2039 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-661-1540; trenchermen.com
Short Order: Great value, mediocre salty burger.
Price: Cheeseburger, $10; Pickle Tots, $12, Eggplant, $8
Editor's note (1/6/14): Trencherman chef/partner Patrick Sheerin left a comment below with important details about the burger and how it's made.
The definition of the term trencherman is "a hearty eater." So it makes sense that the menu at Trenchermen is full of hearty food. The dinner menu is on the pricey side; the appetizers are between $11 to $15, and the entrées are anywhere from $25 to $30. But Trenchermen does have a bar menu, and that menu is a lot more affordable. It's definitely on the playful side, too—there's a bowl of Italian Beef Combo Ramen on it, which looks totally awesome. Totes McGotes.
There's a double-patty burger on the bar menu (normally $14 a pop), and although Trencherman isn't really a burger restaurant, I'd heard good things about the special on Wednesdays. It's a great deal: for $10 you get kettle corn, a weekly chef-driven, single-patty burger, chips, and a 12-ounce pour of beer. The night I visited, for some reason, they didn't have a unique burger and just had a single version of the regular burger as the special. Man, I always miss the good stuff.
Just a warning, there's a limited supply of burgers, and it's a first-come first-served gladiator battle among patrons, so you have to hover by the bar seats if you want to get fed. I was a little scared we weren't going to get a chance to try it, but the host mentioned that they had a batch of 100 for the night, if that gives you guys an idea of how quickly they'll sell out each Wednesday. As soon as you sit down, they hand you a baggie full of togarashi kettle corn, which is savory and sweet, with the usual delicate candied shell on each kernel you expect on kettle corn. It's a good bar snack with your beer.
Before we decided to dig into burgers, my friend and I ordered the pickle tots ($12). I'll say this right off the bat: they're fantastic. They're a mixture of diced pickles and potatoes shaped into cubes and fried like tater tots. The little tots come with chicken breast bresaola and a very thick and peppery red onion yogurt sauce. Bresaola is a air-dried cured beef, but in this case, they use chicken breast. At first I thought it might be gross, because air-dried chicken didn't sound too marvelous to me. But you know what? It rules.
The combination of the dense, pickly potato cubes with the slightly spicy yogurt, along with the salty jerky-like chicken, is something you have to try to believe. It's starchy, tart, salty with a protein-chew from the chicken, and just a touch spicy. I'm going back just for the tots.
The burgers came out almost as quick as we'd ordered them, which made me apprehensive—I had a feeling they were pre-cooked and assembled in a big batch, ready to fly out the kitchen, meaning they aren't cooked to order. [Editor's note (1/6/14): The burgers are not pre-cooked. Refer to Trencherman chef/partner Patrick Sheerin's comment below.] They're topped with cheddar and sweet bread-and-butter pickles. The burgers are cooked to medium-rare by default, but mine came out overcooked, closer to medium-well, and my buddy's came out spot-on.
The beef is griddled with a sturdy crust, and after a few bites, it gets saltier and saltier. My friend didn't seem to mind so much, but with the salty potato chips on the side, my mouth ached for water. The burger isn't juicy, either, as you can see from my photo (sorry, it was really, really, dark). I did notice a problem, though. The texture of the beef leans towards that of sausage, and that usually means the meat is pre-salted a while before cooking, adding to my suspicion that they mass-produce them before service.
The toasted bun, however, is really good. It's flecked with a few sesame seeds on top, and it holds up nicely. The cheddar cheese, though melted perfectly, gets lost in the flavor of the sweet house-made pickles. If you want sauce for your burger, there's Thousand Island on the side that you can put on as you like.
Our server suggested we try the eggplant ($7). It's not particularly flavorful, though it's cooked well, resulting in plump and juicy bites that are almost meaty in texture. It's cooked with bacon and sweet chili sauce, along with sesame seeds, but none of the flavor really stands out. The bites are bland and a bit oily without much else to go by.
Overall, my impression is down the middle. It's a great value for $10, which is why it's so popular, but since it all seems pre-cooked, the execution puts a damper on the experience. I think on a regular night, the burgers might be executed better when the kitchen knows they aren't going to be whizzing out the door, but those pickle tots? They're something else.