Burgers and Pies
The most utterly predictable comment from a New Yorker in a Miami pizzeria: "It's not like a New York slice." Culprits often cited are humidity, water quality, and brand of canned tomatoes. In fact, the real deal has been available for about a year and a half at Primo Pizza, which puts out a New York slice in a New York minute from its petite shop at First Street and Collins Avenue in South Beach.
What makes a New York slice a New York slice? For one thing, the crust is not crisp. It is floppy-soft, thicker than flatbread but thinner than deep-dish. There are no black char marks on the bottom; if there were, any self-respecting New Yorker would return it and say, "Hey, Einstein, you burned the goddamn pizza!" Plus it is cheesy, and the cheese is chewy. An oregano-flecked, unobtrusive marinara sauce balances the cheese and bread. That's it, and Primo Pizza, with six stools and a bench outside the front door, serves it for $3 per slice. A regular pie, with cheese, sauce, and mozzarella, is $12.95. Specialty pies such as Hawaiian, Buffalo chicken, and Philly cheese steak cost more, with prices topping out at $22.95 for the Primo Pizza Supreme, which comes with "anything and everything." Diners can also create their own combos by choosing from some 30 à la carte garnishes at $1.75 to $2.25 each. There are no such choices regarding size; all pies are large, just like in New York.
I'm a regular-pie kind of guy, but when feeling wild, I pick Primo's white pizza, with its blistery bubbles of ricotta, mozzarella, basil, and garlic. A textbook cheese calzone brings pretty much the same ingredients — just a higher dairy-to-bread ratio — in rolled-up form, with a little side dish of marinara for dipping. There are also "rolls," which are like calzones but filled with either pepper steak, chicken, eggplant, broccoli, sausage, or meatballs. All are made in house and baked fresh each day, but Primo's prime draw is that phat pizza — available on weekends until 5 a.m.
Fatburger's "Fatburger," on the other hand, is not a phat burger. Nor, for that matter, is it a fat burger. It starts at a third of a pound, but by the time the lard content cooks out, it looks more like a quarter-pounder. It is also not a fast burger; during numerous visits, it took anywhere from eight to twelve minutes to be served (potential ad slogan: Fast food without the speed!). A "spicy fat chicken" sandwich brought a dreadful Tabasco-soaked breast; the fish sandwich, two greasy spears of fried cod with tartar sauce, made me yearn for Mrs. Paul (or at least her fish sticks). So what is the appeal of this food chain that has 93 franchises sizzling across 15 states as well as Mexico and Canada? A decent-tasting burger and an inspiring early narrative.
The inspiring early narrative: Lovie Yancey opened the first Fatburger in South Los Angeles in 1952. It was a popular spot, drawing entertainers such as Redd Foxx and Ray Charles, but the second location, in Beverly Hills, became a favorite celebrity haunt and grew into a Hollywood legend. Yancy began to franchise "The Last Great Hamburger Stand" in 1985, and five years later sold the business to the Fog Cutter Capital Group. Earvin "Magic" Johnson was an investor, and Pharrell Williams has a financial stake in the company's first 10 locations in China. The 96-year-old Lovie, hailed as a pioneering African-American businesswoman, passed away just five weeks ago — right before the newest Fatburger opened on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. Queen Latifah is a backer of this SoBe store, although "she didn't even show up for the opening," according to one disappointed employee.
The décor is fast foodie all the way, colored in yellows and reds like you-know-who, and tempered with some industrial-metallic touches. Atmosphere is not what you come here for, although the jukebox music selection is one of Fatburger's selling points. Gliding from Frank Sinatra to Cat Stevens to Bob Marley to Muddy Waters without missing a beat, the tunes provide enjoyable listening — especially for those born around, say, 1952.
The skinny on the Fatburger ($4.49) is that it possesses an emphatic char flavor from the grill and tastes demonstrably superior to the patties from the bigger burger barons — although admittedly that's like saying Michael Jackson is a better parent than Britney Spears. What the burger here has going for it is freshness. Like Five Guys Burgers and In-N-Out — Fatburger's brethren in the second-tier fast-food burger market — the meat is never frozen and always cooked to order. Unfortunately, at least at this location, the hamburgers are not very juicy.
The Kingburger ($5.49) clocks in at the pregrilled weight of a half-pound and proved moister than the thinner Fatburger. Double and triple Kingburgers are also up for grabs (note, though, that a single Kingburger is 820 calories). The turkey burger ($4.69) was delicious relative to other turkey burgers, but a Boca soy patty, while improved via grilling and accompaniments, is still a Boca soy patty. You'd think that maybe after 56 years, Fatburger could have come up with a veggie burger recipe of its own.
Fries come "skinny" or "fat." The latter tasted like Sysco's frozen steak fries, which is to say not quite like a potato. Still, they arrive hot and crisp. Skinny fries are the same, except skinny. Unlike the spuds, onion rings are prepared from scratch. They were scraggly-looking and parsimoniously portioned, but otherwise pretty decent. The fourth and final side dish offered is spicy chili, the taste of which passed muster, though the texture was an unpleasantly mushy purée.
Fatburger's singular triumph is the milkshake, made from "real ice cream" (sadly something that brings bragging rights these days). Dee-lish, especially the one made with peanut butter and Nutter Butter cookies (but hurry, because it's a special monthly flavor only).
This joint stays jumping 24/7 on weekends. It might not offer the finest burger around, but at 5 in the morning, you probably won't find a better one.
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