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Under the Bun

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

 

 

Kuma burger at Kuma's CornerKuma burger at Kuma's Corner

3 KUMA BURGER
KUMA’S CORNER
Every trip to this genial metalhead tavern feels like a dare: Prove it to me—that your burgers are worth the hype and the waiting and being forced to hear Cannibal Corpse at 100 decibels. Every time, Kuma’s comes through. The creative menu includes numerous standouts, but the best is still the Kuma Burger, an emphatic ten-ounce statement with two enormous slices of applewood-smoked bacon, sharp Cheddar, and a sunny-side-up egg on a doughy pretzel roll. It exudes the best juice ever, producing a little liquid steak-’n’-egg meal of pure protein. Though Kuma’s no longer forms its own patties (kitchen’s too small, demand’s too high), the legendary burgers are worth any series of humiliating hoop jumping. 2900 W. BELMONT AVE.; 773-604-8769 $10

4 CUSTOM HOUSE BURGER
CUSTOM HOUSE (CLOSED)
“Burger, right?” the bartender asks when I sit down at Custom House’s sumptuous bar. What? . . . How did you know? “You’ve got that burger smile,” she says, and then she serves me one of the best cheeseburgers in Chicago. CH’s skilled chefs grind their own top-notch short rib and prime steak scraps, grill the mixture, and nestle it on a lightly toasted poppy-seed bun that has been baked only hours earlier. Aged Cheddar blankets this miraculous beef orb, which gets further amplified by a dusting of sea salt and a smear of tomato-based house-made steak sauce. All told, it’s close to burger perfection. No wonder the bartender is so cocky. 500 S. DEARBORN ST.; 312-523-0200 $12

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

5 BBQ BURGER
MARC BURGER
As a rule, I don’t like to mix my barbecue and my burgers—it’s like trying to hit a football with a baseball bat—but Marcus Samuelsson may have changed my mind. His chunky house-made barbecue sauce includes coffee, chipotle, and harissa, and it’s the perfect foil for char-grilled organic ground beef that has been seasoned with smoked paprika. My beef was cooked a tad beyond medium, but it was so moist and tender, and the applewood-smoked bacon so brittle, I would’ve been a jerk to complain. This burger is a spicy, moody affair, and a completely original one at that. MACY’S, 111 N. STATE ST., 7TH FLOOR; 312-781-3385 $9

6 ANGUS BEEF BURGER
NAHA
In the category of Best Bun in a Supporting Role, Naha wins hands down. Carrie Nahabedian makes her sea-salt-crusted bun from focaccia dough, but bakes it like a ciabatta, then toasts it. It’s a dense marvel, sturdy enough for eight moist ounces of Angus topped with roasted tomatoes and white Cheddar, the latter of which gets cooked into the beef so completely your mouth can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. “I wanted to create a burger juicy enough that when you take a bite, juice runs down your arm,” says Nahabedian, whose handiwork predated the gourmet burger craze by years. And despite that Herculean bun, her burger still managed to vanquish my shirtsleeve. 500 N. CLARK ST.; 312-321-6242 $15

7 CHEESEBURGER
ABIGAIL’S
Anyone who has ever grilled a burger knows it tends to swell up in the middle. To avoid that misfortune, Michael Paulsen, the chef at Abigail’s, employs an old trick: While hand-packing his ground chuck into eight-ounce patties, he presses his thumb into the middle, leaving a small hole. As it fills in, Paulsen’s patty cooks evenly in the center and on the perimeter, making every square inch ethereal. From the first bite to the last, juice oozes onto the bottom homemade brioche; up top the bun gets cozy with aged Wisconsin Cheddar and balsamic/red onion jam. In between is heaven in Highland Park. 493 ROGER WILLIAMS AVE., HIGHLAND PARK; 847-849-1009 $9

8 DELUXE BEEFBURGER
TOP NOTCH BEEFBURGERS
I kept hearing about the “beefburgers” at this dingy diner and wondered if they were really worth the long hike to Beverly. Now I’m thinking of moving to Beverly. The beef comes from Whittingham Meats in south suburban Alsip, and Top Notch’s goal, reportedly, is to serve it within a day of arrival. That smells like a fable, but the beef on my half-pounder—which, incidentally, has the ideal beef-to-bun ratio—was certainly rich, juicy, and $7.25 of pure pleasure. The bun is an undistinguished toasted sesame-seed number, and the cheese tastes like melted Velveeta, but so what? I could eat the patty plain. It’s that good. 2116 W. 95TH ST.; 773-445-7218 $7.25

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

 

 

40-day-aged prime burger at David Burke's Primehouse
40-day-aged prime burger at David Burke's Primehouse

9 40-DAY-AGED PRIME BURGER
DAVID BURKE’S PRIMEHOUSE
In the 21st century, you can’t just throw a frozen patty on a griddle and expect to compete. Not when a place like Burke’s dry ages its beef in a room of Himalayan salt tiles and re-creates a microcosm of its restaurant in its burger. Atop ten ounces of impeccable beef are judicious smatterings of garlic spinach, bacon mayonnaise, crispy shallots, and a potato bun—“all sides you would get at a steak house,” says Rick Gresh, the chef. It sounds gimmicky, but this is a serious burger. Purists may say that spinach doesn’t belong in the same time zone as a burger, much less inside the same bun. Fine. More for the rest of us. THE JAMES, 616 N. RUSH ST.; 312-660-6000 $12

10 CORTLAND STREET BURGER
CORTLAND’S GARAGE
When a side-street bar you’ve probably never heard of is doing burgers this creative, you realize just how lucky you are to live in Chicago. Chef Jim August (formerly of Café Le Coq) delights in toying with your burger perceptions: Thanks to a luscious hunk of pure Angus beef, crisp applewood-smoked bacon, fried onion strings, fresh avocado, and white Cheddar, every bite of the Cortland Street seamlessly mixes crunchy and smooth textures. It’s the kind of weirdly tempting burger that makes you keep saying to yourself: Just one more bite. Next thing you know, it’s gone and you have no idea where it went. 1645 W. CORTLAND ST.; 773-862-7877 $11

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

11 DOUBLE WITH CHEESE
THAT’S-A-BURGER
If you can’t seem to shake your McDonald’s addiction, head to this hallowed South Shore storefront and put in an order for a double. It’s what Mickey D’s wishes it tasted like. The man painstakingly crafting your burger behind the bulletproof glass—so humble he wishes to remain anonymous—doesn’t ask how you want it cooked, and he doesn’t care. You’ll like what he gives you: a massive full-pounder that’s strangely devoid of grease but tastes full of it. These hand-formed hulks are too messy to eat in your car, and That’s-A-Burger has no seating. Just stand there and make a pig of yourself. Guarantee you Mr. Anonymous has seen it all before. 2134 E. 71ST ST.; 773-493-2080 $8.21

12 BULL & BEAR BURGER
BULL & BEAR
David Blonsky, the chef of this modern sports bar, may have stumbled upon an instant classic. “I just played around with different ingredients, and this seemed to be a solid combination,” he says. It’s better than solid. The “American Kobe” beef is exceedingly juicy, soaking into a bulbous, buttery brioche; sweet onion marmalade cuts the fat taste; delicious melted Gruyère dances cheek to cheek with a decadent smoked bacon aïoli. Apparently, this is how far sports-bar burgers have come: Their condiments now have their own umlauts. 431 N. WELLS ST.; 312-527-5973 $18

13 SIGNATURE CHEESEBURGER
THE CAPITAL GRILLE
Every morning, this proud steak house grinds its sirloin, adds emulsified applewood-smoked bacon and caramelized onion, and then mixes the meat. The result is a tender, deep-flavored patty whose delicious smoke gets evenly distributed and unleashed after a trip through the charbroiler. It’s all kinds of juicy, so juicy that it could use a bun brawnier than the toasted onion brioche from New York’s Tom Cat Bakery (which also got pushed around by the buttery melted Havarti). I stupidly put the leftovers in the office fridge, and an anonymous coward promptly committed the ultimate sin. You do not steal another man’s burger. 633 N. ST. CLAIR ST.; 312-337-9400 $15

14 HÄUS BURGER
HOP HÄUS
This genial Rogers Park tavern—an offshoot of the one in River North—boasts all the same goofy condiment possibilities available downtown: Olives? Artichokes? Pineapples, for Pete’s sake? Ignore them all and zero in on the straight-up Häus Burger. With beef as good as this expertly grilled ground chuck, all you really need are a proper white Cheddar, maybe a little applewood bacon, and a pretzel roll bun. All three are in the häus. Demerits for the Thousand Island dressing, but the burger itself is so wickedly peppery, such an abomination barely registers. 7545 N. CLARK ST.; 773-262-3783 $10

15 DISTRICT BURGER
DISTRICT BAR (CLOSED)
The District Burger’s loose, ridiculously tender patty gets crowned with red wine onions that have been slow cooked in sugar, plus a layer of Roaring Forties blue cheese that elevates the beef without overwhelming it. Bonus points for the wonderful hand-cut fries, tossed with parsley, sea salt, rosemary, and thyme, and addictive little garlic chips. There’s something about eating a perfectly round burger in a perfectly round sports lounge while watching a ball game that just feels . . . well, right. It’s feng shui, Midwestern style. 170 W. ONTARIO ST.; 312-337-3477 $11

16 ZAK’S BURGER
ZAK’S PLACE (CLOSED)
As burgers get more and more ornate, an unfortunate byproduct is sickly sweet condiments, usually masking subpar beef. Zak’s hefty 11-ouncer avoids that problem, partially because the Black Angus beef bursts with flavor of its own. The caramelized onions that mysteriously appeared on my burger were understated and cut with applewood-smoked bacon, melty Cheddar, and a Labriola onion brioche. At dinner, this burger’s on the bar menu only, yet just about every table in the dining room manages to order at least one. “It’s a pretty simple burger, but people devour it,” says Yamandu Perez, the chef/owner. “I can’t explain it.” I can: It’s good. 112 S. WASHINGTON ST., HINSDALE; 630-323-9257 $12

17 HAVARTI CHEESEBURGER
DUCHAMP (CLOSED)
Duchamp’s glorious hand-ground cheeseburger rocketed to stardom so fast after Michael Taus opened last summer that his kitchen could barely keep up with demand. The ambitious Bucktown spot no longer grinds its own beef, which sounds like a bummer, but the difference is negligible. Same thick hand-formed patty, same fresh-baked dill roll, same zesty tomato rémoulade, same perfect melt of Havarti sinking into succulent beef chuck. “That’s how I always did my own burger at home,” says Taus. “I love a great burger.” Apparently, so do his customers. 2118 N. DAMEN AVE.; 773-235-6434 $13

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

 

 

Small Bar cheeseburger
Small Bar cheeseburger

18 SMALL BAR CHEESEBURGER
SMALL BAR
“The seasoning blend started with salt and pepper and evolved to what it is now,” says Ty Fujimura, Small Bar’s co-owner. OK, so what is it now? “Secret ingredients,” Fujimura says. Terrific. I’m dying to know how to make this one at home, but all I know is that it’s certified Angus that’s been cooked perfectly medium rare and served with the usual fixings on a cornmeal-dusted kaiser. The rest must be some kind of magic, because how else do you explain a burger this good at a humble soccer-obsessed beer bar in Ukie Village? 2049 W. DIVISION ST.; 773-772-2727 $10

19 ROE BURGER
FLUB A DUB CHUB’S HOT DOG EMPORIUM
This family-owned subterranean hot dog joint tucked beneath a Lake View astrology shop may seem like an odd choice for this list, but the Roe Burger has eclipsed any of the place’s dogs in popularity. Deservedly so. It’s half a pound of fresh charcoal-grilled beef on a pretzel roll with crisp bacon strips burrowed into melted Cheddar, plus a layer of creamy avocado—and it’s a standout. You’ll feel good about putting money in the pockets of the Giarratano family, who love their patrons so much they give them the remote control for the 40-inch flat screen in the corner. 3021 N. BROADWAY; 773-857-6500 $7.50

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

20 CLASSIC CHEESEBURGER
ERWIN (CLOSED)
An offbeat flavor perks up Erwin’s unique cheeseburger, and when I ask my server about it, she says that it must be the tonkatsu sauce that the chef, Erwin Drechsler, gets from Joong Boo Market. “Think steak sauce, but with a natural fruit and vegetable extract,” says Drechsler, who also seasons his Black Angus beef with fresh garlic before finishing it on an oak-wood-burning grill. One grievance keeps this burger from the upper-upper echelon: While undeniably tasty, mine was bloodier than a Tarantino flick. 2925 N. HALSTED ST.; 773-528-7200 $13

21 CHARBURGER ON PITA
CROSS-RHODES
The serious burgerati out there will probably ream me for this, but to get the full effect of Cross-Rhodes’s beloved charburger, you really need a knife and fork. That way you can get a bite that contains every mouthwatering element: fresh flame-broiled beef, a thick flour pita, a big block of tangy feta, iceberg lettuce, and an ample Greek fry underneath that’s been basted in white wine and lemon-herb dressing. Pita? White wine? Utensils? Is this really a burger? You’re damn right it is. It’s also the best in Evanston. 913 CHICAGO AVE., EVANSTON; 847-475-4475 $6.75

22 HAMBURGER
NIGHTWOOD
Every three weeks, half a cow arrives at Nightwood from Slagel Family Farms in Fairbury, Illinois. Pretty much every cow part goes to good use. The shoulder, for example, gets ground up, formed into patties, seasoned with Worcestershire, wood grilled, and topped with spicy homemade mustard and a “loose fondue” of beer-infused white Cheddar. At that point it reaches its final resting place: inside a chewy ciabatta roll on your plate. Sounds like a lousy way to spend one’s afterlife, even by bovine standards. But sit at the open-kitchen bar and watch Nightwood make your burger— lean and pleasantly charred—and you’ll agree the cow gave its life for a noble cause. 2119 S. HALSTED ST.; 312-526-3385 $13

23 GRILLED CHEESEBURGER
JOE’S SEAFOOD, PRIME STEAK & STONE CRAB
Gary Baca, Joe’s chef/partner, has such confidence in the buttery flavor of his “double-thick” cheeseburger that his kitchen doesn’t bother putting anything on it other than a perfect drape of melted Cheddar. That’s it. No lettuce, no tomato, no nothing. If you’re stubborn, you can add bacon or sautéed onions at no charge, but don’t bother, because anything else will only screw up this specimen’s delicate balance of beef to bun. From a menu packed with extravagances, Baca loves to recommend his cheeseburger. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before they add “Burgers” to the restaurant’s pathologically inclusive name. 60 E. GRAND AVE.; 312-379-5637 $10.50

24 DOUBLE CHEDDAR CHAR BURGER
PARADISE PUP
Once upon a time, little roadside hot dog stands—usually sporting a red awning and some kind of cute canine mascot—littered the Chicago area. Within such earnest establishments, the most pressing question on earth was: Burger or dog? At Paradise Pup, where lines still stretch into the parking lot even in the dead of winter, the answer is: Are you crazy? Beneath a mountainous sesame-seed challah bun, the char burger’s intense charred exterior harbors tender beef that tastes almost buttery, with its slather of Merkt’s Cheddar and a gentle quilt of grilled onions. This is what Chicago used to taste like. 1724 S. RIVER RD., DES PLAINES; 847-699-8590 $5.79

25 WAGYU BEEF BURGER
YOSHI’S CAFÉ
Yoshi Katsumura began playing around with heavily marbled wagyu beef seven years ago, which means he has spent an awful lot of time perfecting this beauty. A loose, hulking ten-ounce patty on a golden dome of a brioche, it has to be Chicago’s thickest burger, but it’s also got a melt-in-your-mouth texture and flavor deeper than an E. E. Cummings sonnet. A slab of Brie provides an understated textural contrast, and peppery mizuna leaves stand in for bland romaine. That was pretty good, but Katsumura is now considering topping it all with a creamy knob of foie gras: an unnecessary but fun experiment in decadence. 3257 N. HALSTED ST.; 773-248-6160 $18

26 WOOD-GRILLED BURGER
BIN 36
“It’s an old-school burger with good quality ingredients,” says John Caputo, the architect of Bin 36’s eight-ounce sirloin number. Gotta love chefs these days. Apparently, “old-school” means cooked on an open wood-burning grill, topped with blue cheese, served on a brioche—and an $11 price tag. This one is worth every dime, because the patty—from the Ruprecht Company, a Meatpacking District legend—gets the respect it deserves. Bin 36 adds a little salt and pepper, and that’s it. Order yours medium rare and taste just how good beef can be when it’s not overmanipulated. 339 N. DEARBORN ST.; 312-755-9463 $11

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

 

 

Bacon cheeseburger at Five Guys
Bacon cheeseburger at Five Guys

27 BACON CHEESEBURGER
FIVE GUYS
Yes, it’s a chain—strike one—and then there’s the sign near the register that ominously declares, “We cook all our meat well-done.” Strike two. But you’d have to be taste-deaf to deny the merits of Five Guys’ profoundly messy bacon cheeseburger. Mine was a loose, thin patty with a crunchy char atop the kind of soft bun that your fingers leave indentations in. It’s not the miracle your buddy from Virginia has been blathering about for the past ten years, but this burger is mighty good. And your buddy was right about the famous skin-on fries, hand cut and cooked in peanut oil: They’re magnificent. 2140 N. CLYBOURN AVE., 773-327-5953; FOUR OTHER AREA LOCATIONS $6.29

28 MOODY BLEU BURGER
MOODY’S PUB
Jake Moody, the manager, figures that he has sold at least a million Moody Bleu Burgers since 1959. One bite of yours and you can taste the 999,999 that came before it: The old charcoal grill upon which it was cooked lends a rich depth of beefy grease that tastes like decades of history. A mountain of outstanding homemade blue cheese tops the unseasoned beef, but the bun is pretty flimsy. The whole package is easy to love, partially because Moody’s itself is so lovable—free peanuts! beer garden! roaring fireplace!—but the truth is, the Moody Bleu may be the most reliable $8 meal in Chicago. 5910 N. BROADWAY; 773-275-2696 $8

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

29 EPIC BURGER
EPIC BURGER
If you name your place Epic Burger and post seven burger “rules” on the wall, your hamburgers had better bring the thunder. David Friedman’s eco-friendly fast-casual spot—brilliantly located on the street level of a Columbia College dorm— doesn’t quite live up to its brash name, but it comes close. Epic hand-packs freshly ground chuck (from grass-fed, grain-finished cows), then sears it on a flat-top grill; the result is a lean, flavor-packed patty that goes well with one-year-aged Wisconsin Cheddar and beautifully sautéed onions. For $6, that kind of quality is hard to beat. 517 S. STATE ST.; 312-913-1373 $6

30 BIONIC BURGER
THE ASSEMBLY
A legend in the northwest suburbs, this juicy ten-ounce beast soaks so completely into its poor beleaguered sesame-seed bun that you have to eat it fast—or turn it upside down—to make it work. By the way, it works. The hand-packed grilled beef isn’t terribly distinctive on its own, but it’s fresh and toothsome, and the accompaniments are terrific: crisp bacon, a pile of sautéed onions, perfectly melted Cheddar, and a satisfying onion, mushroom, and sherry sauce. A hint: Regulars lay their fries underneath to prevent total bun annihilation. 2570 HASSELL RD., HOFFMAN ESTATES; 847-843-3993 $10.29

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

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