Sunday, April 14, 2013

Chicago and the Best Burger I've Ever Had

Every couple of months or so I go to Chicago for business. My wish list for Chicago restaurants I want to visit is very very long. The problem, though, is that I'm based in the West Suburbs when I'm there, and I don't have a lot of time to trek downtown, where most of them are located. Another problem with trying to visit Topolobampo or Girl and Goat or any of the other buzzy places is I usually don't know about my trip far enough in advance to be able to make reservations - they book up months ahead.

One one of my first trips last year, I stayed over the weekend and decided to try for a place that didn't require reservations for a late Saturday lunch. I hoped that the off-peak time would increase my chances of getting a seat in a reasonable time. Given the fondness for red meat in the population, it's no surprise that one of the most well-known restaurants in town is a noveau bar/diner that's famous for its burgers. Being a lover of good burgers myself, and hearing good recs from trusted sources (like Vivek Surti), I picked Au Cheval for my dining adventure.

Located in a semi-grungy urban neighborhood, Au Cheval is a wide, shallow space, with booths running along the front wall, and a bar running parallel to the booths. There are a handful of tables on the far side from the door, and a couple of  booths on the near side. Dark and slightly battered, at first glance it looks for all the world like an old-school Chicago bar that's been there forever. It was about 2:00 on Saturday afternoon, and all the tables and booths were taken. I managed to snag a seat at the bar and was able to watch the cooks and bartenders at work.

Au Cheval serves a nice variety of items. They take the diner idea and tweak it to meet modern, artisanal sensibilities. The food is simple and substantial, with lots of familiar items like the aforementioned burgers, bologna sandwiches, matzah ball soup, eggs, fries, and the like. What sets Au Cheval apart from Denny's though, is not only the quality of the ingredients but additional dishes like a salad with sherry vinaigrette and foie gras.

They were serving their brunch menu when I was there, so I could have had brunchy things. I was sold on trying the burger, though, so I did. And, hand to my heart, I was a little surprised to find it was indeed the best burger I'd ever had. It's difficult to put my finger on exactly what made it so much better than any other burger, but ... it was. Big, beefy, terrific flavor, and a most excellent bun. The burger is served with a serrated steak knife thrust into the heart of sandwich. It's worth your while to use the knife to cut the burger in half to make it more manageable.

On my trip this past week, I didn't make it downtown, but luckily right down the street from my hotel was an outpost of DMK Burger Bar, a small Chicago chain. It came recommended by coworker Ricky Spears, and also seemed to be well-regarded, so I decided to give it a go. Located next to a Starbucks, in one of about a million cookie-cutter suburban strips, it was atypical of this somewhat upscale, corporate-chain-heavy area. Unlike other restaurants I'd been to nearby, the restaurant and the servers were of the hipster variety. Tattoos and hair colors not found in nature were common. The clientele varied, from worker bees like myself to middle-aged couples to young adults.

The menu at DMK is simple -- a variety of burgers made from grass-fed beef, turkey, bison, lamb, portobello mushroom, or veggie. There are 14 varieties with a wide variety of toppings; omissions are acceptable but substitutions are not. This is not a "build your own" sort of place. There  are also fries, also available with a variety of toppings, along with slaw, salads, and "cheese with things" which includes macaroni and cheese. There is a full bar, with beer and wine, as well as house-made sodas and shakes. I decided to keep it simple and got Burger #1 -- cheddar, bacon, and grilled balsamic onions. I skipped the normally included BBQ sauce for some ketchup on the side. Being in an indulgent, cheesy, end-of-a-long-work-week mood, I opted for a small order of the fries with cheddar and scallions.

The burger was good -- very good. I thought the house-made bun was a nice touch but it was too squishy to hold up to a substantial slab of meat with lots of toppings. The fries were fine. I was expecting melted grated cheddar, but there was instead a (broken) cheese sauce. No doubt made from good cheese rather than American Cheese Food Product, but I was a bit disappointed. I would have loved a generous topping of scallions, but alas, got just a dusting of some very finely-minced green. Still, I'll return to DMK my next visit for a casual dinner; I'm looking forward to trying some of the other burgers and sides.

Of course, I can't end this post without mentioning the burger options in Nashville. Sadly, I have not experienced many of our renowned burgers myself, but I'm thinking I need to make more of an effort. I've been to Pharmacy Burger on the East side, and I liked it well enough (I LOVED the from-scratch beverages). I actually like the burger at PM a LOT. I've heard great things about the burger at Fido -- some folks think that's the best burger in town, believe it or not. Of course, there is Gabby's and Burger Up. Lockeland Table supposedly serves a limited number of burgers late at night. For the home cooks, one can purchase burgers from Porter Road Butcher made with ground beef AND ground bacon. The possibilities are vast. Nashvillians, where is YOUR favorite burger?

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