Nick Solares: the Pigtrip Interview
Nick Solares is known as the blogger Beef Aficionado, as the top New York City hamburger reviewer for A Hamburger Today and as a frequent steak and fine dining reviewer for Serious Eats. No matter what you call him, you can count on a great read anytime you get a chance to peruse his musings on all things beef. He initially entered my radar about two years ago, back when his Beef Aficionado blog still had a part time focus on barbecue. A short while later, Nick accompanied me at Southern Hospitality and Wildwood for reviews on my site, while I accompanied him at J. G. Melon for a review on his. I remember it being a great burger (and based on his review, so did Nick), but I enjoyed the company even more.
Pigtrip: Why beef?
Nick Solares: I can't think of an animal that has had a more profound impact on human existence than the cow. Since time immemorial it has provided us food, clothing and labor. The cow has been used as a form of currency, as a religious icon and as the object of blood sport. The first paintings in those prehistoric caves were of cattle. We have shaped the cow and the cow has shaped us.
What are your favorite barbecue restaurants in New York City?
I think Pigtrip readers will find my list fairly predictable: Hill Country, RUB, Daisy May's and Dinosaur. Blue Smoke might be on the list but I think it is a bit too expensive. I ate at Wildwood this week, a place that I think tended to fall behind the above mentioned places and you know what? It was as good as anything in NYC.
As a beef guy, do you focus strictly on the beef when hitting a barbecue joint, or do you survey the whole menu?
I started Beef Aficionado because I saw a niche that I didn't think anyone was filling and if I am eating at a barbecue restaurant with the intention of reviewing it I try to eat as much beef as is on offer. But I have much love for pigs as well and if I am eating for pleasure I like to eat from the whole menu.
The smoked beef short rib is a staple at New York barbecue joints. Do you have a favorite?
The one at Wildwood has been consistantly excellent, the one constant on Big Lou's menu. I also liked the one at The Smoke Joint in Brooklyn.
Are there any under-utilized cuts of beef that you see as overtaking the ubiquitous beef short rib at barbecue joints?
I don't think so. The beef rib short has such a primal appeal.
Do you have a favorite burger among the barbecue joints?
I haven't had the one at Blue Smoke in a few years but I remember it being very good. I like the Wildwood one a lot as well.
The Hill Country menu has more than a half dozen beef offerings. What do you recommend? Moist or lean?
I think the beef ribs are fantastic and I definitely go moist. I like the sausages a lot as well. The prime rib is also tasty but a perhaps a bit expensive when the other 'cue is so toothsome and so much cheaper.
What are the fundamental differences between reviewing hamburgers (and other high heat, short cooking time meats) and barbecue? Should a burger have to wow you on the first try? Should barbecue be given more leeway?
I don't think there should be a difference. I go by taste as the primary criterion. Obviously when you are reviewing something as narrowly defined as a single sandwich as I do on AHT, that becomes the central focus of the review rather than the decor, service or atmosphere, things that I give more weight in a restaurant review. A burger does have to wow me because I generally only sample one, as opposed to a restaurant review when I will go back 2-3 times.
Is a patty melt a hamburger? Is a bacon cheeseburger a hamburger? What ingredients disqualify a hamburger from being a hamburger or should never be used with hamburgers?
This is obviously a subjective answer, but I define a hamburger as a 100% beef patty served on a hamburger bun. Once this basic requirement is met adding anything or everything to it does not change its basic nature. I don't consider a patty melt a hamburger nor do I consider the sandwich served at Louis Lunch to be a hamburger.
I know you like your meat rare. Are there some cuts or some burger joints that nail the quality and juiciness at that temp but may not be as reliable at medium rare or medium? On the other hand, the Shake Shack burger seems to gush juices even at medium to medium well.
I can't think of any off the top of my head but I usually try to avoid over cooked meat (it has already been killed once afterall). Generally a competently blended burger will remain juicy even when cooked through.
Are there any chains, fast food or otherwise, that are producing good burgers?
In my experience In-N-Out Burger and Five Guys both turn out very good hamburgers. I have not tried Steak n Shake but I hear very good things about them. In the mid range price point I think Houstons does a decent burger. But generally I seek out unique local joints.
Does your eating drive your blogging or does your blogging drive your eating?
A little of both I think. There are definitely times when I want something simple and familiar but feel the intellectual need to explore new frontiers.
What are the most restaurants you’ve visited/reviewed in a single day? How many reviews do you have going at any one time?
I think I ate at 5 hamburger joints in LA one day last year. I usually have 2-3 reviews going at once. A weekly burger review, a weekly restaurant review for Serious Eats NY and a behind the scenes type piece.
How’s your cholesterol?
Remarkably low, as it my blood pressure. Unfortuantely my trouser size is up.
You’ve achieved some notoriety in the last year or so, mostly from your gig as reviewer for A Hamburger Today and Serious Eats. How has that—or your writing class or simply being more experienced—changed your reviews?
Writing is a craft and the more one practices the better one gets. Similarly eating critically is something that also improves the more you do it so just by publishing regularly I think that my writing has improved. But taking Alan Richman's food writing class at the International Culinary Center (formerly French Culinary Institute) had a profound effect on my writing. It taught me to think in journalistic terms. And more importantly it taught me to tell the reader what the food tastes like. Something that seems obvious but is often not conveyed in food writing.
You don’t seem to mind taking photographs in restaurants in full view of the staff. Why?
Digital photography has proliferated to such an extent that it is fairly common place for people to be taking pictures in restaurants. I generally pretend to be a tourist. Of course sometimes I get asked which blog I write for at which point I completely deny that I do.
Many of the classic hamburger joints in the area were previously covered by Roadfood or Hamburger America. Do you feel any sense of obligation to offer your take on these joints? Are you affected by the existing reviews? How important is it to break new ground?
I think it is important for AHT to have its own point of view, especially if it is a classic establishment. I try not to be affected by other reviews. Breaking new ground is important of course, I think we strike a pretty good balance between new and old spots at AHT.
You’ve reviewed stands and upscale restaurants. You’ve reviewed barbecue, hot dogs, burgers, steaks and cheesesteaks. No love for the pastrami at Katz’s?
I love Katz's. I still vividly remember coming across it one brisk autumn day in 1985 and pressing my nose up against the window to witness a seemingly endless row of sausages. A pastrami cost $5 back then. As much as I love the place it has receieved so much coverage that I think it is almost redundent to give it more.
Will we ever see a return to barbecue on Beef Aficionado?
Pretty much everything I write these days is for Serious Eats but I hope to cover some barbecue in the near future. SE will of course have extensive coverage of the Big Apple BBQ Block Party.