My gastronomic explorations will be recorded there for your awe and bewilderment. You will be satisfied!
I’ve waxed poetic about Krug’s Tavern before. This is my favorite burger. It is big. It is tasty and unpretentious. It is always cooked well so it is juicy yet has a char on the outside. It is twelve ounces of the American heartland stuffed in your mouth.
Krug’s has a history. This is a destination, not just a burger. The tavern was originally opened by boxer Jake LaMotta in 1938, and remains in his family. LaMotta was the subject of Raging Bull. And this is one raging bull of a burger. To the family’s credit, they keep a poster of Jake and don’t name menu items after him or the movie.
The bacon cheeseburger is $7.50 and is the size of four patties from Five Guys. And tastes even better. The fries are steak fries. The onion rings are perfect battered hoops of crunch. The pickles, the hot peppers given as appetizer also serve as my favorite toppings.
The bar is what you’d call an old man bar. Not a gastropub. They have Harpoon IPA on tap next to the Bud, but nothing craftier. The TVs show local sports. The stools are crammed with broad-shouldered men in work boots with their elbows on the scarred mahogany. The grill sizzles, the whiskey flows freely. It has atmosphere and attitude. A Chinese woman will pop in at lunch hour with a bag of bootleg DVDs. Across the street is Sassy Ass lingerie shop and up the block is Five Corners, the heart of “Down Neck,” or Ironbound as it is called these days.
This burger and the place that serves it is a prime cut from the heart of Newark, and year after year, it remains my favorite.
Open since 1938, once owned by Raging Bull boxer Jake “The Bronx Bull” LaMotta and still owned by his family, Krug’s Tavern in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood is housed in an unassuming and dilapidated building that could be mistaken for a run of the gin mill bar full of cranky old men drinking piss-yellow beer out of tiny glasses. Inside, it has that kind of feel. A few high top tables, a long mahogany bar with patched red vinyl stools. A poster of LaMotta behind the bar, amidst the bottles of Tullamore Dew.
But if you venture in the flimsy storm door and linger, you’ll find an energetic blue collar crowd stuffing the place at lunch hour, from electrical workers and hard hats in uniform, the boys from the docks in their tracksuits, and cop brass stretching their conservatively cut sport coats. The kind of place where crook and law alike will belly up to the bar. Behind which sits a glass case brimming with meatballs the size of grapefruit, which will soon become a legendary burger for those with king size appetites. Order one and they’ll flatten out that softball of fat speckled chuck on the griddle and sizzle it low and slow so it remains juicy even if you order it well done.
When I was a kid, there was a diner car named Nunzio’s, run by an eponymous, mustachioed fellow who could’ve jumped in a pair of overalls and white gloves to play Super Mario. He served a juicy burger on a Kaiser roll that remains the paragon of burgers to me. He wouldn’t serve me one on Friday during Lent, either. I had to get peppers and eggs on a roll. Krug’s burger hits that nostalgic memory in the bullseye. They serve theirs on a large sesame seed bun that is just barely up to the task. It stays together, but you eat your burger wondering if you’ll have to finish with a knife and fork, especially if you’re generous with the ketchup.
Places that manage a juicy griddle burger are uncommon these days. Ann’s Snack Bar in Atlanta makes an even bigger patty than Krug’s, their infamous Ghetto Burger- a full pound of well-seasoned beef topped with chili and cheese, the size of the paper plate it’s served on- and Jimmy’s in Harlem steams theirs under a steel ice cream cup. Both are worth visiting, but if you’re in New Jersey, only Krug’s will do. Oh, I love the burgers at the Cloverleaf Tavern. If you get them medium rare, those perfect chewy rolls handle any number of toppings, from their Cajun Crunch burger topped with house-made spicy potato chips, to the Fatburger with Monterey Jack cheese sticks and Taylor Ham pork roll. But Krug’s is all about the beef.
I’ve had bacon cheese burgers at Krug’s, and most recently, a Taylor Ham & cheese (pictured above). It is that rare burger that is not overwhelmed by a crisp and smoky slice of bacon, or two slices of fat and spicy pork roll. All you taste is good, juicy, ground beef. What a burger should be. They pack 3/4 of a pound into that bun for $6.50. Bacon or Taylor is a buck extra. Fries and battered onion rings- both excellent, crispy and always fried in fresh, tasteless oil- are extra. And enormous. Their mozzarella sticks are house made, never frozen, fried to bursting, crisp and gooey as they are meant to be. They have a good selection on tap, with Harpoon and Sam Adams available as well as the American trinity of Bud-Miller-Coors. They serve Cokes in the can, and your meal begins with a fresh sour pickle and two hot cherry vinegar peppers arranged in vulgar fashion.
I’ve written about Krug’s before for Serious Eats, and it is always a memorable experience. They are consistent, and I’ve never had a bad burger. Doing it since 1938 must help. The place ain’t pretty, but it’s got character. There’s a biscuit shaped elbow of pipe jutting through the tiles in the men’s room. A ’58 Thunderbird rusts on flat tires in the parking lot. Loud men lunch here, venting out the day’s woes. But it’s an original, and without pretense. My kind of place. Next, I’ll give you the rundown on my favorite seafood joint- not Legal Seafood, despite their excellent food- but a little hole in the wall in Garfield where a bowl of fried clams and a beer won’t set you back more than six bucks.
The Burger Battle of the Best continues…
When you walk into a hole in the wall tavern like Krug’s in the Down Neck section of Newark, you expect a row of old men manning the barstools, no light but the sun peeking through the front window, scattering dust motes across the aged linoleum floor. You don’t expect a juicy 3/4 pound burger with a fresh made sesame roll for a mere six bucks, maybe seven if you throw 4 slices of bacon and cheese on there. But that’s what you’ll get, and an pint mug full of beer and atmosphere.
Krug’s Tavern has been slinging jumbo burgers, fried shrimp and calamari slathered with spicy marinara, and mugs of beer since 1932. The LaMottas, grandson of original owner Frank Krug and relations to boxing Jake of Raging Bull fame, still run the joint 77 years later, and serve much the same food they’ve always been famous for. Maybe one time I’ll try the shrimp or the “gollamod” but the burgers are so good, and enormous, that I try to come here no more often than every 6 months and digest my meal like a python in between visits.
My boss, “Pallie,” and I went there for lunch this week. It’s near the docks where I work, and buddy Rob W on facebook asked if I’d ever been there after he read the last burger joint review. I have, but it had been years- too many. So we went back. Tucked in a brick building on Wilson Street, but with free parking round the corner on Napoleon, Krug’s barely fits in its now Brazilian and Portuguese neighborhood. But it draws in a big lunch crowd from the whole town. It’s rep precedes it. We snagged a table and ordered our burgers right away. This ain’t fast food. Grilling a burger of this magnitude to medium takes time, but it’s oh so worth it. Grab a beer while you wait. They only have Bud, Coors and Yuengling on tap but have a good selection of longnecks to supplement.
We got onion rings as well. The oil was fresh and the batter was crispy and light, like the first batch of zeppoles at a summer festival. The burgers come on fresh sesame seed buns of proper size made especially for Krug’s, that don’t fall apart while you dig into it. Look at the meat- not too densely packed. If you look closely in the top photo of the bar you’ll see huge meatballs pre-made in the fridge, ready to be slapped on the grill as burgers. The burger is plain or very lightly seasoned, letting the pure beef flavor speak for itself. I got bacon on mine, and it was just right. Not crumbling, not fatty. You get a huge sour pickle and some hot cherry peppers marinated in vinegar on the side, so I put pickles, hot peppers and an onion ring on mine with just a bit of ketchup, and it was one of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time.
Don’t get me wrong; this is good old ground round, not brisket, sirloin, Kobe or whatnot. But as far as plain Jane burgers go, Krug’s is one of the best since I went to Miss Ann’s for a Ghetto Burger in Atlanta. It’s definitely in the top ten for best burgers I’ve had, and the onion rings were some of the freshest. The Ironbound, or Down Neck, is more famous for Portuguese food such as rodizio and seafood, but Krug’s has been there for 3/4 of a century, selling 3/4 pound burgers for less than 3/4 of a ten-spot. I highly suggest you go try one. And don’t forget to check out Sassy Assy’s exotic dancewear across the street, for some more local Newark culture!
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