Cheeseburger in Paradise

The Penélope Cruz of cheeseburgers.

The Penélope Cruz of cheeseburgers.

I was in the West Village around lunchtime the other day and there are so many great choices in that neck of the woods, but for me there was only one – Corner Bistro.

I originally wrote about this transcendent dining experience more than a decade ago and the only thing that has changed over the years is my taste in women (this will make more sense once you read the story below).

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I love hamburgers more than you do. Yeah, I know, you love them too, but I love them more. Maybe you grew up with McDonald’s and Burger King, but I have burgers in my blood. (My grandfather was a butcher.) And no amount of cholesterol can keep me from my life’s mission of finding the best ones in town.

When I’m in L.A., it’s Cassell’s two-thirds of a pound, double-broiled, do-it-yourself landmass of ground beef. When I visit Chicago, I head straight to the burbs for a juicy Hackneyburger on dark rye. But homeboy that I am, I’m here to tell you that neither can touch New York City’s Corner Bistro, where you’ll encounter the Angelina Jolie of burgers. (Editor’s note: I’m sorry, Penélope!) It’s stunning, moist, messy and meaty in all the right places, and here’s the added beauty part — it costs less than five bucks.

When I duck inside this classic West Village tavern, it’s like being transported into a Tom Waits song. It’s cool, dark and funky and the regulars seated at the mahogany bar watching the Mets game look like they haven’t moved from their spots in 50 years.

“Whaddya want?” asks the joint’s only waiter, throwing napkins at me as I settle in a booth.

“Whaddya think?” I answer, although I don’t have anything to throw back. There’s a small menu (nothing costs more than six bucks on it) hanging above the far end of the bar, featuring a few other dishes (chili, BLT, grilled chicken sandwich), but I get the feeling that if I didn’t order a cheeseburger in this paradise, the waiter would stab me with a fork. Not to worry, though. There’s no sign of utensils.

In other words, this is my kind of place. While I wait, I’m struck by how much this hole-in-the-wall smells — and I mean that in a good way. It has that sizzling-meat, is-the-house-on-fire aroma seeping from its pores and it’s making my saliva glands kick into overdrive. As the jukebox is playing ’50s jazz, Van Morrison and other cool blasts from the past, I get all caught up examining the tabletop, which is carved with the names and initials of thousands of hungry carnivores that walked the earth here many years ago.

Practically half an hour later, I snap out of it when Mr. Congeniality places my order in front of me. A great burger, for the uninitiated and vegans alike, is like a beautiful woman — before anything else, you have to devour it with your eyes. I do just that, checking it out from top (crispy lettuce and fresh tomato) to bottom (a thick slice of raw onion) to middle (gooey American cheese), served unadorned, save for a few pickle slices, on a small paper plate.

In the movie version of this story, U2 launches into “Desire” right around now. I open my mouth as wide as I can, trying to cram a taste of everything in the first bite, and as the warm juices explode and pour down my chin, I’m thinking how is this succulent torrent sneaking past my smile? This is truly a great burger — eight ounces or so of flame-broiled, finely-seasoned, ground chuck — prepared the only way a burger should ever be prepared — nicely-charred on the outside, medium rare on the inside. And it tastes the only way a burger should ever taste — hot, juicy, almost sensuous — as plump and inviting as Angelina’s lips. (Editor’s note: Forgive me, Pen!)

Each delectable bite feels like it may give me a heart attack and if it does, it will have been worth it. (The fries, which are two bucks extra, are the thin-cut, salty variety and are on par with Mickey Ds.) Is this the killer burger of all time? Right now, it is! And that’s the best thing about burger greatness — wherever you happen to be is where you’ll likely find it.

And then, from out of nowhere, my heart sinks. In what seems like the blink of an eye, I’m done. An empty paper plate, now stained with the tears of burger juice, is all that remains. How the hell did I let this happen? It was as if I entered the burger Matrix, where time stops and nothing else exists except for my meat and me. (Editor’s note: Oh, nevermind.)

There’s only one thing to do, what any self-respecting burger lover would do in this situation: I order another one — to go.

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