Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Second Ave for burgers. Really, really good burgers.
Walk by the new East Village bar Black Emperor and there's little to suggest the place is much different from any other East Village bar you may have been to over the past couple of decades. Inside, you'll find a long wooden bar with cushioned stools, a dimly lit area in back with blood-red banquettes and tables, and a counter up by the small front window. It's not too divey, but it's also not one of those slick new "cocktail lounges" either.
First opened in March in the former Shoolbred's spot on Second Avenue (and prior to that, it was Jade Mountain, the "Chow Mein" restaurant), Black Emperor is named after the legendary Japanese motorcycle club and, as you spend a bit more time here, and your eyes get accustomed to the dark, you'll notice the place functions a bit like a shrine to the whole Speed Tribes culture. A couple of authentic jackets are framed in the back, for example, and there's a whole glass case of biker toys, books, and memorabilia.
Black Emperor is a project from John Bush (formerly of places like Max Fish and Niagara) and Ben Rojo (of Angel's Share and Ghost Donkey, among other things). So far the best move they've made here, in my opinion, is sign up chef Jae Lee to kickstart the kitchen. Lee, who immigrated here as a kid in 1998, started a six-month residency last week, and though the only hype about it is the word "Food" written on the sidewalk chalkboard, know that he's serving a whole menu's worth of excellent bar food inside.
Lee calls his Black Emperor pop-up Him, which means "strength" in Korean, and at the core of his menu are two hefty, incredibly juicy cheeseburgers: a Washugyu Double Stack and a fat Dry Aged Steak single patty. Both have gobs of melted American cheese, a generous dollop of Lee's killer kimchi mayo, and a pickle spear topping off the seedy bun. Both are amazing, so go whichever way your heart-stomach leads you.
All four of the sides I ate over the course of three visits last week were also memorable. The Honey Butter Tater Tots are crisp and fluffy and not nearly as sweet as their "chips" counterparts, thanks in part to the sea-weedy furikake sprinkled on top and the bed of creamy labneh below. The Yuzu Guac is as citrusy as you'd hope and gets an additional flavor boost from the spoonful or two of chili oil that slowly seeps into the avocado mash. A plate of black sesame rice crackers proves to be a stellar substitute for tortilla chips.
Definitely get the chewy Harlem Rice Cakes at some point, for which Lee mixes in bits of tender beef, pickled chilis, and "secret sauce." And the Blistered Shishito, often a ho-hum dish, is given new life from the black sesame Caesar dressing. The only dish I would not recommend here is the Ramen Spiced Chicken Wings, which was too sugary for me and suffered from too much coating surrounding too little meat.
Him at Black Emperor is a great new neighborhood dinner option (and drinks), and should also be sought out by all NYC burger completists. Lee really knows how to make simple food sing, and if he really does leave here at the end of six months, I will absolutely also eat wherever he pops up next.
Him at Black Emperor is located at 197 Second Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets, and is every day except Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. The bar part is open considerably later, of course. (646-326-8543; @him_ny)