“Butchers don’t eat burgers in restaurants because of what’s in the burgers in the restaurants,” explains Schatzie, a fourth-generation meat man who goes by one name. “From the time you’re born, that’s what you’re told if you’re in the meat business.” This is interesting, because Schatzie tells me this while we’re sitting in his new restaurant, where the specialty of the house is a hamburger.
Schatzie got his start at his father’s store in the Bronx when he was 12. He’s been butchering for 60 years, though his shop bounced around — on Madison Avenue, then 87th and Amsterdam, now on Broadway near 101st. When you enter Schatzie Prime Meats, there’s a counter full of all the glistening flesh you’d expect at a well-heeled meat emporium, but most of the space has been turned over to a full kitchen, a tiny draught-beer bar, and seating for customers. The burger portion of the store is Richie’s Burger Joint, named after Schatzie’s son, who came up with the idea of opening a family burger shop, and who, according to Schatzie, “runs the restaurant, basically.” That still doesn’t quite explain why they wanted to tackle such a notoriously difficult new undertaking. “All butchers wanna be in the restaurant business,” Schatzie says. “We think we can do it better.”
What’s his secret? Nothing: “I just cut prime meat, grind it up, and you eat it, and that’s it.” When asked where the beef comes from, Schatzie just says “out west.” When asked how it’s cooked, Schatzie replies, “on a grill.” When asked how long the beef is aged, Schatzie says, “Meat that’s good is good; aging doesn’t really change it all that much.” And when I ask about the ratio of lean-to-fatty meat in his blend, Schatzie kind of loses it. “I had a customer who said, ‘I usually use 80/20, but I like 78/22, even 76/24.’ And I said, ‘What kind of a schmuck are you to believe that bullshit that somebody’s telling you?’” He does know exactly what’s in his burger, of course, and says he’s used the same blend for 20 years, but he can’t abide the very specific ratio that some chefs tout. “These people, they say, ‘It’s 72/28.’ This is completely ridiculous. It’s a way for me to get a little more money out of you when I’m selling you hamburgers for your restaurant … It’s bullshit. Complete bullshit.”
Cheffed-up burgers don’t interest Schatzie much. (On Shake Shack: “It’s a nice gimmicky place and everybody thinks it’s hip.”) But Schatzie does have one tactic he likes to tout: He grinds the burger meat fresh, every 30 minutes or so, right in the restaurant’s kitchen. This, he believes, gives him a leg up on anyone else, including his customers. “If I made you a pound of chopped meat and let you take it home,” he says, “and you don’t open it until the morning, it’s going to be bloody. It’s going to be dark, and it’s going to start to have a little bit of an odor the second day.” No odors at Richie’s: “You make a hamburger now and put it on the grill, it’s that day. It has to be fresh. And you can hear the machine.”
Aside from upgrading from a potato roll to a brioche bun — “it holds juice better” — Schatzie has made a burger that is a paragon of traditionalism: patty, lettuce, slices of red onion and tomato, bun. Cheese if you want it. There’s a little plastic cup of ketchup on the side. Inside, the patty is pink and succulent, yet eating it is not some transcendent, life-changing, blood-and-bun experience. Instead, what Schatzie serves is a really solid, nicely cooked, juicy, satisfying, no-frills $11 burger. It’s pretty good, which seems to be the entire goal. “I know more about meat than almost anybody does,” Schatzie says. “So why not do it the right way without a lot of bullshit?” He adds, “I must say, it probably is the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten.”