Joe Allen’s off-menu burger is perhaps one of the worst kept secrets in London’s burger scene. It appears on so many London’s Best Burgers top ten lists that it’s almost not even worth keeping it off-menu anymore. The not-so-secret burger has got to be one of the most ordered items at Joe Allen’s West End location, yet they persist in the secrecy. Well, welcome to the secret club – the Joe Allen burger club; here is all you need to know to enjoy a delicious, beefy masterpiece next time you’re in Covent Garden.
Joe Allen is tucked into a tiny back street in the middle of Covent Garden called Exeter street. It opened all the way back in 1977, a testament to it’s staying power when the average lifespan of an eatery in central London must be counted using just one hand. It claims to be an almost exact copy of Joe Allen’s New York City joint, tucked into a subterranean basement with a innocuous and understated sign out front pointing down into the brick-lined underground. It’s surrounded by the biggest West End theaters, yet so tucked away that you better bring your smartphone to find it.
The interior brick walls are covered in signage, posters, playbills and kitsch from the plays, musicals, events and concerts of London’s past and present. In the 70s and 80s, Joe Allen became a meeting place for the West Ends actors, directors, producers and theatre crowd – so they remain true to that heritage in the way the walls are decorated. These days the customers seem to be more the theater-going types than the performers and backstage staff themselves, but the commitment to American eats remains the same.
They do a very nice and reasonably priced theatre set menu for the guests on a budget and time constraint. Their menu overall is great with a selection of steaks from £17-28 and a nice choice of American favorites like baby back ribs, chopped beef chilli, and crisp pork belly. They also have a nice little seafood section featuring fresh catches alongside salmon fishcakes and shrimp&crab brioche sandwiches. But it’s the burger that you see coming off the assembly line more than any other single dish, despite its absence from the menu.
You don’t need a passcode or secret handshake to order the burger, you only need to know if you want cheese and bacon and how you want your meat prepared. The irony is that Joe Allen lists a veggie burger on their normal a la carte menu, but I hazard a guess that the secret beef burger is ordered far more than this vegetarian offering.
The burger is served very simply: with onion, tomato and lettuce in a brioche bun. Of course, I added cheese and bacon to mine, adding some interest to the bare basics. The standout experience of this burger is the bun: It’s the best brioche bun I’ve ever had with a burger. Hands down. End of story.
The bun is a bakery-style masterpiece of fluffy, eggy, firm deliciousness. If you were to take a bite of the bun by itself, you’d find that it’s even a bit sweet – like a dessert bun. It is perfectly sized and suited to the task at hand. The bun is firm enough to hold up to the juices and toppings of the burger, yet fluffy enough to be as light as a cloud when you chomp into it. It’s lovely and I can’t talk it up enough!
The burger itself is no slouch either – the meat is smokey in taste just like the burgers at Big Easy. It tastes as though it’s taken on the soul of every piece of grilled meat that came before it, a unique smokey flavor that doesn’t come from that piece of beef but from the hundreds of thousands that have preceded it.
The things that really left something to be desired were the other toppings – the cheese was good, but the bacon was sparse and the veg looked like they were the leftovers from prettier-looking salads. I know it’s passé to look at veggies from a superficial standpoint, but I do, and sad brownish lettuce and an off-red tomato don’t really do it for me. Also, getting skimped on bacon is a horrible, horrible thing to bear.
But the toppings are secondary – the burger itself is truly excellent and the bun is without equal in the London scene. Full Stop.
The burger with cheese and bacon will set you back around £13 without fries or a drink, so it is on the pricey side, but in my opinion well worth it to a beef burger connoisseur. You can share the fries with a mate for £3.50 and they are really, very good as well. Other sides include the Boston beans, sweet chilli-grilled corn on the cob, skillet potatoes or olive oil mash, and American style slaw. All the sides run between £3-4.
Another entree worth mentioning is the Joe Allen hotdog. I mention it despite the fact that it’s a pork-based dish. It’s a smoked wurst-style dog served on a brioche bun with sour cream, guacamole, cheddar and fries for just under £14. It’s not your typical, wimpy hot dog – it’s a huge and filling dog with German-tasting influence and smokiness that comes from the grill. Worth a try if you’re not on your beef-game!
Overall, Joe Allen is a great little place. Friendly and helpful staff who aren’t in a rush to get your table turned over, but want to help you have a great experience. The crisp white tablecloths match the long aprons of the wait staff and the New Yorker vibe is strong. The starters, which I didn’t have time to get into, are also great and worth exploring and sharing with your friends. I’ll definitely be back to eat my way further through the menu.
You can visit Joe Allen at 13 Exeter Street, London WC2E 7DT or check out their website here.
Joe Allen Burger – 41/50
Beef (9): Smokey and juicy, has real character and flavor that you only get with time and practice.
Bun (10): The best brioche bun I’ve had on a burger, ever, period. It’s fluffy and light, yet strong and up to the juiciness challenge.
Toppings (5): Left me wondering why they would pay so little attention to these when they pay so much attention to the beef and bun.
Value (8): Good value for the delivered item – it’s an upscale burger, but I would happily pay the price for the meat experience.
Ambiance (9): American stage, theater, cinema and sport kitsch adorns the walls like a proper american subterranean diner, I love it, but don’t expect any daylight.