What's in a Name
Think, for a moment, on these known establishments: Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles, Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, Katz's Delicatessen, Cheesecake Factory. Consider, even, a lesser-known vendor with "taqueria" in the name. When faced with the "What'll it be?" at these places, you don't pussyfoot around the menu. You dive in headfirst for the chicken and waffles, the dog, the deli special, the cheesecake, the taco. At Village Burger Bar, however, pussyfooting—on a severely limited basis—is recommended.
You'd expect that at a restaurant with "burger" in its name, hamburgers would be the highlight of the menu. While they used to be, say, in 2006 when the Uptown counter-service joint opened, they're not anymore. While the name Village Burger Bar suggests that any hamburger on the menu would be a distinctive offering of beef on a bun, every version I tried fell short of greatness.
The cheddar burger was a basic offering with dill pickles (thick, crunchy and fresh, these were a nice surprise), greens, tomatoes, onion and champagne mustard. The blue burger was loaded with chunks of blue cheese and dressing and an overload of avocado. The Swiss burger was piled with earthy, sautéed fungi and onions with an artichoke aioli applied sparingly. In each case, the fresh toppings weren't to blame for the lackluster mouthfuls. Even the buns were fresh and soft, with a brioche-like glossy skin to them. The offense lay in the beef.
Over the course of four visits, I was told burgers would be cooked to medium (a restaurant guideline according to my server), but each time my patty, or those of my companions, veered off in the direction of a very greasy well-done or rarer medium-rare (which I actually prefer, but it didn't speak well of the restaurant's consistency). The beef's seasoning was bland—it neither highlighted the natural richness of the red meat nor did it stand up to any sort of flavor profile for any of the burgers.
The build-to-suit option is a nice touch for adventurous or very picky eaters (and is the best chance for medium-rare), but with such an unimpressive base, all the chi-chi dressings and scallions in the world can't turn these burgers blue-ribbon.
The best bet, as far as "burgers," is the turkey. The patties are less greasy, and the flavor isn't as insipid as the beef's. Of the two turkey burgers offered by the Burger Bar, the best is the original. Topped with baby greens, jalapeño jack, tomato, mayo and dried cranberries, the flavor is both spring and Thanksgiving. It's hearty and yet not heavy. The new-ish Southwest turkey burger is fair, but the jalapeño jack, avocado and avocado aioli muddle together into a lipid clump. By the end, the combination is too rich and weighty.
Noticeably absent from the roster? Veggie burgers. Even carnivores—not to mention the vegetarian population—can appreciate a well-appointed meat-free selection.
Village burgers don't come with sides. Add-on options include skinny shoestring fries, sweet potato fries and onion rings, or a basket of all three. A fan of all things potato, fried and seasoned, I found that maybe the name of Village Burger Bar ought to be Village Fry Bar. The shoestrings are by far the best things on the menu. They are light, crispy on the outside, thoughtfully salted and peppered and, most important, plentiful. With just a touch of ketchup, Tabasco or mayo—eater's choice—the fries become the real stars of the Village show. The sweet potato fries are salty and sweet, with a light crunch that's free of grease. The onion rings are absolutely enormous—some with three layers of onion in one ring. The flaky, seasoned batter made up for the drips of grease. Decadent.
When it comes to the non-burger-and-fries aspect of the menu, Village Burger Bar offers a few appetizers, some salads and a selection of paninis. On one visit, my companion and I opted for the warm Village dip. The concoction of Swiss cheese, cream cheese, bacon and chives was served with equally greasy tortilla chips. The dip was more like a suspension of solids in oil by the time it arrived at our table and was so rich it was difficult to eat. We tried to cut the heaviness with the accompanying salsa but to no avail.
Salads fared well. Of the six offered, we tried the turkey and goat cheese salad and the Village Cobb. Both came lightly dressed and were heaped with toppings. The turkey hosted the restaurant's favored dried cranberries, "sweet 'n' spicy" pecans, tangy goat cheese and tangerine balsamic vinaigrette; the Cobb featured chicken breast cubes, house vinaigrette and other traditional Cobb accoutrements. Both were fresh and filling entrees—even for dinner—and brought to mind another name alternative since there are even more salad options than burger ones: Village Salad Bar.
And what better way to cancel out the good intentions of a salad order than by ordering a shake? Two of the three choices are pretty damn good. (Avoid vanilla at all costs. Possible freezer burn and poorly chosen flavor syrup made for a taste inexplicably similar to Liquid Smoke). Chocolate is the way to go, with strawberry a close second. The chocolate is creamy and smooth with a drizzle of Hershey's syrup on the inside of the glass, but an almost semi-sweet flavor to the actual blend. It's not award-winning, but it's good in a home-style way. The strawberry somehow provides a lighter choice, delicate in its sweetness. With only three flavors, there's no need to consider Village Shake Bar for a new moniker, but do consider a basket of the shoestring fries and a fattening chocolate shake.
Unfortunately, my relatively happy visits came to an end when I uttered "panini." The sandwiches wreaked havoc on the teeth and gag reflexes of my co-diner and me. My mate selected the chicken pesto panini. He was rewarded with brick-hard bread that could hammer a nail and chicken so freakishly tough it was nearly impossible to bite through. At first, I suspected him of exaggeration, but then he tapped the chicken audibly against the plate, and hearing was believing.
I selected the turkey club. I was pleased to see fresh, sliced turkey breast upon its arrival. Sure that my sandwich would score higher than the pesto, I tucked in. The first few bites were fine. Then I hit bacon. In the culinary world, this should never be a problem—pork is bliss—but in this case, bacon equaled instant nausea. To say the browned edges protruding from my sandwich were misleading would be an understatement. I bit into cool, almost raw strips that snapped apart in a disturbing fashion. More than nauseating, mistreatment of bacon is blasphemy. I was unable to continue eating.
Aside from a strange layout that often causes a bottleneck of customers waiting to order, the thing most striking visually about the restaurant was that more than two-thirds of my fellow patrons were eating something other than beef burgers. I saw many a salad, heaps of fries, cocktail-only tables and turkey. Perhaps that's because we're a red-meat-conscious society, but I think it's more likely that Village Burger Bar patrons already know what's lacking...and it's all in the name.
3699 McKinney Ave., Suite C-325 in West Village, 214-443-9998. Open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays. $-$$
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