I've reported elsewhere on the day's events and am sure I had related at some point the instantaneous affinity I felt towards this little burger joint in the midst of one of my favorite neighborhoods. The newly-introduced 1/4 lb. Sliders and Bailey's Infused Milkshakes were two of the day's standouts and the event was steeped in an intensely festive atmosphere. And although I reveled in the celebratory ambiance, I made a mental note that I would need to return another day where I could experience the restaurant in a more, true-to-form, fashion.
Paul Koval opened Paul's Palace in 1989, mere steps from one of the trendiest and most counter-culture blocks in the city; St. Mark's Place, the epicenter of New York's punk rock movement. Although barely a decade removed from the full brunt of the punk scene, it was an era in which began an awakening towards healthier eating trends; an era where bean sprouts and sushi were fashionable new arrivals, and over-sized, juice-running-down-your arm burgers were on the way out the door. Or so we thought.
Paul Koval's intuition must have been spot on, for two things will never go out of fashion in such a neighborhood - the need for filling food after a night of drinking beer and a bargain. And Paul offered both to his patrons.
Gradually, the establishment took root and after a name change to Paul's Da Burger Joint, it firmly became entrenched as a neighborhood staple where denizens sought out one of America's greatest comfort foods.
But I also remembered looking over their menu and thinking the prices seemed remarkably reasonable, far too inexpensive to deliver on their promise of a half pound of the area's best burger with any type of consistency. This concern was particularly valid in a city where most burgers begin in the $15.00 to $18.00 range and whose cost escalation is limited only by the outer regions of one's imagination. Here, Paul's burgers ranged between $6.00 and $8.00 each, and their deluxe counterparts, between $10.00 and $12.00 each.
So on that day, I did what any inquisitive and responsible journalist would do - I took to the streets and asked a number of locals, "So what's the deal with Paul's Da Burger Joint?"
Repeatedly, the same answer returned in one form or another; "a perfectly-cooked, over-sized burger that, if not the best burger in the city, is by far the greatest bargain to be found in the city." At that point, I resolved to return on a typical business day and see if there was any truth behind this repeated insight.
The red, black and white checkered table clothes seem mild by comparison to the array on knick-knacks, posters, signs and tchotchkes that adorn every inch of real estate within the establishment. Many of these decorations range from the whimsical to kitschy to downright snarky; as well as a few some may even find a few slightly offensive. Me? I loved every minute of it. Look, there's a couple of things here you can't lose sight of - first; you're in the East Village, folks. Here, anything goes. Second; relax, it's a burger joint. And if truth be told, I love a bit of attitude with my burger and the entertainment value the decor provides while awaiting my meal, is priceless.
I decided to not only put their array of burgers to the test, but also, their cooking prowess in regards to the consistency of what many claimed was an always "perfectly prepared" burger. The order was placed for a Cheeseburger cooked medium-well, a medium St. Mark's Burger (cheese, mushrooms and fried Onions) and a medium-rare Second Ave. Burger (cheese, ham, fried onions & tomatoes).
There are some definite criteria I use when deciding what defines a good burger. The first, and most important of which, is the quality and freshness of the beef itself. On this alone, Paul's gets high marks. The ground sirloin is the freshest available, and although the meat is noticeably seasoned, it is not administered so overtly, that it disguises what makes the beef used so special. I thoroughly enjoyed this facet of Paul's philosophy.
Another element I deem of equal importance is the meat's preparation. There is nothing I find more disappointing in a burger than an overworked patty. Doing so results in a chewy, tough burger leans towards the "dry" spectrum. Here, the sirloin is obviously coarsely ground and pressed to a perfectly loose consistency; an attribute that results in those glorious nooks that retain the burger's juiciness and allows the patty to be at its flavorful best.
And by preparation, I also allude to the cooking process. The manner in which Paul's cooks smack the burgers onto the grill surface to sear and then cover them with a metal dome to continue cooking, seems simple in theory, but the line cooks pull off this seemingly simplistic feat with near magical precision. I say that because every burger leaves the grill at the proper temperature and level of doneness as requested by the customer; all with a perfect outer sear. When bitten into, this seared outer layer tears open and releases a barrage of fatty juices that will have you licking your cuffs.
The fried onions that topped both, the St. Mark's Burger and the Second Ave. Burger, were flavorful and nicely caramelized; the mushrooms, equally as nicely done. The ham that was present on the latter selection was subtle enough to compliment, yet not overpower, the beef.
The are also an array of interesting toppings available that run the gamut from Bleu cheese to Chili con carne to fried eggs to cottage cheese and cater to every individual's taste. There is even a Burger Tartare for the more adventurous eater.
I also feel the necessity to add that these burgers are not for the timid patron. Come with an appetite for they are every bit of their advertised half pound size. Moreso, each burger was delivered at exactly the same time, at exactly the requested level of doneness.
This is the type of burger joint I love to love and make no mistake, I do.. Even so, I am not willing to commit to the irresponsible coronation that Paul's Da Burger Joint serves up the best burger in the city - there are far too many establishments who work too damn hard for me to haphazardly toss around the weight of that statement - but what I will say, is that there are few burgers I have partaken in that I have found more enjoyable. Oh, and yes... there are none that come at a greater bargain.