I got 25 problems but a Burger ain’t one

My Friend Brian the Friendly Irish Giant saw this joint and told me about it- so I found a cool hiking spot nearby, drove down with Firecracker and Milky, and burned some calories before devouring one of their 25 varieties of burger. We hiked at the Sourland preserve, climbing up to some rocky perches, then hurtled down before sundown to grab some good eats.
25 Burgers has a large menu, and they also sell hot dogs. I’ll try one of those next time, perhaps- the burgers are pretty good. The selling point here is the array of toppings, and their good-sized (8oz) juicy burgers, which while average in flavor, are a notch above Red Robin or chain restaurants like TGIFriday’s. They don’t smother the burger with their toppings, and they have thought out their combos well. They have plenty of grilled chicken sandwiches, turkey burgers, buffalo and a veggie burger for all tastes, and you can get any patty on any combo.
I had the Six Alarm Burger (oddly, #7) which registered as perhaps a 2 alarm fire in my mouth (where I don’t normally allow firemen, even if they’re cute). It has fresh salsa on it, jalapenos, pepper jack and habanero sauce. I wasn’t impressed with the heat, and to be honest, I’d have preferred my go-to burger at Five Guys with fresh jalapenos, but this wasn’t a bad burger. It wasn’t overcooked or dried out. Firecracker liked her Chili Chili (#11) much better, and their smoky, Texas Weiner-style sweet chili amped up the beef flavor of the burger. Their cheese fries- made with queso- are a winner.
Milky went for #19, the Cholula Buffalo burger marinated in chipotle. He loved it. I didn’t get a bite, but it looked good and juicy, with a nice sear on it. They have a selection of 3 buns- multigrain, Miami Onion, and plain- and all 3 were pretty good. The onion rings were good quality and well battered, and fresh. The sweet potato fries got Milky’s endorsement as well.
So, while I wouldn’t go out of my way for 25 Burgers, they are worth stopping at if you get the craving. Service is fast, the food is good and fresh, and the walls are spackled with Star Trek and movie memorabilia, making for a friendly atmosphere. When we return to the Sourlands or hike Black River, we’ll be back for a hot dog and maybe a custom burger with pineapple and jalapenos!

Most of the 25 burgers

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Sumo Soup

MMA fighters agree: chankonabe, otherwise known as “sumo wrestler’s soup,” is good eats. We had some after viewing the Art of the Samurai exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC a few weekends back. It’s now moved on. They were exhibiting many swords and sets of armor that had never left Japan before. I got to see a Masamune, a Muramasa, some rare older tachi swords that were not shortened after katana came into style, and some other huge and rare blades including double-edged swords based on Chinese styles. Afterward, Suzanne (shown here with her daughter Nina) suggested we go to Menchanko-Tei in midtown.
It’s a great noodle house that I hadn’t been to in years. They serve ramen and udon, but they also serve the infamous sumo soup- loaded with protein and made without the ubiquitous dashi broth of Japanese soups, because fish ain’t got arms and legs, and a wrestler needs them to win! It is most often made with chicken because they are always on two legs as a sumo wrestler should be. You can order them with slices of beef, chicken or pork. The spicy chige miso menchanko was my choice, with pork slices. It comes with fish balls, tofu and head-on shrimp by default, and the miso broth with bonito flakes is delicious on its own.
Firecracker opted for the Sara-Udon, which came with crispy noodles and lots of veggies. Everything was delicious, and there are vegetarian options depending on the broth you like. We didn’t order their ramen this time, but I’ve had it and it is on par with what I had in Japan. The sumo soup, or as close as you can get in NYC, was excellent. Very filling, intensely flavorful and generally healthy unless you add slabs of their delectable roast pork like I did! Their gyoza (dumplings) made with Berkshire pork are the best I’ve had- not counting soup dumplings. It was the perfect filling meal for a bitter windy winter day.
There are two locations, one on 45th just east of Grand Central Station, and another on 55th. At Grand Central, we stopped at the great little coffee shop Joe’s Art of Coffee, which makes a great cup. They had donuts by the Donut Plant- which were good but didn’t live up to expectations. I don’t eat a lot of sweets, and they all taste similar to me unless they are very rich. The chocolate donut had the flavor of good cocoa, and the apple fritter was better. Maybe they weren’t fresh. I only go out of my way for burgers, hot dogs and the occasional BBQ, so until I’m checking out burgers in the Lower East Side, donuts will have to wait.

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long beautiful hair…

Firecracker took me to see a bunch of naked dirty hippies on Broadway the other night. The revival of 1967’s controversial show Hair is especially prescient now that we’ve finally gotten out of the ’60s- President Obama was born in 1961 and therefore too young to be a baby boomer, and politics is all the better for it. 1968 should now be officially over, 40 years hence.
It’s still an excellent musical, full of energy, even if it’s no longer shocking. But it’s a reminder that 40 years ago, you could get beat up over your hairstyle. The country was gripped by fear whipped up by the military-industrial complex, which after World War 2 was ravenously hungry for the war economy that funnels most of our enormous GNP into their coffers. So, Korea. Vietnam. The Cold War. The “peace dividend,” which never materialized because a tiny country named Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. The Global War on Terror, the war that must never speak its name, as we send 30,000 soldiers to the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan, while we shake hands with Saudis, who make the Taliban look a little moderate.
What struck me were the protest songs, when they spoke of tear gas, dogs, and water cannons; at least that’s changed. Now we use sonic weapons, like in Pittsburgh during the G20 summit. The right to assemble for a petition of grievances may be explicitly in our Constitution, in a country born of revolt, but there is something implanted in our nature since the ’30s that says, if you speak up, you’re breaking the law and deserve whatever you get. As if pointing out the mote in your brother’s eye means you should be clubbed with the beam in your own. Miraculously, those protesting the G20- where the decisions affecting the world are made- are considered criminal, but the Tea Party tea-baggers preaching violent revolution because a Democratic President- who’s not even particularly liberal when compared to Clinton, or hell, Richard Nixon- is in power, are coddled by the powers that be. Funny how that works. People show up with guns when the President speaks, they’re okay. Some organic food proponent with a sign, targeted for snatch & grab arrest. Follow the money.

Sonic weapon truck at Pittsburgh G20

But I digress. The musical is only dated by the bell bottoms and the free love, but it hearkens back to a New York where the cool parts of town had rebels in them, not trust fund kids. We got a good peek at this briefly in Julie Taymor’s ambitious Beatles musical Across the Universe, but it seems that we want to forget how free we used to be; that we once mocked the drive to provide, provide, and now the closest Hollywood will get to it are tepid dramas like Revolutionary Road, where the shackles of pursuing wealth are too hard to shake.
The closest Hair gets to what it must have felt like in ’68 is the audience participation, which begins with Berger, the Abbie Hoffman-esque jester-satyr, thrusting his loin-clothed loins at an (un)lucky first row audience member, stroking their hair, and practically tea-bagging them in the John Waters’ Pecker fashion (hitting them on the forehead with his sack, if you haven’t seen that movie). This continues with other cast members kissing folks in the aisles, handing out flowers, and pretending to lock all the exits while they fire up fake joints. What I found most amusing was how the audience suddenly started coughing as the fake cigs- it’s illegal to smoke a cigarette on stage in New York- smoked up the stage. I didn’t smell smoke, but the most protest you’ll get out of most of us is an instinctive clearing of the throat when someone dares to even faux-smoke these days. You breathe worse in when you walk across city traffic for 5 minutes, idiot.
Admittedly, the best parts of the musical for me involved the more famous song numbers- Aquarius, good morning Starshine, and Let the Sun Shine. They did include the infamous nude scene after they burn their draft cards, but it felt shoehorned- as if it were much longer originally, like a bacchanalian rite of dancing around the steel drum bonfire- and our modern Puritan sensibilities would be shocked by more than a few seconds of dimly lit unshorn pubes bushing out at us from hippie crotches. But the best part was that the show never gave a condescending wink to the material or the time, as if to whisper to us “remember when we were flower children? Aren’t you glad the Lower East Side is all gentrified now?” And it didn’t shy from the dated songs like “I’m a Colored Spade,” probably because now, he is the President of the United States … of Love.
Hair on Netflix

Happy New Year!

The Apartment is one of my favorite films. Before “Mad Men” it captured the Manhattan office vibe and made the perfect triangle of cad, nice guy and a smart and beautiful woman. Instead of plots depending on people not telling each other the truth, they instead hinge on sudden realizations, and this dark romantic comedy is definitely deserving of the 5 Oscars it won, including Best Picture. I introduced Firecracker to it tonight, forgetting that it was a Christmas & New Year’s story, which made it doubly perfect.

As for When Harry Met Sally…, another holiday rom-com (full review here), I used to think it was a rip-off of Woody Allen classics like Annie Hall, but came to love it. Sure, Rob Reiner was influenced by Allen a bit here and there, but I think it stands firmly on its own. With Billy Crystal and Bruno Kirby it comes from the man’s POV and manages to be an equal opportunity comedy for both sexes. Unfortunately, compared to Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, Billy and Meg Ryan just aren’t the same. Oh, they’re good, but there’s a reason Billy hosts the Oscars and Jack’s won two. He can do more with his eyebrows than most actors do with their whole face. And Shirley conveys such weakness with a twitch of her hand, and how she sinks into her robe as if she might disappear.

The story itself is a winner- a nebbish office drone who loans out his apartment to executives cheating on their wives in return for good reviews- and the outcome keeps us in suspense to the very end. So if you haven’t seen it- Shut up and deal!- get to it!

HB Burger – Times Square gets a good burger

Last night was Hamburgers & Hamlet night for Firecracker and I. We went to see Jude Law play the melancholy Dane, and I realized that a block over was HB Burger, which slider scientist Nick Solares of A Hamburger Today gave a rave review. So we had to go. I don’t often brave Times Square, because there are few good eateries due to the tourist trade. House of Brews on 46th is a favorite, and the Heartland Brewery & Chophouse is a decent franchise that makes good beer and above average food. So when I realized that HB Burger is a burger-only annex of the chophouse, I was a bit wary.

We have a winner

There was a short wait for a table and they seem to be running a bit slow, probably due to sharing kitchens with the bigger place, but the service was alright. It took us a while to order and get our beers- a Bavarian Black Lager for me, and a Rooster Red Ale for Firecracker- and she ordered a Red Nose Ale. Oops. The Red was a fine specimen of an Irish Red Ale, one of my favorite varieties, and the Black lager was a bit too malty and heavy for the style, but had a great smooth finish. It was almost like an oatmeal stout, but lighter. Both very good brews!

House made tater tots

They offer some fancy burgers- a filet mignon, a Kobe, a prime aged ground steak burger- but we opted for a free range Bison, and their standard HB. Firecracker had the bison with avocado, caramelized onions, cheddar and mayo; I had the HB medium rare with bacon, pepper jack, and their onion marmalade. We both had wheat buns; their standard is a potato roll. In retrospect, I’d recommend the potato roll, and getting the bison rare. The avocado was… half an avocado, which keeps slices from falling off, but makes it harder to eat. The burgers are cheap for the area- $7.50 for an HB- but fries are extra. The fancy burgers start at $14 and come with fries. You can also get sashimi grade tuna, a crab cake burger, turkey or veggie; I was hoping for lamb, but maybe another time.
We also ordered tater tots, which are fried mashed potato balls with a hint of cheese and bacon. But on to the burgers! Firecracker’s bison burger was expectedly drier than the beef burger, but it was still juicy enough and full of flavor. But the real winner here is the HB burger, which as promised, was incredibly juicy and flavorful with a thin salty crust of sear on the outside. I’ve had more flavor, but this is one of the juiciest I’ve had in a long time. Island Burgers and 5 Napkin might be able to compete, but this is a nice compact package of flavor. I’d compare it to a Ray’s Hell Burger, but you have to go to D.C. for those. So we’ve got a new contender in the Top 5 Burger list, because I liked how juicy this was without being humongous, like the Island and 5 Napkin are. And you can’t beat the price.

You can’t handle the juice!

Times Square does have a few good spots nearby to eat- the aforementioned House of Brews, Sake Bar Hagi, and now HB Burger jumps into the fray. You won’t be disappointed, and it will assuage the disgust of being in a tourist hell hole.
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Yankee Gumbo Foxtrot

This Yankee tried his hand at making gumbo on Sunday night. From scratch, roux and all. It turned out a little more like etoufee in the end because I’ve only had thick gumbo, and it’s supposed to be a little soupy. But I couldn’t do that, in light of Soupy Sales’s death, so there we are. You start out by browning some andouille sausage in a cast iron pan, I used Trader Joe’s chicken andouille to keep things lean. Most recipes tell you to drain the fat anyway, so why not use lean sausage?
In the same pan I put some bacon drippings and then pieces of chicken tenderloin seasoned with Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning, a staple in my house and great for seasoning Louisiana cooking. I didn’t bother cooking the chicken fully, since it was going to simmer later.
I was drinking Samuel Adams’ chocolatey, malty face-slap of an Imperial Stout. I’d had this at their brewery and was glad it got bottled! I deglazed the pan with it and poured the thick sauce onto the chicken. Then I whipped out my Staub enamel crock pot to make some roux. Amazon had a great sale on these, and still does. I was gonna rave about Staub is family owned, but they are now part of a conglomerate, so oh well.
You’ll want to dice your trinity of onions, bell peppers and celery ahead of time, because once you start stirring roux, you can barely stop to scratch your ass, much less cut vegetables, answer the phone, or open another beer. So do all that first. I used two small onions, two small bell peppers, and a cleaned, small bunch of celery heart all cut into small dice.
Next the roux, the important part. Roux is 1 part oil (or butter, if you’re brave) and 1 part flour. This recipe calls for 1 cup each. I threw a few pats of butter in the oil and made a cup worth for flavor. Over low-medium heat, you stir constantly, mixing the flour in, and slowly browning it until it looks like a Hershey bar. If you get black specks in the roux or it smells burnt, you ruined it. So use low heat, and be patient. I used a silicone spatula, next time I’ll use a whisk as tradition demands.
This is peanut butter color, about halfway there; I chickened out because I saw specks, but it was probably the Tony’s! Add the seasoning later. Friend Katy recommended taking half your roux out at the point you get concerned, and browning the rest more; I might try that next time. I didn’t have enough flour to start over, so I erred on the side of caution. I thus lost the famous smoky flavor for a rich, buttery popcorn type base.
When you get the desired color, add your trinity. This will cool the roux and keep it from burning, but keep stirring often. When the onions turn translucent, add some minced garlic, and chicken stock. This is where I learned that I don’t own a big enough stock pot! It called for 10 cups, I barely got 7 in there. That’s why my gumbo isn’t soupy. Now that we ate two servings, I might add more to get the right consistency.
This is where you add your seasonings- some Worcestershire sauce, a few shots of Tabasco, Tony Chachere’s, salt, pepper, fresh parsley. And add all the meat you cooked earlier, with all the juices, and some tomato sauce or paste. I used a can of tomato paste because it seemed very spicy, but it mellowed overnight. Next time I’d use half as much, and freeze the rest. Let it simmer on low for an hour, after stirring well to dissolve the paste.
There ya go. Gumbo Yankee style. If you can find gumbo filé, which is ground sassafras root for flavor and thickening, you can sprinkle some on last. Tony Chachere makes some, I have it on order from Cajun Grocer– recommended by Caitlin over at the movie blog 1416 and Counting. The base recipe came from Firecracker’s Sis, who told me the most important part- don’t eat it right away! Keep it in the fridge overnight and let the flavors mingle. It tasted amazing the next night, when we heated it up and ate it over rice with some Abita Pecan Harvest Ale, my favorite of their seasonal brews. I learned some lessons- good gumbo is easy, but great classic gumbo is harder to master. But it’s a lot of fun trying.

Ingredients, corrected for what I learned:
1 cup canola oil and 1 tbsp butter
1 cup flour
1 tbsp bacon drippings or cooking oil, for the chicken
1 lb chicken pieces, cut into cubes
1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced
2 small onions,
2 bell peppers,
1 bunch celery all diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup tomato paste
5 drops Tabasco sauce
5 squirts Worcestershire sauce
3 tsp Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Some Abita beer for drinking, deglazing, and adding some!

Saranac Brewery

Saranac makes a good beer or two. I got introduced to their bottled Black & Tan first, which led me to their excellent Black Forest Porter, and finally to their brewery in Utica, NY. In a huge brick factory in an up & coming looking part of town, you’ll find the Brewery Shop from whence tours commence. Tours are $5, and since I was on a schedule and had to drive to western Massachusetts that afternoon, and because I’m not paying to go on a tour of a brewery, I opted to just browse the shop.
They have a very nice shop with loads and loads of t-shirts, mugs, glasses, hats, steins, and of course, all kinds of beer. I grabbed a 12 Beers of Winter pack, a sixer of their tasty Irish Red Ale- one of my favorite varieties- and some of their excellent Pumpkin Ale, to give to my host Andy when we arrived. Of the Pumpkin Ales I’ve had this season, my favorite is still Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, which is a brown ale. But Saranac is tied for second with Wolaver’s organic brew. It’s excellent stuff, and if you want to try a pumpkin beer for autumn, it’s one of the better seasonals available.
Their steins are all in the $80 range- a bit steep, keeping the “Made in China” stamp on the bottom- but are amusingly designed. They had a talking beer stein ad campaign for years, and thus all the different styles. I really wanted to get the totally un-PC Chinese stein with the straw hat, but not for $80. Saranac makes a good beer, but their prices are a bit steep. If Sam Adams can give a free tour- now with a suggested donation of $2 going to local charities- I think Saranac, family owned, can do the same, eh? So I’ll never know what secrets lie in there brewery, or if you get a commemorative glass. Outside the brewery is a new Irish pub called the Celtic Harp, which serves their beer on tap and makes good burgers, stew, and spinach dip appetizers too. More on them later- they make a “banger burger” that I had to try!