The best burger in the New York metropolitan area, period. Edges out Broome St. Bar's (corner of Broome and West Broadway), a close second, or Big Nick's or J.G. Melon's which at least in my book are tied for third. Miles better than Blue Smoke's, Donovan's, Burger Heaven's, Jackson Hole's, Shake Shack's, or P.J. Clarke's, or the rest of the places that people like to claim serve exceptional hamburgers but, more often than not, are simply perpetrators of fraud on a bun. (Michael's in Pleasantville has nice onion rings, but I'd rather snort with a straw the detritus that has collected along the bottom inner seam of my wallet than eat the burger.) If you set aside the fried burgers, and the burgers with inferior or spice-doctored beef, and the burgers cooked to a gray homogeneous mass that leak juices but are otherwise indistinguishable from the left hand of the person sitting across from you, there aren't a ton of contenders left, and Squires beats them all with a truncheon. I suppose we all know that by some accident of language, Squires and Chili's both find themselves serving an item known as a burger, but I don't eat burgers at Chili's for the same reason I don't like being lied to. And traducing Squires as "tired" or "smoky" or "grim[y]" misses the point entirely, in the same way that vilifying Blue Hill as "unelaborate" or McDonald's as "commercial" might. Look, if you've been to Squires, you know, for good or ill, and need no words. If you haven't, Squires is a gem, induplicable, invaluable, every facet worn down to perfection by the decades. (And the service sucks enough that I once rose from my table to retrieve my burger from the kitchen window after experiencing a full minute of agony imagining the air ravishing the heat out of that beautiful object with every passing second, but I don't go to hospitals for the coffee, concerts for the conversation, or dives for the service. Also, do the rings, not the fries, which are substandard.) But the burger is the best. I'm telling you.
Barros Luco opened a few months ago on 52nd and 2nd. The eatery is named after its featured item--a Chilean sandwich known as a "Barros Luco" named in turn after a turn-of-the-century president of Chile who was known for holding court while snacking on these bad boys. The Barros Luco comes in either steak or chicken, on what looks something like a hamburger bun but with a smoother and lightly glazed surface (a slightly denser texture and a definitively doughier flavor), and is served with any variety of toppings, including melted swiss-style cheese, tomatoes, avocado, green beans, and banana peppers. I had the "Charcatero Completo," which is essentially the aircraft carrier of toppings. I thoroughly enjoyed. The green beans give it a benign but noticeably novel flavor. The eatery itself is highly comfortable, with several tables (including booths) on the second-floor that look out floor-to-ceiling onto 52nd. (Incidentally, the fountain Coke is excellent--nice syrup-to-CO2-water ratio.) Only criticism, and it's slight: the sandwich is filling, but not huge. If starved, you might put away two (perhaps giving rise to an opportunity to house both the steak and the chicken), but at $7-$9 the double-barros shotgun approach would come at a price.
Shopsin's is a one-of-a-kind experience. That's not to say a necessarily comfortable one. What makes it distinctive will have the side effect of making it pleasingly novel and rewarding for some, intolerably inhospitable and oppressively not-about-the-food for others. For anyone sufficiently interested in food that they're trawling through this site in the first place, then it's almost indisputably worth a visit. My first trip was a few days ago, on Friday May 23. The below are first impressions, so should not be treated as any definitive assessment. But I paid close attention so that others might be tempted to do the same.
* I walk over to the stall, and Kenny is sitting in a chair near the three tables set up to the side of the counter, loudly holding court about Michelle Pfeiffer's movies with a young twenty-something Asian female sitting at the counter. Roughly every third sentence he speaks contains the f-word or some derivative.
* I sit at one of the three side tables. I ask the waiter (who I think is one of Kenny's sons) for chicken avocado tortilla soup with no cilantro (enjoy the flavor, but mild allergy causes it to flood my mouth with bitterness). He asks how hot I want it on a scale of 1 to 10; I ask for 6. I then ask also for a half-order of slutty cakes. The response to the half-order: "He says no." I get up to grab an extra menu and swing by the kitchen door on the way back to my seat and ask what's this about no. "He says no." Kenny joins in: "It's too much food." My response is that it will be my only meal of the day. Kenny: "So go f*ck yourself. Eat this first."
* I go back to my table. I eat the soup. A possible criticism is that there is no blended flavor at all. The soup is a fast series, not a quiet merger, of flavors. I understand that Kenny prides himself on making every soup to order, with only chicken stock as the pre-prepared component. That approach will more likey result in a heterogeneity of taste, so arguably that criticism is unfair. Like judging a sports car based on trunk capacity. I enjoy the soup tremendously--crisp fresh cabbage, chunks of soft and not-too-sweet hominy, soft fleshy avocado. Incidentally, notwithstanding the suggestion in Calvin Trillin's New Yorker article (or more accurately of the waitress referenced therein) to the contrary, the heat in the spicy dishes is not substantial. The duck salad and spicy pork chop I ordered "mild" at Sriphiphai two weeks ago was many times as spicy as the "6" at Shopsin's, which was just there enough to start pleasing.
* The best thing about the soup was that, though the components barely blended, the series of flavors was as enjoyable as it was utterly unfamiliar. And the flavors seemed logical, natural together. (You put toothpaste on lamb and you'll get something unfamiliiar all right, but something jarring and contrived. The last time I tasted something this unfamiliar but "right" was the foie gras brulee at Jean Georges.) I've been rolling around the flavors of that soup in my head for the last few days, like a kid worrying a loose tooth with his tongue. That's always a good sign.
* As I eat, the young Asian woman at the counter calls to Kenny, "Hey, Kenny, this is really good today." Without a pause, Kenny calls back out from the kitchen, "Yeah, we took out the secret stuff that keeps Asians from reproducing." The delivery man rolls in with his hand trolley at 11:55am to drop off supplies, and Kenny shouts, "Nice time to show up, a**hole."
* For the record, I could have and would have accommodated a nice half-order of slutty cakes. But after finishing the soup, why validate the guy's rudeness by requesting them again? As much as I wanted to know what they tasted like, there's a point at which dignity requires that self-regard trump edification. As I handed Kenny the check and the money, he asks "Now wasn't that enough?" I simply said "It was good" and left. (If he wasn't interested in what I was thinking when I ordered, he's not suddenly interested now.)
* Here's the deal: The food is great. The guy is obviously an extremely talented chef and intelligent guy. If one meal is any indication at all, the atmosphere can range from refreshingly strange to mildly alienating to distractingly oppressive, between the guy's gunshot sentences and abrasive personality, and the deer-eyed, permanent-smiled obsequiousness of the relatively young, south-of-14th-street types that appear to haunt the place regularly and sit at the counter and call out first names to those in the kitchen. There's nothing wrong with that, if you're one of the regulars (I know Trillin suggested about the old place that there were no such thing, but either he was wrong or the new place is different), or you don't happen to expect the basic hospitality of a diner-oriented experience. It's too bad that a place with such great food has to be about so much other than the food, and more specifically--and almost arrogantly--about the people behind the counter rather than in front of it.
I haven't been at Alfa late at night since 2003, when I lived in the neighborhood. But I've made a couple of afternoon trips in the last month, each time asking the woman (two different women) at the register (being careful that the guy who runs the place was in the back, such that his presence wouldn't deter her from the truth) whether they made the donuts on-site, and both explained that, no, they came from outside and were delivered. I was surprised, given the reputation of the place. But, to be honest, I wasn't surprised, given the taste of the donuts. They were fine. Exactly fine. Not wonderful. Not bad. Fine. Exactly as fine as what the donut cart on Chambers and Lafayette serves up. Which is a tasty, acceptable shame, but a shame nonetheless. Still a great place to vegetate, though.
Just a note re a long-time CH favorite: donut stalwart Alfa Donuts at 46th Street and Queens Boulevard, an old-style, squat-ceilinged, brown-lit 24-hour hole in the wall complete with midgety counter and stools that force one into the same upper-abdomen compressing posture that solves hiccups. The donuts may be tasty, and the environment appealing, but the donuts are not made on-site. They are delivered. From one of the nearby Queens-based donut factories that supply every donut vendor west of Long Island and east of Fifth. (NJ factories supply much of the West Side.) If the donuts drove you, then the Alfa myth is dead. If the destination drove you, then long live Alfa.
Dinner at BHSB two nights ago. Party of six, so I tasted plenty. The hype is deserved. Only misstep came when the servers, trained to place with assiduous, quiet, signal-corps synchronicity (the cue apparently is when one among them touches his/her chest), fumbled around and lapsed into apologetic chatter and abandoned their coordinated air when informed they had confused two of the plates and had to switch them. It was like Buddhist monks suddenly hiking up their sleeves and lighting up cigarettes. This, in any event, was intriguing, not annoying. Anyway, the five best things I put in my mouth:
(5) GNOCCHI . . .
Not just the flavor. It was the momentary brain awkwardness as my tongue persisted in reporting implausibly that something so insubstantial--very small, very light--could pack such intense flavor.
(4) BREAD AND BUTTER
Butter was predictably excellent. Understated--flavor was small but very round. The dark rough crust made me worry I'd taste nothing but char and get my palate torn up. But the crust turned out to be a kind of light-crispy-darkish that complemented the flavor of the white rather than the kind of dense-tough-charred that displaces it. I suspect now it's what other heavy-crust bakers are shooting for but don't usually achieve.
(3) PORK BELLY from STONE BARNS BERKSHIRE PIG . . .
I actually didn't care much for the loin--two slices are the main event--or the sausage. But the spaetzle was good. And the pork belly was just awesome. I typically despise pork belly. The flavor is often garish, the texture repulsive. This was a cube of tender melt, both texture- and flavor-wise. My teeth moved slowly through that little bar of belly, because the thing was utterly homogeneous--soft and dense. It tasted like bakery without the sweet.
(2) MINT JULEP
BHSB is famous for these, so I'm surprised there isn't more comment along these lines. It was a cold forest well. Maybe more mint leaf than booze: if it were less fresh, the pointedness of the mint might have interfered, but the flavor was full and green enough that the mint didn't pierce through and beat up on the rest of the drink. One of the best five drinks I've ever had. Easy.
(1) GREENHOUSE GREENS AND HERBS . . .
I'll not go on, because others already have. It's a plate of yes.
A last note:
While the crab was fine, it was not fantastic. The celeriac was overpowering, and the crab was tender but with little else to commend it. All other things being equal (meaning assuming you are not so crab-happy that you can't possibly stay away), I'd opt for the so many other things that are stand-outs.