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Harlem Shake: A Joint For Vegetarians & Meat-Eating Families Alike

I am a life-long burger fan. I grew up a Midwestboy, raised on burgers and fries. Some of my fondest memories are of Fourth of July picnics at my Grandparents’ house, featuring my grandma’s potato salad and my grandpa’s juicy burgers, served on what must have been a brioche-style hamburger bun and covered in a thick slice of cheese

In college, I basically lived on burgers. I didn’t know how to cook and, hey, the town was lousy with fast food joints who were more than happy to take care of that for me.

Once I left Ohio and struck out on my own, I was poor in that special way that only people with theater degrees can be. I’d hike to the nearest Burger King, buy five Whoppers with the last of my money, then refrigerate them and eat them cold the next couple of days. (Surprisingly not as disgusting as you’d think.)

When I met the love of my life—during those Whopper-eating days—I was introduced to the world of vegetarian eating. After a year with her, I decided to go that route myself. In the intervening years, I’ve backtracked a bit (I eat seafood; shrimp are kind of my Kryptonite.) But I’ve not had an actual according-to-Hoyle cheeseburger in about sixteen years.

Which has left me with that often-somewhat-lacking replacement: the Veggieburger.

Sadly, most veggieburgers are either sloppy piles of mush that won’t even kind of stay together in their bun or hockey pucks with mustard. Even places that make their veggieburgers in-house foul them up nine times out of ten. Giant pieces of broccoli, random spoonfuls of whole peas and poorly-diced carrots. All of these have ruined veggieburgers in my history.

Harlem Shake, the new burger emporium at Lenox and 124th Street, has a good veggieburger. A very good veggieburger. According to Jelena Pasic, Harlem Shake’s owner, the recipe comes from J. Kenji López-Alt, creator of Serious Eats. It features mushrooms, eggplant, barley, and other great stuff. Harlem Shake puts this on a wonderfully soft potato bun and adds a dollop of their house sauce. I’ve had one twice in the last week and I could happily go back for more. So, when I find a good veggieburger, I’m a happy guy.

It helps that diners aren’t limited to just the house-style veggieburger. Their veggie patty can be swapped out for the beef in any of their variations. During our visits, I tried the BBQ burger and the jerk burger. The BBQ had a nice, light hand with the sauce and just the right amount of grilled onions. The jerk burger substituted jerk mayonnaise for the house sauce and included jerk-seasoned fries on the burger.

Being vegetarians, we didn’t sample the beef products during our first meal, but we did bring my parents along on our second trip. My dad was underwhelmed with the cheeseburger. I need to add here that my dad is frequently underwhelmed by a whole variety of things, so take that with a grain of salt.

The jerk fries are one of three fry options, alongside yam fries (pretty good, but not the best I’ve had) and straight-up French fries, which were crisp and generously salted, in the best sense. A good fry is key to my enjoyment of any burger place. Indeed, one of my big problems with some other hip burger joints has been that the fries seemed like a complete afterthought. Not so here.

If a place has “shake” right in its name, the said beverage had better be pretty good. And the shakes at Harlem Shake do not disappoint. Made with organic ice cream and mixed thick, they are treats that my four-year-old couldn’t get enough of.

Now, while my wife and I are raising our kid meatless, my niece and nephew are not. I can report, then, that the hot dog and cheeseburger passed muster with kids. My son was not completely thrilled with the veggieburger the first trip, but said it was due to the sauce. (The kid does not tolerate sauce.) However, when we returned, we requested a sauce-less burger and he ate that one up.

Harlem Shake is kid-friendly. Both times we were there, there were plenty of babies, toddlers and pre-teens, all of whom seemed to be enjoying their visit. Ms. Pasic, a mother of two, said she had family in mind when she came up with the idea. The restaurant’s design is part of that family vision; Pasic told us she wanted the place to look like it had been in the neighborhood for forty years or so, maybe passed down from the founders to their kids and grandkids. The vibrant green booths, the retro window signs, and the bathroom plastered with Jet covers all reinforce this feeling nicely.

To summarize: Harlem Shake is a good place for vegetarians; it’s a good place for families; it’s a good place for shake enthusiasts. It’s good. Just don’t bring your dad if he’s perpetually unimpressed.

Photos by Megan Joplin