Something New Under The Bun

Bobby Flay brings his passion for great burgers, shakes, and sweet-potato fries to Eatontown. Make that Eatin'town.

Bobby Flay opened a new burger joint in Eatontown.
Photo by John Emerson.

Bobby Flay brings his passion for great burgers, shakes, and sweet-potato fries to Eatontown. Make that Eatin’town.

Bobby Flay is in a pickle, or maybe it’s the pickle that’s in a pickle, because Flay is not convinced it’s the right spear for his new Bobby’s Burger Palace in Eatontown. It’s lunchtime, and the line is almo­st out the door. Flay is sitting at one of the long narrow tables, the one nearest the exit. From his seat he can see the entire restaurant, and, coincidentally or not, people on their way out pass right by him.

“Why did you choose Monmouth?” asks a young woman as her boyfriend prepares to snap a picture of her with the flamboyant TV chef. He explains that his mother lives in nearby Spring Lake, and that he knows the area well, having spent summers on the Jersey Shore when he was growing up in Manhattan. They congratulate him and he thanks them, genuinely pleased. “It’s been an unbelievably welcoming feeling from people,” he says, returning to his seat.

But back to the problem pickle. It’s light green, fresh and mild, with excellent snap. You get one with every Bobby Burger, from the Classic (American cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, $6.50) to the Philadelphia (provolone, griddled onions, hot peppers, $7.50) to the borderline frou-frou Napa Valley (goat cheese, watercress, Meyer lemon-honey mustard, $7.50). The pickle is a subtle, sophisticated spear. What’s not to like?

“It may be a little too cucumbery,” he says. “I think it should be a little more sour. Somebody said to me the other day, and I thought it was a great comment, ‘It tastes like it doesn’t know what it wants to be, a cucumber or a pickle.’ And I agree. I like food that’s made up its mind.”

You’ll see no waffling, let alone waffles, on the menus of Flay’s seven restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, the Bahamas, Atlantic City, and now at the intersection of the Monmouth and Eatontown Malls at routes 35 and 36 in Eatontown. The title of 1994’s Bobby Flay’s Bold American Food, the first of his seven cookbooks, still describes his style—yet there is more nuance and playfulness than you might expect from the battle-tested Iron Chef and star of such Food Network hits as Throwdown! With Bobby Flay.

Flay’s major restaurants are upscale. But to hear him talk, the food nearest his heart is the hamburger, which he calls “the quintessential sandwich. I would never do something just because I think it’s a good business idea,” he says. “Burgers are the thing I crave. If I’m out having a couple beers with my friends, and I’m hungry, what I think about is where I’m going to get a good burger. I think if you ask a lot of professional chefs, they’ll give you an answer along those lines. It’s not going to be foie gras and caviar.

“Since burgers are important to me in my everyday life, I thought it would be fun to translate it into an actual place where you can get the kind of burgers that I want to eat. And the things that go with them, like shakes and fries.”

The first 75-seat Bobby’s Burger Palace opened on Long Island last July. The Eatontown branch opened in early December. Two more are slated to open later this year, in Paramus and at the Mohegan Sun Resort in Connecticut.

Although the most expensive item is the $8.50 Topless Burger Salad (any of the ten different burgers on a bed of baby greens with balsamic dressing), and freshly brewed iced tea and sodas are just $2, the place has as much pizzazz inside and out as any of the 44-year-old’s flagships. That is because Flay’s Bold Food LLC can afford to hire one of the top design firms of the last 15 years, David Rockwell’s Rockwell Group. (Jersey footnote: Although Rockwell, 52, was born in Chicago and lives in New York, he spent many childhood summers in Deal, where his mother directed local stage productions.)

Food writer and editor Josh Ozersky, in his delicious 2008 book, The Hamburger, traces the burger’s lineage to mid-nineteenth century America via the German city of Hamburg. Those were chopped steaks—plate-and-fork foods—not the modern hamburger, whose story begins, Ozersky writes, with the birth of White Castle in Wichita, Kansas, in 1916.

While the burger has gathered a cadre of condiments and accompaniments along the way—fluctuating in thickness, price, and quality—it would still be recognizable to Walter Anderson, the Wichita fry cook who Ozersky credits with creating the modern burger.

Flay’s contribution to ground-beef history may be the crunchburger—a cheeseburger with a stack of potato chips tucked under the bun. When you press down, the burger crackles. Take a bite, and the chips add a nice salty crispness (although Web discussion boards warn that they may grow soggy before you finish the burger). At no extra cost, any burger can be “crunchified”—a word the chef liked so much he trademarked it.

“When I was a kid, cheese from my cheeseburger would drip onto my chips, and those were the ones I wanted to eat. So I made that a part of the burger. It’s not the newest idea,” he admits. “People in Pittsburgh tell me they grew up putting potato chips in their sandwiches.”

Flay designed his BBP burgers from the inside out, beginning with “the actual patty: the texture, the grind, how much moisture and fat, what it was going to be cooked on.” He went with certified Angus beef (80 percent sirloin/chuck, 20 percent fat, the latter keeping the burger moist even when cooked medium to well done). Since opening, he says, “I’ve found that more people like their burgers cooked more than like them cooked less.”

The 8-ounce patties (fresh, not frozen) are sprinkled with salt and freshly ground pepper on both sides before they hit the griddle. The author of Boy Meets Grill had no problem choosing griddle over grill.
“If you cook burgers on a grill,” says Flay, who can be seen doing exactly that in a video on bobbysburgerpalace.com, “you lose the juices between the grates. On a flat surface, the burger cooks in its own juices.”

Walter Anderson set his Wichita griddle to 500 degrees. Flay experimented with that temperature but decided the burgers came out too crusty, and settled at 400 to 425 degrees. One of Anderson’s innovations, according to Ozersky, was pressing down on the sizzling patties with a spatula. Anderson would be flayed if he tried that at BBP. “You are not allowed to put the back of the spatula on top of the burger,” Flay says. “It squeezes out the moisture.”

So how to keep the surface flat? “The burger wells up in the middle as it cooks,” Flay says, “so we beat the burger to the punch. When we put the patty down, the cook indents the middle with his thumb. As it cooks, it comes back to its natural shape.”

Flay also auditioned buns, rejecting ciabatta and other artisanal rolls as too thick and crusty. “The bun has to be soft to absorb juices,” he says. “I like potato rolls, but we switched from them very quickly, because our burgers have so much moisture the rolls were becoming soggy. Also, I like the texture of sesame seeds on top, and you can’t find potato rolls with sesame seeds.” He settled on enriched white rolls, which are toasted as the burgers cook.

French fries made from fresh spuds “very often get soggy,” Flay says, “so we tested, like, 30 different kinds of frozen fries. Some have stealth coatings for crispness; then there are different kinds of potatoes and different shapes. We wanted something incredibly simple that tasted like potatoes.” Frozen won. Yet BBP’s sweet-potato fries, which are crisp and delicious, are made from fresh sweets.

“Sweet potatoes have a higher natural-sugar content, so they only need to be peeled and fried once,” Flay explains. “Russet potatoes need to peeled, soaked, blanched, cooled down, then refried. It just creates the possibility of inconsistency.”

With onion rings, Flay set out to do frizzled. “But they were getting too brittle and you couldn’t taste the onion, so we cut the onions thick and made a very light beer batter,” he says. “You can actually see the onion through the batter.”

Shakes blew his mind. “I couldn’t believe how much ice cream it took to make a really good shake—11 ounces,” Flay says. “It’s basically a sundae in a glass.” The ten flavors are made from vanilla, chocolate, or coffee ice cream with fruit or nut purées added. The shakes are so rich that Flay decided there was no need to offer dessert, and he says there has been no demand for it. The fountain sodas come with unlimited refills, but there is no coffee at all­—a decision that Flay says displeases his mother, Dorothy.
“She’s really pissed off about it,” he says. “But I get almost no call for coffee. And if you’re not serving a lot of it, it might be old for the occasional person who does order it, so why?”

Lazy Susans placed at intervals on the serpentine-shaped counter and on the long, narrow, free-standing tables are stocked with ketchup, chipotle ketchup, jalapeño hot sauce, a barbecue-like burger sauce, and yellow mustard. I teased him about the mustard. He laughed. “There was a big debate in the office,” he said. “I would have rather had Dijon, but everybody outvoted me.”

Flay doesn’t get outvoted often. When it came to naming the restaurant, he put his foot down—right after his wife, the actress Stephanie March, signed off. “We were joking around,” he recalls, “and I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to call it Bobby’s Burger Palace, because it’s the palace of burgers? We can have, like, funny chandeliers in the dining room.’

“And she said, ‘I kind of love that name.’ I said, ‘You do?’ My wife, in my opinion, is never wrong. She said, ‘What I like is that when you say it, you smile. It’s funny. It’s like, Bobby’s Burger Palace…wink.’

“There was a lot of debate about that with my business partner. He thought it should be Bobby Flay’s Burgers or something like that. But I wanted it to be just a little softer. He said, ‘What if people don’t know it’s Bobby Flay’s place, and they think it’s just some guy named Bobby selling burgers?’ I was like, ‘Look, that’s great, because if the burgers are good, they’ll still come.’

“So I like the more casual feel of the name. It’s funner. I mean, that’s what this place is supposed to be about. Nothing more.”

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