Joe Isidori, chef/owner of of NYC’s Black Tap Burgers & Beer is a burger-purist’s burger man: the New York native likes his burger all-American, his shakes blended properly and his fries included in the price of a burger. You like him already, don’t you?
His recent cookbook, Craft Burgers and Crazy Shakes from Black Tap, a compilation of the best-loved Black Tap burgers and desserts, is a colorful and innovative course in keeping it delicious, classic and fun. Hold it like a normal book and devour page after page of loaded, delicious-looking burgers hot off the flat-top. Flip it over and attack the desserts section while its back is turned. Recently, I met up with Isidori and talked about this and plenty of other juicy burger-centric topics at Black Tap Midtown, just a few short blocks from my apartment, where I’ve set off the smoke alarm dozens of times in an attempt to cook a patty with the perfect cast-iron crust.
What I first found interesting about your cookbook was the format — one way and then the other way. Where did that come from?
That was actually my publicist’s idea. She asked me what I wanted to write about, and I said “It’s quite obvious, craft burgers and crazy shakes.” I made a hardbound sample book, which I use for my branding. I gave it to her and said, “This is the kind of book I want to do.” She came in the next day and said, “Okay, we’re going to do Craft Burgers and Crazy Shakes by Black Tap and we’re going to make it a flip book.” The whole idea was to be able to put it on the stands next to each other so it’s like a “double the space” kind of a deal. It works out good. When people figure it out, they love it.
“If one more chef gives me a dry-aged beef burger with Gruyère cheese and truffles on a brioche bun, I’m going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.”
It’s really innovative! I think more cookbooks should take a fun but timeless approach like that.
That’s the beauty of Black Tap is that we are a timeless business model that we just modernized. I asked myself “What do you want to do?” and decided I wanted to sell burgers. “Fancy burgers?” No. If one more chef gives me a dry-aged beef burger with Gruyère cheese and truffles on a brioche bun, I’m going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.
$15 supplement for foie gras.
Choke me now. It’s just a burger that I can’t get behind or enjoy anymore. I found myself going to the old-school luncheons in New York City. I found myself seeking out the old griddle burger, the luncheonette burger — Joe’s Junior, Piper’s Kilt in Eastchester — going to the outer boroughs and hitting up all these places because I thought those were real burgers. My whole idea was to take that old-school New York burger and give it a twist, and that’s when I came up with the term “craft burgers.” But, it’s rooted in the old fashioned style: loose-packed beef burger, double American cheese, soft potato bun, lettuce, tomato, pickle on the side, French fries, one plate, one price. Not 60-day dry aged beef, truffles, short rib and a partridge in a pear tree for $32.
$32 at least.
I went to a burger place the other day — and they will remain nameless — they were selling a six-ounce burger — again, I won’t say what was on it because it’ll give it away — and it was $32.
And that’s without fries.
Yeah, that’s the thing. Ours is $15 for an eight-ounce burger, American cheese, special sauce, lettuce, tomato, pickle and fries and it’s the best burger in New York City.
How could you serve a burger without fries? Why would you do that to somebody?
Fries are a different story that I’ll tell you later, but I have a strong opinion on fries, believe me.
How long did it take you to write the book?
Two weeks, but I can come up with a hundred burgers if you give me a little time. It’s endless because once you have this foundation that people are attracted to, you kind of know what they want. What we’re doing is pulling from a few things: nostalgia, recognizable classics then giving them that Michelin star chef’s edge that we all have here. We’re not recreating the wheel, we’re just polishing it up a little bit and people like it. I can go and do research on America’s favorite burgers and then create my own versions if I wanted to. I can do the same thing with milkshakes or desserts. It’s just endless.
What is your favorite burger right this moment?
I’m old-school. Give me the All-American. I always tell everyone, when they come here for the first time, there are so many great burgers on the menu. I say have the All-American. If they ask why, I say “because it’s so good it’ll bring you back.”
“American cheese is the only cheese for a burger. It has perfect harmony with it.”
What’s my favorite burger right now that I haven’t tried yet?
Well I have to stay true to my answer, have the All-American! There are three that really get people, one is the All-American, two is the Texan, and three is the Greg Norman. Those are the three highlights on the menu. They’re not some magic burgers that I pulled down from the sky. The All-American is the all-American, everyone’s had one! The Texan is inspired by my days when I lived out West and it was Carl’s Jr.’s everywhere, when Carl’s Jr. was good. It sucks now.
I went to college in LA, I totally remember when Carl’s Jr. was good.
It was really good, right?
It was really very good.
I don’t know, man!
I went out last week and there was an In-N-Out and a Carl’s Jr. across the street from each other and I battled them. It wasn’t even a competition. Back in the day I used to like In-N-Out but I was in a debate constantly. Anyway, the Western Burger at Carl’s Jr. was the inspiration for our Texan burger. The Greg Norman is the more chef-y burger. It’s Wagyu beef, it’s really unctuous, buttermilk-dill dressing, zippy bleu cheese, fresh crunch of arugula. Those three sort of show what Black Tap is in three different ways.
Let’s go back to the role of Wagyu in the ultimate burger? When are you going to go to Wagyu over Angus?
They’re really interchangeable. We use Creekstone from Pat LaFrieda; it’s a prime blend of brisket and chuck. It all depends on the preference of the chef. I personally think that the Wagyu is really unctuous. You can taste the difference. Someone with a good palate can take a basic All-American with a mix of chuck and brisket and with Wagyu and know the difference. Certain ingredients like American cheese mask that funk a little bit, but the richness or luxuriousness of a blue cheese really sits well with the Wagyu.
Let’s go back to American cheese. A lot of people bad talk it, but if there’s one cheese for a burger, it’s American.
Tell me about it. Only American cheese. Yesterday I went to a place that was known for its burger, ordered it and it came out with cheddar. Cheddar cheese just doesn’t melt properly. It’s not made for it. There are some instances like our Texan where we use cheddar cheese just because barbecue and cheddar cheese go hand-in-hand; otherwise I wouldn’t use it. American cheese is the only cheese for a burger. It melts perfectly, it’s got that elasticity that it needs. When you steam it, it just kind of wraps itself around the burger. It has perfect harmony with it. Other cheeses break and have a weird pull to it. They just don’t want to be on the burger.
Other cheeses are like “I’m here for the party, but the party’s not that great. I’ll probably leave early.”
American cheese says “I am the party!” Anyone who pooh-poohs American cheese does not get a seat at my Christmas table.
There are four seasons in a year. If you were to pick one burger of yours for each season, what would it be? Let’s start with winter, since you mentioned Christmas.
I’m going to do the Old-Fashioned: horseradish sauce, Swiss cheese, mushrooms, onions, little more hearty. Or maybe even the Texan: bacon, cheese, barbecue sauce, something a little more substantial.
Spring: I would go with the Greg Norman: buttermilk, bleu cheese, arugula, zing, pop. It’s like the same thing — ramps are here, the first sign of spring. You want that zippiness. That’s what the buttermilk does to the Greg Norman with the blue cheese. It’s paired off with Australian Wagyu beef and it’s the number one burger in New York City. It’s won that two years in a row. I gotta get that plug in.
At Burger Bash?
At Burger Bash. We won People’s Choice two years in a row.
What about for summer?
The All-American: backyard barbecue, it’s the Fourth of July burger. Enough said.
That’s a good one. I would say probably the bison just because it’s a little gamier. That kind of screams “fall” to me. It does have a little freshness to it with the fresh mozzarella.
Here at the restaurant you’re cooking on flat top griddles, right?
At home, what’s your best replacement for a griddle?
Cast iron pan. Get your cast iron pan real hot.
Are we smashing?
Nope, never smash, never press. Season with kosher salt, not sea salt.
Why only kosher?
Sea salt has moisture in it, and when it hits the pan it’ll give off a little bit of moisture, which will delay the Maillard reaction, which is the browning.
Maillard and steam are mortal enemies right?
Yes, so I always go with kosher. The real reason is because my old man was a chef for years and he taught me to cook with kosher salt, not sea salt. Period.
Any other tips for the home cook?
A couple of pieces of advice: cast-iron pan, if not, a really awesome stainless steel pan like and All-Clad or something like that. Do not try to melt your cheese in the oven. Do a steam melt with your cheese. Don’t overcook your burger. Anything over medium starts to get a little suspect. We do a chef’s medium, which is “medium rare plus” here. Anyone who’s wary of that, we do a medium plus, which is just below medium well. After that it’s fair game.
Do you get a lot of orders for well-done burgers here?
No, not really.
Is the well-done burger just ruined in your opinion?
Not necessarily. I believe in giving people what they want. I believe that’s my job and if you want a well-done burger, I’m going to give you the best well-done burger you’ve had.
And now for dessert. The Brooklyn Blackout Shake is so beautiful on the page. If someone’s going to recreate this and add a baked good to the milkshake, what would be your advice?
At the end of the day this is burgers, shakes and fries, not rocket science. When I wrote this book, I said it’s not for you to sweat the details, it’s about having fun. Don’t be intimidated, do whatever you want. Nothing’s wrong, nothing’s right. It’s just what you want. When you’re doing the milkshakes, there are some rules. You don’t make a chocolate milkshake with chocolate ice cream and chocolate syrup.
Because that’s just not how you do it. Old-school luncheonette style is premium vanilla ice cream with a flavored syrup. If you wanted a chocolate milkshake, it’d be vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup, and for strawberry it’s vanilla ice cream with strawberry syrup. You add to vanilla, that’s how we do it here. If you want to make an apple pie shake, my suggestion would be to take a piece of apple pie, chop it up, throw it in with your vanilla ice cream, caramel, pinch of salt and whip that up. If you want to do a chocolate brownie shake, same thing. Maybe add a little more of chocolate syrup, maybe a drop of caramel syrup to it. Don’t be afraid to add baked goods to your base. We do it here in some regards, but the Brooklyn Blackout is really the premium chocolate shake with all different chocolate garnishes.
Oh, so the cake isn’t actually blended up?
No, because that’s not what we’re looking for. That would be a brownie shake. Brooklyn Blackout is chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. That’s why it’s called Brooklyn Blackout. That’s the approach. If we were to make a brownie shake, I’d add the brownie or a cupcake to the shake and then garnish it with it as well.
What’s a fun fact about burgers that most people don’t know?
Grilling them on a barbecue is the worst thing to do. A burger on a barbecue is very American, very Fourth of July, but that’s as far as it goes. Open flame just doesn’t lend itself to the perfect burger — even cooking over propane. There are a couple rules to it. One: you always want a flat-top heating surface to get that crust on the burger with the kosher salt for the perfect Maillard reaction. When you go on a grill or even a backyard grill that’s propane, you get uneven heat, you got these ash marks, there’s flavor on one place and not on another, the fat drips down and causes flare up, which people are like, “Ooo flame-grilled!” No, it tastes like crap. It doesn’t taste good. It’s not the most suitable way. That’s the thing that people always get wrong. “I put my burgers on the grill and they tasted awesome!” Nah. I’d rather take my cast iron pan, put it on a grill outside, get it hot and cook my burgers that way.
Now there’s a whole other trick to this. Not over propane or an open flame, but over barbecue or coals, you can now impart flavors. What happens is you have a cooking element that really now imparts flavor, which is good for the burger, such as coals, but you still have that lack of an even cooking surface. So the trick that I do when I want to create a crust and even browning, I take my favorite barbecue sauce — which, believe it or not, is Sweet Baby Ray’s right off the shelf — and I baste the burger while I’m cooking it. The sugars and the flavor combined with the charcoal kind of crust it up and give it that backyard flavor. If you do it the right way, you don’t even taste the barbecue sauce. Then you slap two slices of American cheese on it, let it hug the burger and serve it with your favorite condiments.
…but to go back to the original question, the biggest fallacy is that the best way to cook a burger is on a grill.
So Black Tap has five locations now, right?
Let’s count this out, I love doing this. Meatpacking, Midtown, Lower East Side (opening in June), one in Dubai, then we have a little kiosk in DUMBO.
In how much time has this all happened?
And you have a new baby!
He’s two months old. I call him the Prince.
So you’re tired is what you’re saying.
Yes. We watched The Lion King yesterday.
When does the cub get his first burger?
Whenever he wants. If he’s like me, he doesn’t need to ask.