Under the Bun

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Kuma burger at Kuma's CornerKuma burger at 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

“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


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Our favorites to accompany our burgers

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

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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

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

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

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