The Cheeseburger Special, Please… For Carnivores Only
In an old tenement basement on the Upper East Side on 64th street, between Second and Third Avenue, is the home of truly the best hamburger New York City has to offer: Jackson Hole, aptly named for its “old west” ambiance.
As you walk down a short flight of stairs, you get swallowed into an unexpected atmosphere not often seen in this constantly changing city. Open up the entrance door and you’re met with the aroma of cooking chopped meat on a short order grill, in rows, individually covered under large metal round cups, upside down, shaping the cooking meat into the right hamburger form. Piles of frying mushrooms (always fresh, of course) and onions cook alongside. Adjacent is the vat of oil with baskets of thickly cut potato slices. Sitting on the long thin wood varnished table, with those luncheonette type matching stools, are bottles of Heinz Ketchup next to metal bowls filled with floating slices of sweet garlic cucumbers immersed in “pickle” juice. Behind the counter, the short order cooks, neatly dressed in white with matching caps similar to those you might see in a Kentucky Fried Chicken, expertly handle flat spatulas as they carefully rotate the mushrooms and onions that will bury the burger when it’s cooked to order.
Once you get passed the initial olfactory incentives and the delectable visuals – that’s assuming those over 6 feet tall haven’t hit their heads on the low concrete ceiling just above the doorway while negotiating the stairs down to the entrance – the first thing you notice is the wood paneled walls filled with framed newspaper clippings and photographs of famous people who have eaten there. One of them is Bill Clinton, which brings back vivid memories of his presidential detours to McDonald’s for a “triple” Big Mac and fries, in his pre-cardiac- bypass-surgery days, stuffing his face with those 90% grade A fat burgers and oil-filled fries that McDonald’s is so famous for.
Then you see it, on the wall, the eminently displayed review by Zagat as you walk past the counter to the back. There, on your right, there is a large room adjacent but conjoined to the front entrance, filled with wooden butcher block tables and matching metal-frame chairs with cushioned seats and speakers playing tunes from the Sixties on. If that location is not to your liking, a long corridor with a fully functional, protruding, glass-encased Con Edison meter – the hallmark of subterranean landmarks so characteristic of NYC basement tenements – lead to additional seating in the rear.
A door, at the end of the second room, opens to the garden. Once seated, it is difficult not to notice all the old thirties and forties vintage posters of John Wayne and Randolph Scott movies, Tiffany style lamps suspended by metal links from the ceilings, even one of those covered wagon wheels, hanging on the walls, reminiscent of the “lonesome” trail days of the Old West, when America’s manifest destiny, motivated by the “Rawhide” days of covered wagons, encouraged the migration west. Hence the name Jackson Hole, as in Wyoming. Wagons Ho, “Move on lil’ doggie!” Where is Clint Eastwood when you need him?
Now, the waiters bring the coveted bowl of pickles, the glass of “wadder” and the menu with individually named burgers with everything on it that is edible on top of those huge seven-ounce mounds of meat. The East Side Burger, the New York Burger, the Chili Burger and the Balduni Burger, just to name a few. The list is endless. All this has made me hungry…
As the late Grande Dame of cooking Julia Child would say, while making a toast in her low husky voice, sipping from a crystal glass filled with wine and looking just a bit tipsy with her aristocratic chef-d’oeuvre pagentry: “Bon Appetit”.