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On the Side: A virtuous burger, very good, not best

Across from DiBruno Bros. cheeserie near 18th and Chestnut last week, the line was moving smartly at the newest burger joint in town, a fresh-faced interloper called Goodburger.

Across from DiBruno Bros. cheeserie near 18th and Chestnut last week, the line was moving smartly at the newest burger joint in town, a fresh-faced interloper called Goodburger.

It bills itself as "the best burger in New York," which is rather stretching what the reviews say.

But Goodburger is, in fact, a very good burger, and instead of a secret sauce, you get a topping of laser-targeted virtue: Welcome, to the beef burger without tears.

No prefrozen beef patty here: It's fresh-ground, "certified, premium Hereford Beef."

"Naturally and humanely raised."

"In the U.S.A."

From those nasty, dusty feed lots? No way. This stuff is "from small, family-run farms."

Well, welcome to the East Coast edition, at least.

Back in 1948, the same year that the McDonald brothers automated fast food in California, a far smaller, far more conscientious burger chain opened the country's first drive-through: It was called In-N-Out Burger, and it has remained on the West Coast something of the anti-McDonald's - the road not taken on the way to Fast Food Nation and its multitude of well-plowed sins.

Eric Schlosser, who wrote the book, literally, on those sins cataloged In-N-Out's other way: top wages and benefits; no microwaves, heat lamps or even freezers; the ground beef is fresh; the potatoes are peeled every day; the food-quality ranked at the top of the fast-food chain (in consumer surveys that ranked McDonald's quality at the bottom).

The burger wars have ebbed and flowed since. The McLean bombed in the '90s. Restraint gave way to extra bacon and cheese. Fried chicken came on strong, perceived as healthier, though its obscene calorie counts in some cases outstripped beef's.

Michael Pollan's writings hammered at the environmental toll of assembly-line beef production. Your average burger's carbon footprint, it turned out, was as unsightly as the working conditions in your average abattoir.

Among a cohort of males from 18 to 35, none of that mattered: They've long accounted for 20 percent of the traffic, but up to a whopping 50 percent of the sales.

But there's another market out there, carnivorous, but looking for cover, tuned to a more-contemporary, defensible frequency.

And so, as In-N-Out before it, Goodburger advertises that its butchers carefully hand-cut and grind the beef in their own facility; "our lettuce is hand-leafed"; the fries have been cooked in zero-trans-fat canola oil ("even before it became law"); the packaging is, mostly, biodegradable; the grease is recycled for biodiesel.

They don't bother to mention how their workers' wages and health benefits stack up against In-N-Out's, long the gold standard. So perhaps that part of the comparison is a stretch as well.

Goodburgers are not the best fast-food burgers in New York; the Shake Shack's in Madison Square Park are. They are not the ultimate in guilt-free red meat; that would be grass-fed beef. And they are not, certainly, health food; nor are their fries.

But they are (after a few opening-week kinks have gotten worked out) juicy and flame-grilled to your order (I get mine medium rare) and served on a toasted bun, with crisp leaves of lettuce, sliced onion and tomato.

In other words, they taste somewhat like a real burger tasted . . . before it got McDonaldized.

That might not be the world's best news.

But it is good enough to stand in line for five minutes, familiarizing yourself with the Goodburger fact card, and the virtues of eating a burger so artfully described.