Officially, May is National Burger Month. All well and good for the rest of the country, but around here, every month is burger month.
The procession of burger joints opening in North Jersey began in earnest a few years ago and hasn't stopped since, seemingly unfazed by the "pink slime" controversy and any negative health news about red meat. And it continues to fit right into our economic times, giving us a relatively inexpensive treat in a familiar package.
Over the last year, a collection of casual burger places has sprouted up around Bergen County. All say they serve fresh beef, not frozen, and are free of "pink slime," the inexpensive filler that recently came to public attention. And all offer red-meat alternatives, as well as their own spins on the classic American sandwich.
Love the nightlife
Where: 375 Passaic St., Rochelle Park, 201-843-2666.
The only option on the list with full table service, Boom does everything big — its expansive space is dark and loud, "BOOM" is stamped on the walls; there's a huge bar and a dizzying number of TVs. Owner Peter Karounos reports that Boom is selling as much food as his 4 West Diner in Englewood — not bad since Boom opened in January.
The burger: A custom blend of brisket, chuck and short ribs from North Bergen-based celebrity butcher Pat LaFrieda (of the Food Network's "Meat Men") — you can order a 4-ounce single patty, a double burger, or one of the most popular options — the BOOM burger, two single patties squished together with American cheese in the middle.
Mine ($8) did indeed go boom, gushing liquid cheese and burger juices at an alarming rate all over the seeded bun and my hands. My recommendation: try a single.
The fries: Thin, skin-on, hand-cut russets, fried in canola oil ($5).
The extras: Aside from a full bar and "Boomerang" cocktails in every hue, there's a selection of burger toppings, turkey burgers, salads and bar snacks.
Our shake ($5) was thin and milky.
Our verdict: Come for the scene.
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A little beach vacation
BOARDWALK FRESH BURGERS & FRIES
Where: 370 W. Pleasant View Ave., Hackensack, 201-880-5963, boardwalkfreshburgersandfries.com
This is the first North Jersey branch of a quick-serve chain inspired by the Ocean City, Md., boardwalk. Expect a big, airy strip-mall spot decorated in light blue and yellow, attempting to turn your lunch break into a beach vacation.
The burger: Made from 80 percent lean ground beef, the 4-ounce patties are cooked on a griddle. Owner Brian Rodak said that more people order singles than doubles, but I tried a single ($3.99) that was overwhelmed by a big, puffy bun — the proportions might be better for a double. You can add your own combination of cheese and toppings, or get one of the "signature" double burgers.
The fries: Fresh-cut every day and served in a cup: golden, medium-cut, skin-on ($2.49 for a regular). Boardwalk suggests dousing them with apple cider vinegar and Old Bay, in Ocean City tradition. And oh my goodness, so do I.
The extras: You can also get creamy shakes made from Edy's ice cream ($3.99), chicken, a black bean veggie burger and "funnel cake fries."
Our verdict: Come for the Ocean City fries.
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Where: 1383 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck, 201-530-7400, www.gothamburgers.com
Like its predecessor, Gotham is kosher and non-dairy. But you'll barely recognize the former Burgers Bar — it's been transformed into a sleek collection of blue booths, translucent tiles and the New York skyline on the wall. Order at the counter, they'll bring it to your table in a wire basket.
The burger: Patties are 6 ounces, made from a proprietary blend of kosher beef, cooked on a flat-top griddle, finished on the grill, and served on brioche-style buns. No cheese, of course. Mine had some of the best flavor of any of this bunch, but I would have been happier if the patty had been flattened out — it was very thick but also too small for the bun. A single is $8, but lunch specials bring down prices; our midday special with fries and a shake came to $11.
The fries: Hand-cut and double-fried in canola oil. Ours were more potato-y than crunchy.
The extras: You can get thick shakes made from soft-serve non-dairy pareve ice cream, as well as salads, fried chicken, veggie and turkey burgers, hot dogs, steak sandwiches and dessert.
Our verdict: Come if you keep kosher, it's an improvement over the previous occupant.
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A menu that rocks
RONY'S ROCK BURGER
Where: 192 Rock Road, Glen Rock, 201-857-4686
Rony's is small on space and long on charm — the downtown Glen Rock spot is plastered with album covers (Tom Petty, Neil Young, Jefferson Starship) and while you wait, you can peruse concert tickets from the travels of owner Rony Alvarado: Guns N' Roses, Metallica, Scorpions. The enthusiastic Alvarado has cooked in the kitchens of hotels, restaurants and hospitals for more than 20 years, and relished the chance to open his own burger joint because it allows him more time with his family.
The burger: Patties are a 6-ounce combination of brisket, chuck steak and porterhouse tips, cooked on the griddle. I tried the most popular offering, a Rock On burger topped with onion rings, bacon, cheddar and a "rock sauce" that Alvarado loads with spices ($6.75 alone; I paid $12 for a combo with fries and shake). My biggest problem here was the bun, which was no match for the burger: mine shredded and fell apart. All burgers have a rock theme, including the Hendrix, which is topped with mushrooms.
The fries: Frozen, fried in soybean oil, thin and very crisp.
The extras: There are thick shakes, veggie and turkey burgers. Due to popular demand, Alvarado also plans to offer organic, grass-fed, free-range beef as an alternative.
Our verdict: Come to chat with Rony.
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SHAKE & SIZZLE
Where: 3 Franklin Turnpike, Mahwah, 201-512-1000, shakensizzle.com
Yards from the Suffern border, this feels like a mom-and-pop spot. Its dining room is an eclectic combination of loud music, glossy tables, yellow-covered chairs and a big picture of cows grazing over the kitchen window.
The burger: The juicy 6-ounce, 80 percent lean ground beef patties are served on a chewy, shiny-topped roll that seemed more like it belonged on a sandwich, but worked beautifully to hold everything together ($6.95, included fries).
Fries: Frozen and seasoned, very crispy.
The extras: You can get ribs, wings, salads, and chicken, and thick shakes ($3.95).
Our verdict: Come for the unusual roll — otherwise not overly memorable.
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