The Smoker at Prime 16


At Prime 16, the name says it all. “Prime”: meat from young, well-fed cattle. “16”: the number of ounces in a pint. Still unclear? Check the logo: a minimalistic drawing of a bovine head, in which the face and snout together form a pint glass. The message is plain—beef and beer—even if the execution isn’t at this woody, tin-ceilinged hamburger spot in downtown New Haven.

The interior is split by a windowed wall into beer- and food-centric sides. While you can order whatever you like on either end, the sections have distinct feels. To the left is a bar lit by dim Edison bulbs, surrounded by high-top stools and booths and TVs tuned to sports. To the right, the lighting is brighter, the tables are lower and the ceiling is hung not with TVs but acoustic panels, which reduce noise levels and make dinner conversation easier.

The beer selection is ample, with 20 beers on tap and 16 canned and bottled varieties. Most of the tap brews are regional, and a handful are Connecticut-brewed—like Two Roads’s Honeyspot White IPA (Stratford) and Back East’s Rakautra (Bloomfield). Brewed further afield are beers like Lagunitas’s New Dogtown Pale Ale (Petaluma, CA) and Thistly Cross’s ‘Whisky Cask’ Cider (Dunbar, UK). But while the beer menu is long and varied enough to compete with most bars, a creative, unusual burger list is what really sets Prime 16 apart, spanning ingredients like tobacco-fried onions and grilled pineapple.

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Which is ironic, perhaps, because Prime 16 sits only a block and a half away from Louis’ Lunch, whose hamburgers haven’t changed much since 1900, when the popular dish’s inventor, Louis Lassen, stuck some trimmings between two slices of bread. Louis’ tries to stick to that original: a patty of five different meats, served on toasted white bread and white paper plates, with vegetables upon request and no condiments, ever. But 116 years of patty-flipping has led others toward exciting iterations of the burger formula, including some just a minute or two away.

Prime 16’s Pickle Back ($11.95) takes its name and inspiration from the iconic combo of a bourbon shot chased with a shot of spicy pickle brine. Its beef patty is basted in bourbon stout BBQ sauce, beneath spicy dill pickle medallions and pickled red onion. Although the liquor-pickle combo has been known to other cultures for much longer—Russia drinks vodka with pickles; Mexico mixes tequila and brine—bourbon with spicy pickle is a distinctly American concept. Perhaps in homage to this, Prime 16’s Pickle Back is the only burger on the menu topped with American cheese.

The Smoker ($12.95; pictured first)—one of the most popular burgers on the menu, I’m told—comes with an “X” of smoked applewood bacon, laid over sautéed onion, crimini mushrooms, two slices of smoky, warm gouda and a beef patty. I ordered it rare and it arrived nearly mooing—just as I wanted it. When I picked it up to take a bite, it left my thumbs wet from the juices that’d seeped into the bottom bun. In the Chipotle Bison ($15.95; pictured second), the primary tastes were the meat, the bread and a Wisconsin cheddar cheese, but it lacked pizzazz. The dish was too light on the three-pepper relish, and the chipotle flavor promised by the name was subtle to say the least, despite being the most expensive burger of the bunch.

While the menu clearly favors beef-lovers, the Mushroom & Pecan Veggie ($10.95) is a vegetarian burger loaded up with Swiss cheese, tomato and baby spinach. The Salmon ($12.95) has a salmon patty, of course, seasoned with fresh dill and ginger and served with a side of lemon confit mayo, in addition to more typical fixings. Taking the bun—usually brioche, at Prime 16—out of the equation, there’s a strong selection of salads like the Southwestern Avocado ($10.95): sweet candied bacon, roasted chickpeas, crispy julienned potato chips and soft avocado slices over romaine lettuce, tossed with a punchy tequila lime vinaigrette.

The menu also has several intriguing starters. Torn between the skewered Fried Pickles ($7.50), the jalapeño-filled Rings of Fire ($7.95), the panko-topped Mac & Cheese ($7.95) and the Herb Goat Cheese Croquettes ($8.50), I chose the last. But while the balls themselves were good—tastefully seasoned warm goat cheese served gooey, with thin browned shells—the volume was disappointing, with just two meatball-sized portions. The other 90% of the plate was covered by triangles of toast and shallot-topped greens that added some visual pop but little satisfaction otherwise.

But hey, this isn’t a croquette restaurant—it’s a burger restaurant. And even in an era of increasing unorthodoxy and innovation, Prime 16 still manages to achieve distinction and novelty. The current menu is scheduled to change over soon—it happens about once a year, according to a server—and while best-selling patties will probably stick around, expect a new generation of burgers to hit Prime 16’s plates in the weeks to come.

Prime 16
172 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Kitchen Hours: Sun-Wed 11:30am-10pm, Thurs-Sat 11:30am-11pm
(203) 782-1616

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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