The Definitive Guide to Burger Dining


Trekking through Chicago's maze of burger joints one burger at a time.



Once again, hamburgers are a hot item! Flying in the face of health advocates, vegans and tofu eaters the Burger Nation is on a steady climb. Moreover, burger diners are paying big bucks to get ultimate gourmet burgers. And to serve this growing trend, restaurants are bulking up their menus with a variety of burgers; not just the old hamburger/cheeseburger choice.


For the second time in three years, I struck out to find the best burger joints in Chicago. Why Chicago? Because Chicago is at the epicenter of the burger world. Okay, okay... maybe not the epicenter, but the world's largest burger slinger is based here - McDonalds - and that has to count for something!


Before sorting through the best burger eateries, let's take a stroll down hamburger memory lane: The origins of America's favorite food.


Favorite food? You bet! Americans ordered 50 billion restaurant burgers last year - that averages out to about 150 burgers per person. McDonald's alone sells about 1500 burgers a minute, just in the United States! By comparison Americans only ate 4.5 billion tacos, 3 billion pizzas and only 1.5 billion chicken sandwiches!


Where did it all begin? Technically it began in the German city of Hamburger in the late 1800's. They had a way of serving steak but chopping it first, forming it into a giant ball, cooking it and serving it with hearty bread - but not as a sandwich. (Salsbury steak was invented in the United States by a guy named J. H. Salsbury who put the meat through a grinder, cooked it and served it with gravy but no bread.) As the Germans migrated to the United States, so did the Hamburg steak.


Kuma's Corner offers up Rock & Roll inspired burgers - like the Led Zepelin


In the very early 1900's that Hamburg steak was jammed between two slices of bread and renamed the hamburger. Too many people lay claim to the concept of the hamburger sandwich, but one thing is for sure, the popularity died around 1906 after Upton Sinclair's novel Concrete Jungle described the sanitation in meat packing and meat serving facilities as disgusting.


It wasn't until 1921 when two guys - Walt Anderson, a cook and Edgar Ingram, an insurance salesman - came up with the idea to flatten the beef into a patty and place it on a bun. (Walt Anderson is widely considered the inventor of the hamburger bun.) In Wichita Kansas, they opened an all white tile and stainless steel restaurant called White Castle proclaiming its cleanliness and sanitation was unmatched. They were a hit and in 1922 they opened more restaurants exactly like the original, thus inventing the first fast food chain. [The first castle looking building was in Minnesota and was modeled after Chicago's famous Water Tower.]


The year was 1948 when Richard and Maurice McDonald started selling burgers instead of barbecue using a production line. They partnered with a milk shake machine salesman named Ray Kroc who later bought them out and started franchising the restaurant as McDonald's, home to Speedy - as in speedy service. Through aggressive but well monitored control, Kroc expanded the company through franchising; unlike White Castle which is still company owned. Though McDonald's wasn't the first restaurant franchise - A&W was the first - they certainly made the most out of it. Today, there are over 37,000 of the golden arches.


Most places, like Doc B's, the idea of creativity is adding an egg and some bacon. Good but...


The idea of the tricked-out burger isn't new either. In 1950, with few acting jobs available to him, Harry Lewis and his wife Mary opened Hamburger Hamlet in Los Angeles. They offered specialized burgers, a couple named after Hollywood stars in order to get the stars to visit the restaurant. It worked! Soon Marilyn Monroe was eating the burger named after her and others followed. Hamburger Hamlet offered about 20 different burgers in all, topped with just cheese to mushrooms, spinach, foie gras, caviar, bacon and other ingredients. They sold the company in 1987 and despite the surge in gourmet burger joints, ironically the chain has failed miserably closing all but one location.


Bad news for them; good news for everyone else as gourmet burger restaurants have opened steadily over the last ten years. Even general menu restaurants started adding a burger menu to keep up with the demand for bacon, eggs, different cheeses, turkey meat, vegetarian and no carb (sans the bun) burgers. When bison meat became plentiful again, many places added bison burgers to the menu. Moreover, quite a few places offer Kobe beef, Wagyu beef and even elk burgers.


...some places loaded the burger with everything plus the fried onion strips!


For Chicago's Best Burger Joint trek, I started out with 48 restaurants. Two of them closed: Burger Joint inside the Ogilvy Train Station and Burger Boss in Chicago on Southport shut down. One of them, Ed Debevic's is about to close to make way for a new development. Another, Chicago Burger Company on the river at New Street, is little more than a view of the river with three burgers offered. Butcher & Burger is a cute concept, but 100% build your own burger. So that narrowed it down to 44 joints.


For burger joints that have been around for ages upon ages and serve good burgers I separated them into an Iconic Class. Top Notch (2119 W 95th Street in Beverly) is a southwest side tradition - I used to go there as a kid and they haven't changed much! Seriously. Billy Goats (430 N Michigan) made national famous on the SNL skit 30 years ago is still churning out cheezeborgers, cheezeborgers, cheezeborgers! The remaining 42 joint were fair game.


For clarification, people are sometimes impressed when the beef is advertised as "Black Angus" beef. Black Angus cattle is the most prevalent beef cattle in the United States; in all likelihood most of the burgers you are eating are made from Angus beef unless stated otherwise.


The "otherwise" would be the boutique Wagyu (Kobe and Matsusaka) and grass-fed. Before you get happy about that Wagyu Kobe beef burger you just paid $20 for, Wagyu simple means Japanese cow. It can be any of four types of cattle bred in Japan - Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. They are high in marbled fat. But when you see American Wagyu, that is generally a cow that was bred from a Japanese Black and (ta-da) a Black Angus. In terms of flavor, you would need to have the trained palate of a world class meat taster to tell the difference - because the meat has been ground just like all ground beef... from the scraps and leftovers. Grass-fed beef may be slightly higher in natural antioxidants than grain fed cattle, but let's be serious...if you are eating a burger you aren't concerned about antioxidants.


The only true luxury burger would be a bison burger. It's leaner, juicier and grills better than beef; but it also cost a bit more than beef. Which brings me to the next thing, I only tested beef burgers; not burgers made from black beans, turkey, or pork. I also used bread and not lettuce or rice cakes for the buns. In other words, underneath all the toppings is a good, old-fashioned beef burger.


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