NEW YORK — Behold the tiny, white-tiled Superiority Burger eatery, the rage of much of Manhattan and, naturally, the hipper confines of Brooklyn.
Hype is not the style of this understated East Village pocket takeout with a mere six seats, eight if you’re skinny and friendly. The Web site, so understated as to include no photos, calls its core value “humility,” despite the superlative name.
Yet Superiority has already joined the celestial food firmament of adulation and influence.
It’s been open a whopping three weeks.
On this sultry summer night, before owner and gastro cult object Brooks Headley, a hard-core punk drummer and James Beard-winning former pastry chef at the massive, four-star Del Posto, opens his 300-square-foot shop at 6 p.m., a hungry line of patrons unspools down East Ninth Street toward vibrant Tompkins Square Park.
The smallish, brown-paper-wrapped burger, a beauty in its juicy, textured homeliness, owes more to the late-night aesthetics of White Castle than to the vertiginous behemoths of Hamburger Hamlet. With this $6 burger, an obsession after a series of pop-ups last year and Momofuku maestro David Chang’s Instagram rave, Headley aims to create a memorable comestible replicating “the same punch to the brain” and “iron-y charredness of meat.” His dream is to create “the complete analog of meat that’s not meat but has those qualities.”
Yes, the Superiority Burger is vegetarian.
A great veggie burger may be the Holy Grail for many herbivores, and certainly Superiority fans, who have long been on a quixotic search for the facsimile of the very thing they willfully and conscientiously abandoned. Which would be meat.
Says Nina Mehta, a vegetarian for 25 years, “These burgers fill a craving for something I didn’t know I missed.”
Burgers represent childhood, sizzling and savory on the grill, treasures in a takeout bag, the essence of summer. But many veggie burgers taste processed and counterfeit, the dominant responses being regret and loss.
Headley, who eats meat, is into capturing that visceral sensation. “This is not about health food,” says Headley, 43, whose first pastry gig was at Washington’s now-shuttered Galileo, with later stints at the Ritz-Carlton, Tosca and Komi. “This is not a political statement. I love that some of our customers are hard-core carnivores.”
This is the counterpoint to meat, a monster in Brooklyn, bacon the punch line to many a DIY operation. The East Village is jamming with vegetarian establishments, the cooked and the raw. Headley also serves a meatless Sloppy Joe that has amassed almost as many fans in a city where dining out can be a competitive sport and food equals celebrity, something worthy of furious social media love. At Superiority, food is consumed equally by mouth and phone. The routine is bite, document, repeat.
On the late June night that Superiority opened, with all six vegetarian or “accidentally vegan” items on the menu under $10 (one being “Superiority Water, NYC tap & lemon, free”), New York Eater sent not one but three critics, who filed lengthy reviews so salacious (“All your dreams and fantasies have materialized”) and fetishistic as to border on porn.
“I think they showed up within the first couple of hours that we opened,” Headley says. Headley, a hard-core punk drummer in a numerous bands (Born Against, Wrangler Brutes, Oldest, Music Blues and C.R.A.S.H.), also pulls a strong base of ardent music fans. The switch from pastry to burgers wasn’t hard. Headley’s desserts always tilted toward savory, acidic and earthy, more punk than pretty. (He does offer one sweet: a vanilla labne gelato topped with a fresh fruit sorbet.)
The Eater obsessives came, ate and reviewed despite Headley hanging shower curtains to shield the interior and posting a fake menu for a place called “Chickens,” complete with menu (Poultry Leg Medley, Eggy Negroni) to throw them off the scent. But Headley’s attempts for a soft opening failed miserably.
So what makes the Superiority Burger superior? Headley, who grew up outside Baltimore — there’s a picture of John Waters’ sacred monster Divine posted prominently in his place — shrugs. Stuff.
Grains (quinoa plays a role), possibly beans, a meatless mystery. The board reads: MUENSTER CHEESE ICEBERG TOMATO DILL PICKLE. The rest patrons play a takeout parlor game of guessing.
They may never know. Headley keeps tinkering. In much the same way that some cathedrals are never completed, the perfectionist may never finish messing with his masterpiece.
“We’ve been trying to figure out the right squish factor,” he says, texture and appearance as essential to the experience as taste. Last Wednesday, he worked 13 hours in the kitchen.
Superiority is closed Wednesdays. (Tuesdays, too.)
Headley is an unusual gastro rock star: soft-spoken, intense, rarely smiling, a former literature student at the University of Maryland. In his black apron and white soda-jerk paper cap, it’s hard to pick him out from the gaggle of cooks on Superiority’s line. He was uncomfortable posing for a portrait. With this venture, he doesn’t want people to view him as a chef. He does whatever needs to be done, refilling the counter cooler of Superiority Water, prepping snap peas for a salad.
With the Slits blasting on Superiority's iPod, friends contributing to the mix, Headley says “this isn’t about me. It’s about the place. I’m the operator, the owner, but this is a very collaborative thing.”
Line chef Julia Goldberg, a native of Silver Spring, Md., and a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School grad, created the killer “Ice ice cold smashed cucumber salad with Koda Farms brown rice, yogurt, & Johan’s sesame crunch,” a regular special. “That’s 100 percent Julia. I had zero to do with it,” says Headley.
If somebody else can do something better, he goes for it. Consider the hamburger rolls. Headley is the bomb of New York pastry chefs, author of the 2014 proto-punk pastry cookbook “Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts” (possibly the only cookbook with a foreword by music producer and audio engineer Steve Albini with a mention in Pitchfork), yet he ultimately decided he couldn’t improve on the potato rolls from Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe in Chambersburg, Pa.
What makes Superiority Burger a sensation is bigger than the food. It’s the understated yet lengthy creation of a singular vision, a place that evokes memory and comfort yet pushes food to a happier, more enticing place with considerable wit and verve.
Like the purple velvet rope attached to the counter that Headley hooks at precisely 6 p.m. to separate the open kitchen from the crowd, ironic but functional. Mandated by the city health department to post a choking first-aid sign, Headley enlisted artist and fellow musician Sam McPheeters to create a sly, more scabrous version. Or, even with an evolving rotation of nightly specials, Headley vows that “we will never, ever, ever have french fries on the menu.” Instead, he concocts a vinegary ruby crescent fingerling potato salad topped with crushed potato chips.
“I mean, brilliant. Who does that? But, like, yeah,” says food editor Andy Baraghani, devouring everything on the menu with a team from the Tasting Table Web site. “There’s this grit to everything he does.”
Also, patrons love Superiority’s story at a time when food is all about heritage and narrative. Headley walked away from seven years at Del Posto, a four-star, 24,000-square-foot culinary palace owned by Mario Batali and Lidia and Joe Bastianich, and a week later opened this joint an 80th of the size, after three months of construction but years in the dreaming.
The line down East Ninth Street bothers him. “We don’t want to be Magnolia Bakery or the next cronut,” he says. “I want to make sure everyone gets food.”
Cheeseburgers are “kind of silly, but I love silly, funny, ridiculous. This is really the food I want to eat, and always wanted to do, a vegetarian sandwich shop,” he says. “I just took a detour for 15 years and made desserts.”
This is his moment. Headley might as well seize it, trying to perfect a meatless burger with a visceral punch to the brain.