Upside Craft Burgers, offering “fast-casual” quality kosher dining, opened only three weeks ago but judging by the crowd (fifty plus people on a recent Sunday evening), you’d think the joint was already an established neighborhood hangout.
All fifteen tables were occupied with an eclectic clientele, and the room was abuzz with conversation, the voices of children, young hipsters, as well as bubbes and grandpas. Noticeably absent was loud music, a good thing as restaurant soundtracks all too often drown out talk.
Upside Craft Burgers is owner Yanky Mayer’s first restaurant, and if the crowds hold up, he may be New York’s next Danny Meyer, giving Shake Shack a bit of competition. Like Shake Shack, the menu sticks to the basics. The menu’s unique vocabulary requires a bit of translation: What’s Up (appetizers), Freshen’ up (salads), a soup of the day, Up sides (sides); Tacos, Sandwiches, Burgers, and Thumbs up (dessert).
Not a family to dilly-dally, we limited ourselves to a single order of the Truffle Fries and three craft burgers: the Classic for my finicky nine-year-old daughter Ana, the Sunny Side for myself, and the Falafel for my wife, Dina. Before long the fries arrived, Belgian-style served in a metal cup and wrapped in wax paper, with two small cups of ketchup and mayonnaise.
The fries, freshly retrieved from the deep fry, were hot, gently salted and flaked with parsley, and glistened from the oil. They were warm and flavorful, whether dipped or not, but were on the softer side, lacking crispness (gooey was Ana’s description). Because they are somewhat heavy and plentiful, sharing is recommended.
The generous serving size was not limited to the fries. Our burgers arrived speared by sticks, like a toothpick run through with olives balancing in a gin martini. Ostensibly these wooden paddles are perfect vehicles for spreading ketchup or other condiments on your bun, but I believe they are there to provide scaffolding for the massive hamburgers whose tower of ingredients might otherwise collapse.
My five or six inch tall Sunny Side Burger, the Gheorghe Muresan of the table, hovered above the rest. That’s because between its two sesame seed flecked brioche buns it had to fit Boston lettuce, pickled onions, crispy onions, avocado, cured lemon, lamb bacon, a beautifully wet and runny sunny side egg, and truffle aioli.
Picky Ana’s classic burger would have rivaled mine in stature had she not removed most of the ingredients. She banished the Roma tomatoes entirely and relegated the Boston lettuce, homemade pickle chips, and crispy onions from between the buns to the rim of the plate.
Both beef burgers, made with ground prime, were excellent. The simplicity of the Classic appeals to the purist, the person whose primary focus is the nicely seasoned and prepared beef patty at the center of the affair, and not the extra distractions; the person who, like my fussy daughter, opts for Margarita pizzas over ones with pierogi toppings.
The vegetarian option was not your run-of-the-mill veggie burger mash-up of unknown vegetables or a roasted Portobello mushroom. The Falafel was a hybrid, part American (buns, lettuce, red onions, tomato roasted salsa, spicy-sweet Pico de Gallo, and pickles) and part Mid-Eastern (cured lemon, tahini, and a spicy and aromatic patty, softer and flatter than the crisped balls you’d find stuffed in a pita).
The Sunny Side, on the other hand, is for people like me, who like to eat everything but the kitchen sink. But a word of caution, it was hard to wrap my mouth around it. After a bite or two, it started to self-destruct, and I had to reluctantly abandon my two hands and seek the assistance of a knife and fork. All the dishes came with a pinkish home-made cabbage house slaw made with citrus and ginger, with more emphasis on the former.
The biggest surprise of the evening for me was that this was not obviously a kosher restaurant. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice there are no cheeseburgers (though there is cheese cake for dessert) and at the bottom of the drinks menu you’ll find in small print the notice that “Drinks are kosher but are not under Tarnopol Kashrus” which means local supervision.
I had always assumed that those who kept kosher never experienced the distinct pleasures of the smoky, BBQ marvel that is bacon. However, one nibble of my lamb bacon — just as flavorful though less fatty than its porcine equivalent — put that foolish misconception to rest.
Upside Craft Burgers, 4102 18th Ave at East 4th Street, is currently open only for dinner Mondays through Thursday (5:30pm to 11:00pm) and Sundays (4pm to 11pm). It is closed on Fridays and Saturdays for Sabbath but plans to extend its hours lunch hours in the future.