Just steps from the Boston Common on Temple Place, JM Curley is an industrial looking space with high ceilings, brick walls and minimalist decor. There's a bar on the left, tightly packed 2- and 4-tops against the brick wall to the right and a single banquette booth at the back. There's a separate windowless room called "Bogie's Place," where more banquettes and its own bar afford an extra level of privacy for VIPs. There's only one TV in the place, above the bar. Further up is a black top hat symbolic of the bar's namesake, multi-term Boston Mayor James Michael Curley (whose reign spanned the Red Sox careers of both Babe Ruth and Ted Williams). Unless you count the bubble hockey game in the back and the loud dance music with a heavy beat, there are no gimmicks to the no-nonsense space; the focus is clearly on the food and drink.
At night, JM Curley is crowded, loud and lively. With only one bartender and one food runner at noontime, the bar turns into a lunch counter as patrons line up to place their orders.
A standard issue sesame seed roll is deceptive, seeming quite ordinary at first glance but upping the ante with good freshness and toasted, buttered inner surfaces that fortify the burger with increased richness. The same treatment works well with both of the burger sizes offered.
Different burgers are offered at different times of day. At dinner, it's a 9-ounce grilled patty, $14 with fries included. At weekday lunch, it's a 5-ounce griddled patty, $7.50 with fries available a la carte for $2.50. For Sunday brunch, the smaller patty is available three ways: "House style" (standard lunch version), "Mark's Breakfast Burger" with egg and the "Death Row" bacon cheeseburger with pulled pork. A little known secret: the 5-ounce patty is available through dinner and evening hours.
The beef blend isn't talked up on the menu, but it's among the most luscious and tasty in Boston. According to chef Sam Monseur, it's less about a secret blend (80/20 all natural pure Angus beef) and more about approach: it's ground fresh daily and handled "very delicately" (that part's a secret) and "seasoned properly" with kosher salt and butcher grind black pepper. "Other than that, we just pay attention to how we cook them and care a lot about each and every one."
I tried the dinner/larger/grilled burger on my first visit and instantly liked it, noting a refreshingly liberal use of seasoning—mostly salt, with that coarse black pepper in every third bite or so. Cooked to a perfect medium rare, it brought good moisture and a strong beefiness that kept pace with the seasoning. It was immediately apparent that this wan't your typical Angus burger. This was something special, and one of the good ones. But with the good ones, the inevitable comparisons arise: could this be one of the great ones? Thus the smallest nits get picked, because that's what it takes to separate the great from the near great. On this first visit, the interior was perfect, with juices more than obvious but just a little short of bursting. The exterior was solid, but shy of remarkable. Overall, a fantastic burger that easily made my Boston Top 10 but not my top 5.
Then I returned.
I took a weekday off just to try the lunch/smaller/griddled format. This time the seasoning was not only bolder but downright exhilarating, with the black pepper as strong as the salt. This time the crusting was equally intense, strutting a glistening crispness that served as an attractive backdrop for the peppercorns and other tidbits. Inside, the beef erupted with juices that startled me with both their force and their strong beef flavor. Even a dry burger can explode juices, but this one was well lubricated through every gentle strand of the patty. After downing one, I rethought the top 5 status. After a second one (all in the name of research), I departed certain that the JM Curley burger is in my top 3. This burger is so good, it's dangerous.
Cheese has varied from slightly moist to fully melted such that it engulfs the patty (I'm guessing the 9-ouncer uses two slices). Though the beef and seasonings are the obvious stars, a very key co-star (hardly a role player) is the mount of not-too-finely-chopped caramelized onions. These have a cooked-down jammy intensity that removes all the bitterness and adds some natural sweetness without overdoing it; its bonus byproducts are a soft texture and a thin but potent onion gravy that trickles down the sides of the burger. The importance of these onions cannot be overstated.
On the lunch visit I added bacon ($2.00) to one of the burgers but found no strips; instead the bacon's diced, fried and added to the onion mix. It doesn't do much visually (I initially thought I received a burger topped with pulled pork by mistake), but this preferred format allows an even distribution that ensures crunch-filled bacon in every bite.
The condiment is a creamy Russian dressing. Bread and butter pickles round out the supporting cast.
The Fries (and such)
JM Curley has two options here as well: wedges or shoestrings. Both are very crisp, with skins on. Both have yielding interiors, with the wedges more so. Both are heavily salted, with a distinct possibility of coarse ground pepper in there heavily as well. I like both versions, with no preference among the two. The best strategy is to have your dining companion order the opposite of what you order, and you both win.
The menu includes a lighthearted "Law and Order" section with rules regarding cellphone use to foul language to flatulence to public displays of affection. The bottom line is, "Just don't be a douchebag," which is common sense. To some it can be off-putting, but I think it's intended as a fun thing and that's how I take it.
I get the feeling that the pedestrian bun is less of an oversight and more of a statement, as if they're pulling off the burger equivalent of kicking your ass with one hand tied behind their back (not unlike what the excellent Russell House Tavern burger does across the river with an English muffin).
With the 5-ounce burger, you're not asked how you want it cooked. They nailed my preferred medium rare, but if you like yours more done than that, it's probably worth specifying ahead of time.
The Bottom Line
I just compared JM Curley to another favorite Boston burger, so how about concluding with comparisons to five more? There might be other burgers around town where the beef is funkier (Craigie On Main), silkier (Eastern Standard), steakier (Back Bay Social Club), more tender (Radius), more affordable (Russell House Tavern or The Gallows) or more aggressively seasoned (uh, not a chance), but no Boston burger hits as many of these marks or hits them as hard across the board as JM Curley. Whether it's the 9-ounce grilled version or the 5-ounce griddled version (my preference), their burger is not only a must-try but a likely addition to any Boston burger fan's pantheon. It's very high up in mine.
Boston Burger Blog review of JM Curley
Yelp reviews of JM Curley
Urbanspoon reviews of JM Curley
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