East Harlem (El Barrio), NYC — Although the Puerto Rican Day parade is held once a year on the second Sunday in June, the storied New York City neighborhood of Spanish Harlem (officially known as East Harlem, affectionately referred to as El Barrio) celebrates the whole weekend.
The Saturday preceding is when the 116th Street Festival is held. East 116th Street is regarded as the heart of Spanish Harlem, and its festival is the largest Latin festival in the Northeast, featuring food, art, and music influenced by Puerto Rican and Spanish cultures.
I was looking forward to attending the 116th Street Festival, even as I was in transit on the M101 bus heading uptown to the event. But not knowing that there were also other Puerto Rican weekend activities scheduled, effectively closing off 3rd Avenue above 106th Street, I decided that I would not have the patience to wade through one happy crowd to then work my way through another.
Lucky enough, I remembered (hopping off the bus at 106th & 3rd) that I was then only two blocks away from MILK Burger, the popular neighborhood burger spot run by East Harlem local Erik Mayor, who brings raved-about, elevated burgers to the previously underserved neighborhood.
Innocuously located in the middle of the block, it's humble outside gives way to an interior buzzing with grill and customer activity, boasting a menu of well-crafted, finely executed burgers, sides, and beverages, and usually Erik himself to maintain the quality control tantamount to maintaining the highly successful operation.
I was lucky to catch him on this random visit, as he was on his way to spend time with family, and happy to see his place still doing so well since my last visit (way too long ago). I am still impressed with anyone who is from the same community that he or she gives back to, earning him lots of deserved local respect.
I wanted to respect that same community, as well all the honor the neighborhood's celebratory weekend, so I ventured to order the (double) El Barrio burger, featuring a black Angus burger, jalapeño relish, melted monterey jack cheese, bacon, and a fried egg.
As a rule of thumb, I'm kind of "over" the whole fried-egg-on-everything trend, and as well I usually avoiding putting bacon on burgers — especially if I'm trying a burger for the very first time. That is because I still have great respect for the actual burger. Especially if the burger is made from premium beef, I hardly want to interfere with its inherent wonderful taste properties by overwhelming or diluting it with another protein.
Miraculously, the served El Barrio burger came without the egg or bacon, so I still got the burger I wanted even though it wasn't the burger I ordered.
And how grateful was I that things turned out that way, because the burger — otherwise already on the menu as the Jalapeño Burger — proved why I fell in love with MILK burger in the first place. The flat premium beef patty lovingly seasoned with just fresh cracked pepper and salt, then expertly flattop-grilled to produce caramelized edges the keep the beef's natural sweet juices inside the patty.
Grilling jalapeños heighten their sweet and floral attributes, at the same time temporary their heat, providing both added taste and aromatics. And melted Monterey Jack offers both bold and mellow balance to the patty's salt and smoky char, and a complimenting counter to the jalapeños' punchiness.
(I rounded out my meal with the spicy fries — when I think Latin I think spicy — and a fresh, creamy, fruity, strawberry milkshake.)
I'm glad I got to enjoy the burger the why I wanted it — without all the unnecessary thought and fuss and distraction. And like my burger, Erik Mayor and his MILK Burger concentrate only on what's most important: staying true to the roots while forgoing the flair.
And even on this weekend that will see at least one parade, lots of dancing in the streets, folks from the community and Hispanics from abroad all come to show and showcase their pride and heritage, MILK Burger will continue to keep things consistently simple, and consistently with excellence.
May he continue to fly that modest, humble flag with pride.
Milk Burger | 2051 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10029 | (212) 360-1988 | milkburger.com