak, which is the closest to a New York strip, and brisket, with its buttery fat. I remember taking my dad there for the first time: We had never seen 200 people waiting for our burgers before. It was the classic scene of a son trying to make his dad proud.
People ask, “When do you think the burger trend will end?” It’s something that will never end. It evokes the backyard. My family and I used to sit around, make burgers and enjoy the simple things in life. Every time I eat a burger, I return there.
As told to Rheanna O’Neil Bellomo