Under the Bun

(page 1 of 5)

A thick and juicy guide to Chicago’s 30 best burgers

Top sirloin burger at Prairie Grass Cafe
Top sirloin burger at Prairie Grass Cafe

McDonald’s recently launched an upscale Angus Burger to compete with Burger King’s Steakhouse XT. Ah, the big boys finally realized what the rest of us have known for a while now: The hamburger has grown up. We’re currently knee-deep in what Josh Ozersky, the author of The Hamburger: A History (2008), calls the great burger revolution, and the weapons of the rebellion include eco-friendly ingredients, American-style Kobe beef, scandalous toppings like artichokes and cranberries, $20 price tags, and other potential blasphemies. No kitchen riots yet, but many in the old burger guard suddenly look obsolete, while a new generation of ambitious restaurateurs reinvent an American icon right under their elders’ noses.

It’s the perfect moment to step back and take a fresh look at the landscape. So I started eating burgers—lots of them—in search of Chicago’s best. Here they are, ranked in order of magnificence. All 30 boast juicy, top-notch beef (preferably hand formed); a sturdy bun; fresh, balanced toppings; and that certain indefinable quality that impels you, no matter what, to take one more bite. Traditional or rococo, these burgers tell you everything you need to know about the state of Burgerdom in 2009.

Related:

Burgers Made Me Dumb »
Jeff Ruby on the downside to being a food writer

On French Fries »
Our favorites to accompany our burgers

Beefless Burgers »
If you want to avoid the bum steer, look for nonstandard ingredients

Vote! »
Disagree with our list? Make yourself heard

1 TOP SIRLOIN BURGER
PRAIRIE GRASS CAFE
The moment I order Prairie Grass Cafe’s beloved burger, my waiter won’t shut up. He’s telling me how smart I am, how it’s the best burger ever and he craves it nonstop. I think he said something about burgercentric erotic dreams; I had tuned out by that point. Turns out he undersold it. This burger is, in a word, amazing. The kitchen simply grills its marvelous ground sirloin on a charbroiler, then finishes it under a salamander broiler with mild Amish blue cheese until the two elements melt into one, before ingeniously adding tomatoes that have been grilled to the point where they burst into the beef. The result is thick, loose, and juicy—and it may very well represent the Platonic ideal of hamburgers. 601 SKOKIE BLVD., NORTHBROOK; 847-205-4433 $15

2 HAMBURGER
HOTCHOCOLATE
It’s pretty small by America’s Lipitor-busting standards, maybe six or seven ounces tops, but every element of Mindy Segal’s gourmet cheeseburger sings. The Heartland Farms beef, ground in-house every day, is so loose and flavorful it sizzles on your tongue for a moment, then promptly melts. The Carr Valley aged Cheddar is sharp and pleasantly tangy; the Gunter Farms bacon, uncannily crisp. Heck, even the house-made garlic bun is breathtaking. The whole juicy package makes me wonder if Segal—an accomplished pastry chef—missed her calling as an upscale burger slinger. 1747 N. DAMEN AVE.; 773-489-1747 $13

Photography: Anna Knott
Food Stylist: Lisa Kuehl; Food Stylist: Lisa Kuehl  Hair and Makeup: Eileen Mc Nulty  Models: Planet Earth Agency