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Are Hot Doug’s (left) and DMK Burger Bar worth the wait?
When I moved to Chicago, there were three things I swore I would never do: run for a bus, root for the Bears, and stand in line outside a restaurant. The first two didn’t take long to happen, but while living on North Halsted in the nineties, I spent a lot of time gaping out my window on Sunday mornings at Lincoln Parkers waiting an hour to eat ordinary omelets at Toast. These lines were a joke to me until they also began forming at artisan places like Hot Doug’s and Great Lake. Now every three-star chef with a brain is launching an upscale street-food concept, and I’m not laughing. With serious diners flocking to Xoco, Big Star, and DMK Burger Bar—and recurring doubts about whether I should sacrifice two hours of my life for a taco—I did the only thing that made sense: I got in line.
“The presence of a line provides social ‘proof ’ that a place is indeed exceptional,” says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “And it’s a general psychological principle that if we work toward something, we end up liking it more.” Made sense, until I sought a second opinion from Fishbach’s colleague at Booth, Ann McGill, who cited what’s known as the halo effect. “Humans crave an orderly universe, and they tend to like consistency,” says McGill. “So for some, if being in the line is awful, they would be ready to see the food as awful, too.” I would add a third group: those who are so hungry by the time they get their meal that they’d be thrilled with a sautéed Hacky Sack.
I tested Fishbach’s and McGill’s theories on a recent Saturday at Rick Bayless’s torta heaven, Xoco, where endless menu signs seemed to confuse the already tense line. None of the customers knew what they were allowed to order, triggering a flow of dubious information. (“They’re only serving breakfast.” “They’re only serving soups.” “They’re only serving tortas approved by Bayless’s yoga instructor.”) When I reached the counter after 40 minutes, an employee barked at my friend for touching a sign that read CHURROS $1.00 EACH, then told us we couldn’t have churros. Or tortas. We were too early for lunch, and if that’s what we wanted, we had to get back in line. Forty-five minutes later, we reached the counter again, ordered four tortas, and scurried to the cramped dining area.
Just when I was ready to hate Xoco, my order arrived. All four tortas were remarkable, especially the pepito, a Labriola roll packed with tender braised Tallgrass beef, caramelized onion, melted Jack cheese, black beans, and pickled jalapeños and cooked in a wood-burning oven. Tasted like a cheese steak vacationing in the Yucatán. I ate my griddled Cubana torta (an addictive smoked Maple Creek pork loin, Nueske’s bacon slabs, melted Jack, avocado, and chipotle mustard) with such gusto that habañero salsa splashed in my eye, forcing me to finish in one-eyed agony. The crisp cocoa-nib-topped churros beat any I’ve found in Pilsen, and the Aztec hot chocolate was like a big glass of mole, thick and spicy and ridiculously smooth. All of which left me wondering: How stubborn would I have to be to write off a restaurant whose food I adored?
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I schlepped my psychological baggage to DMK Burger Bar, the popular Lake View spot from Michael Kornick (MK) and David Morton (Pompei). So many customers turned up for handcrafted burgers and microbrews on DMK’s opening night last November that hundreds of turned-away patrons were each given a voucher for a free draft. So I set aside four hours for a lunchtime visit. When I saw no line out front, I figured the place was closed.
Wrong. Hordes crammed the industrial-slick space. Miraculously, a few tables were open, and 20 minutes after walking in, I had my paws on three burgers, truffle Parmesan fries, Wisconsin Cheddar and scallion fries, and a Madagascar vanilla bean milk shake—none of which I felt I had earned. Reminded me of a 2003 trip to Epcot with my wife’s injured mother: We got ushered to the front of each line, and the rides never seemed as fun as they should have.
Sure enough, though everything at DMK was fresh and pleasant, nothing beyond the truffle Parmesan fries and the fluffy chocolate and peanut butter cupcake thrilled me. Kornick’s grass-finished burgers are relatively lean, not the kind that run with juices. The #1, stacked with aged Cheddar, thick smoked bacon, charred balsamic onions, and barbecue sauce, was fine, but I preferred the #11, a distinctive grass-fed lamb burger that united sheep’s milk feta, olive tapenade, and tzatziki. Hard to fault DMK for running a smooth ship, but I missed a heightened sense of anticipation. “Maybe we should’ve gone on Friday night to get the full effect,” said Mrs. Dining. And here I thought the full effect was what I’d spent years avoiding.
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I certainly got the full effect on a recent Friday night at Big Star, where throngs of humanity packed in, from the square bar to the wooden booths. The polished honky-taco-tonk in Wicker Park’s old Pontiac Cafe space is equal parts whiskey and tequila bar, taquería, and stage for one of Chicago’s true superhero chefs, sans cape: the partner Paul Kahan. He hustles around, running dishes and changing country records on the hi-fi; I watched one fanboy text a friend about the Blackbird chef ’s every action. Raucous larger parties—who don’t appear to know Paul Kahan from Chaka Khan—snag booths early in the evening and spend the rest of the night toasting their luck with small-batch bourbons. “A third of the people are here because of Kahan and a third because of the scene,” the doorman told me. “The rest still think it’s the Pontiac.”
The self-managed crowd jockeying for seats didn’t resemble a line so much as vultures gauging who was closest to finishing, then lurking behind those diners until they got so uncomfortable they left. Somehow, this system works. When Mrs. Dining stuffed her coat beneath one man’s barstool as he was biting into his tacos al pastor basted in pineapple juice and chile de arbol, he said he’d done the same thing to the guy before him. Thirty minutes later, he surrendered his stool.
Justin Large’s tacos bring the thunder. The chef ’s tacos de panza is an impeccable small tortilla laid with crisp braised pork belly and onion in tomato-guajillo sauce, with a sprinkle of queso fresco, a smattering of cilantro, and a spritz of lime. I followed that with tacos de borrego of succulent lamb shoulder with grilled scallions, radishes, queso fresco, and braising liquid. Chased each with a Schlitz mini and had myself a tidy little meal for $7. Under striking skylights, Big Star’s wait was far more pleasant than Xoco’s, and—given the mental mess I had become—it provided the social validation DMK hadn’t.
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Photography: Anna Knott