Today let us celebrate the noble hamburger, an iconic confection that’s easier to eat than it is to research.
Aka “hamburg steak,” this ubiquitous ground-meat patty on a bun has been known by that name only since around the 1890s, the usually reliable Online Etymology Dictionary tells us. The hamburger’s historic connection to Hamburg, Germany, is also asserted but unproven, but that’s not important right now.
What is important right now is good eats, and a well-made hamburger certainly qualifies. A great burger is a thing of beauty. Made of coarsely-ground, quality beef, handled with the kind of tender care that you’d bring to bathing an infant, and cooked to a bright-pink medium rare (something you should never do with an infant), a fine burger can provide as much pleasure as a good steak.
I’m prepared to nominate America the Diner’s burger as one of the city’s best. Its thoughtful blend of ground beef, brisket and skirt steak from Fox Hollow Farm is beyond reproach.
The $9 “Signature Burger” is built on a rich eggy bun from Nord’s bakery, buttered and grilled before becoming the base for a hefty, juicy patty that’s almost charred on the margins, still hot-pink inside. Dressed with blue cheese crumbles, a thick slice of juicy fresh tomato and a handful of Grateful Greens’ colorful “wildfire” lettuce mix, it’s first-rate.
That being said, however, I had just fashioned these lines when this scary headline from AlterNet flashed across my newsfeed: “Why You Really Might Want to Go with a Having a Veggie Burger Instead.”
I’ll spare you the details, but apparently the beady-eyed scientists over at Consumer Reports recently tested samples of ground beef and discovered things that put them right off their feed. Let’s just say that you might want to know that America the Diner also offers a pretty good house-made black bean burger on its 10 specialty burgers ($9–$14).
I’d give the bean burger a second upturned thumb if they’d make its texture more like a patty than a sloppy joe. It was great on the GW burger ($11), though, dressed with spicy pimento cheese, bits of fried onion ring and chipotle pepper aioli. A huge pile of Tater Tots made a crispy, crunchy retro treat on the side.
America the Diner is fun and funky. The decor – I’ve been told a neighboring tattoo artist helped with the design – is hip and funny, bright and ironically patriotic, with a trademark eagle and a giant U.S. flag dominating one wall.
The menu is huge, offering breakfast and dinner all day and night, and the prices top out around $13 to $14. Adult beverages are available, of course, as is strong, dark coffee ($2.50 for a bottomless order) in heavy white diner-style mugs.
Portions are huge, and service is competent and friendly. So far, so good. But here’s page two: It’s the nature of a diner, I think, that the fare is going to be variable. It’s made in a hurry from a very broad menu. Expect it to be delightful at best, passable at least, and you wont be disappointed.
America the Diner outdoes traditional NYC diners in its gourmet touches – you’ll rarely find mayo or tartar sauce where aioli will work, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not fair to expect culinary greatness from a diner.
Breakfast options are plentiful and filling. I was profoundly disappointed, though, to find that, in contrast with its commitment to quality local meat, the diner’s eggs are factory-farmed, an alternative that I try to avoid for reasons similar to Consumer Reports’ aversion to factory-farmed beef.
“Eggs in a Nest” ($7) placed two easy-over henfruit in holes cut into thick slabs of grilled Texas toast, topped with bright-yellow molten cheese.
Bagels ($2.50) are shipped frozen from Just Bagels, a Bronx factory that ships bagels around the country. They’re pretty good – I enjoyed a toasted onion bagel with a schmear of cream cheese ($1 upcharge) – although they can’t dislodge memories of warm, freshly made NYC bagel-shop goodies.
An a la carte order of poached egg ($1), Benton’s Country Ham ($3) and a biscuit ($3) were OK.
A Caesar salad ($7) was a little disappointing. Grateful Greens wildfire lettuce was fresh and carefully picked over, and croutons were toasty and fresh. But a bowl of mixed greens makes for an odd Caesar, and so did a mayo-heavy dressing that Julius or Augustus wouldn’t have recognized as part of the Caesar family.
Country-fried steak ($12) is the trendy teres major cut, a tenderloin-shaped cut from the shoulder (chuck). It was heavily breaded and cooked well-done, as you expect in this diner dish, with the deep, gamey flavor of grass-fed beef. It perched on a large ration of rich, cheesy mashed potatoes (free as a side, $3 a la carte)
À la carte: Poached egg ($1), Benton’s Country Ham ($3) and a biscuit ($3) were OK, and a “s’mores” cheesecake dessert was passable but uninspiring.
Lunch for three came to $53, plus a $12 tip. A more-than-ample breakfast was about $24, plus a $5 tip.
America. The Diner.
962 Baxter Ave
Robin Garr’s rating: 86 points