Under the Bun

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

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


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

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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