When it rains, it pours. The dining gods, in their infinite wisdom, broke open the clouds these last six months to deluge Chicago with a number of burger-centric restaurants.
I notice three trends with this go-round of openings: 1) The price point for gourmet burgers is heading downward, with most listed here under $12 (and my favorite is $5). 2) Division Street and River North no longer hold the burger monopoly, as we watch worthwhile restaurants opening in Jefferson Park, Portage Park and Schaumburg. 3) The movement toward smaller, more manageable burgers that don't require unhinging of my jaw to consume. I'm seeing less pretension, less froufrou, more no-frills interpretations. But enough philosophizing, let's begin our tour.
* CHEAP EATER PICK *
Redhot Ranch, the archetype of the classic Chicago hot dog stand, opened its third location in Lakeview and entered the competitive burger waters in January. Let's not bury the lead: In the $5-and-less category, you'd be hard-pressed to sample a finer cheeseburger in Chicago. This sandwiches combines the best traits of In-N-Out (toasted pillow buns, crunchy lettuce, Thousand Island tang) plus Steak 'N Shake (so caramelized are the griddle-smashed beef edges it's halfway to crunchy). The thick twice-cooked fries are piled a third of the way up the takeout bag, and have that nutty and mysterious depth of flavor that points to the presence of beef tallow in the fry oil. But I also dig the place because a double cheeseburger with fries is $5 tax-inclusive. I hate coins and love round numbers. All told, this place is a candidate to achieve Gene & Jude-level cult status.
Note: Only this location of Redhot Ranch serves burgers
3055 N. Ashland Ave., 773-661-9377
Open 10:30 a.m.-4 a.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-5 a.m. Friday-Saturday
* CHEAP EATER PICK *
Chef's Burger Bistro
When this gourmet hamburger renaissance gathered steam around 2008, restaurants operated on the shock-and-awe philosophy: "Just how nuts can we concoct our burgers?" We witnessed foie gras, lobster tails and Perigord truffles between buns, and it was, for lack of a better term, crazy sauce. Now, the trend seems to be chefs course correcting for their overindulgences. It's why I like Chef's Burger Bistro, which took over the Boston Blackie's Streeterville space in February. The bistro burger — its malty and soft buns baked in-house — is the most prim and aesthetically pleasing sandwich I encountered on this expedition. The thick tomato is sliced in perfect parallel, the lettuce crisp and golf course-green, the charcoal-broiled half-pound patty hand-formed with precise geometry. You almost feel obligated to eat it with silverware. My two favorite traits: Gouda, lending considerable funk, is the default cheese, and the crunchy bread-and-butter pickles lend a sweet zip against the beefiness. This ain't an in-your-face rock 'n' roll burger: This was made by chefs who took their time.
164 E. Grand Ave., 312-374-3092; chefsburgerbistro.com
Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
Big Chef Burgers
Here's your standard, two-handed pub burger with no obvious flaws, prepared with good ingredients and intentions. You can throw a rock blind and hit a place like that in Chicago. But because its home is in Schaumburg (much love to the northwest suburbs), where the gourmet burger per capita is less dense than the big city, Big Chef Burger stands out in a relatively barren field. What works about this burger is the hot flat top grill, which sears the half-pound Angus patties — the thickness of a full deck of playing cards — to a firm and peppery crust while retaining the medium-rare as requested. The truffle burger is effective, pushing its richness to code red with a fried egg, a translucent sheath of gooey Swiss cheese and a dash of truffle oil.
1602 E. Algonquin Rd., Schaumburg; 847-221-8539; bigchefburgers.com
Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Parts & Labor
A $5 non-grease bomb burger served in an attractive space that you can stumble into at 1:30 a.m. nightly — sounds like my Logan Square dreams are coming true. But I was wondering why the burger at Parts & Labor tasted the way it did. The double sixth-pound patties appeared one shade lighter than standard. It also tasted less beef-assertive, like vague sheets of meatloaf. After speaking to Bradley Treusdell, its executive chef, I got my answer: the patties are in fact two-thirds beef and one-third pork. I do not recall seeing pork listed on the printed menu nor online, and this seemed an important point to underscore. Nevertheless, it's a decent deal for a late-night burger that happens when you ask a chef to do his best chefy replication of a Wendy's Double Stack. And I dig a Wendy's Double Stack from time to time.
2700 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-360-7840; partsandlaborchicago.com
Open 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday-Friday, 4 p.m.-3 a.m. Saturday
A few things going for Leadbelly: First is its acknowledgment that the bun is the bass player of the burger ensemble — underappreciated and indispensable. These egg buns, brioche-like in their butteriness, are the type of implausibly soft rolls found in bakeries throughout Japan (like the Japanese bread shokupan, milk is an ingredient in Leadbelly's buns). The patties here bear a smoky undertone with the addition of bacon to the beef chuck grind. But what's most noteworthy about these burgers is they're served in Portage Park and Jefferson Park, two Chicago neighborhoods bereft of punk burger joints, the type that might feature bearnaise sauce or house-made Sriracha pickles on its menu. West Loopers would be jealous for a place like this, and for once, Portage and Jefferson Parks can say it's all theirs.
5739 W. Irving Park Rd., 773-283-7880
Open 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 12 p.m.-7 p.m. Sunday
5691 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-775-6650; leadbellyburgers.com
Open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 12 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 12 p.m.-7 p.m. Sunday
It's been a few years since both Gale Gand and the Hearty Boys — Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh — were Food Network mainstays. So when they joined forces to open a burger place, the star wattage attached was considerable, which brings with it elevated expectations. The burger constructions veer playful, such as an open-face Spam/egg/hollandaise burger, a poutine burger with fries, cheese curds and sage biscuit gravy, or the most conceptually successful: the British Indian-leaning Pub Crawl burger with English cheddar, pickled mango chutney and Colman's mustard aioli. The grass-fed beef, imported from New Zealand, has the most steak-like flavor of the many patties sampled, but the burgers we ordered were underseasoned. This is not yet on Kuma's Corner level, but judging by the 45-minute weekend waits, the crowds already are.
3819 N. Broadway, 773-868-9866; spritzburger.com
Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday