Gut Instinct: Jonesing for a Johnson

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.

As a culinary journalist, I don’t take the risks of a reporter covering the Egyptian revolution or the Libyan uprising. Nonetheless, my career path leads me to dangers of an edible sort, often facilitated by an editor whom I’m convinced is trying to kill me.

“If you’re interested…” my editor Adam emailed me, sending along a link. I paused before clicking. Adam’s past suggestions have included consuming grilled chicken hearts, entering a dumpling-eating competition and sampling aphrodisiac elixirs from the Museum of Sex, then reporting on the, ahem, results. (Though my girlfriend is a tolerant woman, that notion never passed muster.)

Thus, I was nonplussed when the link led me to a nearly pornographic image of a glistening double-decker cheeseburger, easily twice as tall as my mouth could stretch wide. I felt like an anaconda sizing up a deer to slide down my unhinged jaw. “I think it could be fun,” Adam wrote of the burger, dubbed the Big Johnson. “Plus, there are dick jokes.” I sighed, hoping the burger was better than the punchline.

Odds were that the sandwich would be stellar. The Big Johnson is one of the signature foodstuffs at Fatty Johnson’s (50 Carmine St., betw. Bedford & Bleecker Sts., 212-929-5050), a pop-up restaurant from Fatty Crab and Fatty ’Cue mastermind Zak Pelaccio. When Pelaccio and Co. decided to shutter Mexican-centric Cabrito, they had no plans for a replacement. Instead, they settled on a January-February run for a freewheeling concept dubbed Fatty Johnson’s. The cocktails were courtesy of a rotating cast of A-list bartenders, such as Eben Freeman (formerly of Tailor) and historian David Wondrich. The food would focus on unfussy, gussied-up comfort classics such as deviled eggs, fried chicken stuffed with ham and cheese and, yes, a humble cheeseburger and its not-sohumble sibling.

The day of my Big Johnson date began like no other: with lots of oatmeal and fruit. This aroused my girlfriend’s suspicion. “Why are you eating so healthily?” she wondered, spooning up fatfree Greek yogurt. I considered lying. Ever since I revealed my elevated cholesterol count, she’s harped on me to watch what I eat. I’ve started scarfing kale salads and tofu stir-fries. Yet no amount of bean curd could counteract the effect of these words. “I need to eat a double cheeseburger tonight,” I said. I grabbed my computer and pulled up an image of the Big Johnson. “That’s disgusting,” she said, as if I’d shown her that tawdry video of two girls forced to share one little cup.

“I think it could be fun,” Adam wrote of the burger, dubbed the Big Johnson. “Plus, there are dick jokes.”

Feeling guilt-shamed, I spent the remainder of the day on a restricted diet of salad and seltzer, arriving at Fatty that night with a rumbling hunger and my friend Ben, who volunteered to help me consume foolhardy amounts of beef. To prep my palate, I started with barman Charles Hardwick’s Nostromo, a vodkapowered potion tarted up with apple liqueur, fresh orange juice and savorysweet celery soda. It was a compelling kick-start, if costly: paying $13 for a cocktail always makes me cringe. “Care for a drink?” I asked Ben. “I’ll stick with water, thank you,” said Ben, who’s equally opposed to double-digit drink pricing.

The Big Johnson also has a big price tag. It costs $22, which buys two patties of all-natural Brandt Beef, sheep’smilk cheese and pickles. Fries? They’re extra. I thought that a burger and fries were an inalienable dining right. Wasn’t America built on the concept of steak and potatoes? I silently fumed, then saw the world through a prism of hardened arteries. Maybe no fries was a… good thing? Getting older and losing that sense of consequence-free invulnerability can be a bummer.

But my frown was flipped upside down upon the Big Johnson’s arrival. Up close, it was every bit the mouth-straining monster that the pictures led me to believe. I bisected the burger, revealing the griddled patties’ pink interior, then cleaved it into quarters. Ben and I both grabbed a chunk and shoved the Johnson twixt our lips. I bit. It was carnivorous ecstasy. The salty, tender meat was offset by the pickles’ briny snap, with the cheese providing a pungent counterpoint. The bun was squishy as all get-out, compressing like a feather pillow and mopping up meat juice. Cost be damned, this was one of the best burgers in recent memory.

“Want more?” Ben asked, pointing to the last burger lump. “Oh, yes,” I said, eagerly shoving some Johnson into my mouth for the first and, likely, last time.

Want a Big Johnson? Hurry up—Fatty Johnson’s shutters at the end of the month. If you have any other favorite burgers I should eat, tell me at Follow me on Twitter @JoshMBernstein.