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Hometowns, History and Burgers: AJ’s

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e are happy to admit our failings. To wit: even though food writing is our business, we have driven past AJ’s Burgers in our home town of New Rochelle at least 50 times since it opened, and yet never managed to stop in. Why? Because we are overworked, folks, and scramble from one deadline to another like a food writer with her head cut off. We’re frantic, so don’t even ask about the state of our tax return.

It is with some chagrin then that we read the following letter, sent from a freelance writer who prefers to remain anonymous. She works for a prominent national daily, though she didn’t mention that in the letter. Curious, we Googled her name, which is unusual, and found that she’s quite prolific. (We Google everyone. It’s like snooping through other people’s mail, only legal.) Her letter reads:

To the food editors:

There is an interesting story behind a new casual restaurant, AJ’s Burgers, that opened about 11 weeks ago here in New Rochelle across from City Hall on a once foreboding block. The owner of the restaurant has cooked in many local restaurants, and once worked at the Thruway Diner in New Rochelle; more recently, he ran a sandwich place in the Bronx. He decided to come back to New Rochelle because he thought (accurately) that the city was in dire need of a top-notch burger place.

The burgers are, in fact, stupendous, as is much of the rest of the menu. The restaurant opened on the site of an old bar (Tammany Hall) that shut down after serving alcohol to minors. The address is 542 North Avenue, 235-3009.

For your information, I am a local writer who is simply alerting your food critics to a potentially intriguing news item, possibly appropriate for your Side Order section. I have no financial interest in promoting this business.

Hope you consider reviewing this place. It is a much-needed addition to the North Avenue dining scene, and it is often packed with both families and local Iona students.

Huh, we thought, looking at the mile-long Google page listing her work. She’s a writer, lives in our town, and likes a good burger – my kind of gal. Plus, her letter touches upon an emotional hotspot: the Thruway diner — the communal front porch for generations of Pelhamites and New Rochelleans — is currently slated to make way for a Walgreens. We find it comforting that even though AJ’s is unrelated to the doomed Thruway, the new spot will offer burger continuity for the diner’s mourning fans. And, finally, we love a bit of local dirt. As our tipster notes, AJ’s is on the site of a former bar, Tammany Hall, which was closed after being caught serving minors. It’s an ugly story, but one that holds no distinction among the North Avenue bars. We know of at least one 13-year-old nascent food writer who was served in a smelly, North Avenue dive.

Interest piqued, we stopped by AJ’s for a midweek burger. Although the restaurant is located, as the writer suggested, in an unprepossessing block across from City Hall, AJ’s is quite pleasant. Gone is the beer-and-bathroom fug that permeated Tammany Hall. The space has been stripped to its attractive bones, with exposed wood framing, sand-blasted brick and hanging HVAC ducts. A skylight has been uncovered, which makes the space bright and airy, and heavenly music – namely Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets mixed with soul classics—keeps the place grooving. We weren’t the only diners singing along.

After taking a booth, we noticed a table of local politicians holding court—greeting constituents, other politicians, and eating burgers. We discovered later that AJ’s was highlighted in New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson’s blog, which actually has a food section (presumably because there aren’t enough food bloggers around these days). AJ’s feels strangely small town in this city, with lots of tablehopping and cross-booth chatter. Often people stand in the walkways gabbing, having just run into a long-lost neighbors. Also welcoming — AJ’s is truly kid friendly.

While waiting for our order, we were surprised to see Chef Brian MacMenamin of MacMenamin’s Grill and Chefworks drop in with his son. AJ’s is not a particularly cheffy spot, plus it was the middle of dinner time. After a brief conversation with the politicians table – where everyone but we, it seemed, checked in—Chef MacMenamin sat to negotiate sliders with his son: the small boy wanted seven, only to compromise on four. When we expressed our surprise at seeing him at AJ’s, Chef MacMenamin confirmed that he’s a regular. “My son really likes the sliders,” he said, sounding a little bemused. He himself was tucking into a grilled half chicken on the bone and spicy pickle salad—he had to wipe vigorously before shaking our hands. Just as our food arrived, the politicos left—one making a public comedy of retrieving his tie from where it was tucked out of harm’s way, between his fourth and fifth button.

AJ’s menu (in fact, the entire restaurant), reminds us a bit of our current burger favorite, Burgers Shakes and Fries in Byram, CT (see “Hey There Pilgrim, There’s a New Burger in Town”) While we’ve praised the joint since it opened, BSF recently ranked inclusion in a New York Magazine feature on foodie roadtrips – it was one of only four restaurants listed. The tiny CT burger newbie was praised for its “decent fries; good, thick shakes; and great one-third-pound cheeseburgers quirkily served patty-melt style on butter-griddled bread.” (Hey, R.R. and R.P.—that’s not just butter, but we won’t spill the secret sauce beans, as it were.)

Both BSF and AJ’s are participating in the trend started with Manhattan’s Shake Shack (and which was copied by both Stand and BRGR): the gourmet-ification of the All-American burger stand. As observed in our BSF post, stand burgers differ from bar burgers (like the Blazer Pub or Piper’s Kilt burger) in that stand burgers are served with icy sodas and thick shakes. Stand burgers allude to roadfood stops with order windows and rotating food sculptures on top. These spinning, light-up weenies, etc., lured diners off highways like the Sirens lured Odysseus.

Like BSF’s proprietor, Cory Wollins, Alan Cohen (A/K/A A.J.) is particular about his ingredients. Both use 100% beef chuck, delivered daily, though A.J. uses Martin’s Potato Rolls instead of “butter”-slicked-and-griddled Pullman slices. Underneath AJ’s surprisingly fiery chili (spiked with dry guaulu and mora chilis) you’ll find the snap of Sabrett natural casing kosher-style hot dogs—similar to BSF’s natural casing Boar’s Head links. While BSF uses a great, potato-ey frozen spud and then fries each order in super-clean oil, A.J. cuts and fries his own in house – and both fries are served with their brown, flavorful skins intact.

While A.J.’s Burgers and BSF are similar, each is better in different areas. BSF might edge out A.J.’s for best burgers (in our opinion), but AJ’s. super-rich concretes win over BSF’s shakes. AJ’s thick, icy treats are whizzed up with Gifford’s ice cream, milk, and almost shamefully tasty Fox’s U-Bet syrups.

There is one thing that BSF can’t do for us, and it is a testament to the power of food. As we were leaving AJ’s and heading towards our car, the setting sun making this iffy block and City Hall glow, we felt proud to be from New Rochelle– Walgreens, Tammany Hall and all. Because even though we’ve eaten all over the world, sometimes it just feels good to be home.

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