Custom House Tavern
500 S. Dearborn St. Chicago IL 60605 (map); 773-523-0200; customhouse.cc
Cooking Method: Gas grill
Short Order: The desserts make this place a culinary landmark, but the burger is not to be missed
Want Fries With That? Yes, these beauties are perfectly cooked and packed with potato-ness.
Price: Normally $12, periodically $5
When chef Aaron Deal came on board at Custom House last September, he had some big shoes to fill. He was replacing James Beard Award winner Shawn McClain, who started the meat-oriented restaurant on the heels of wild success with seafood at Spring and vegetables at Green Zebra. Late last year, McClain and his partners began the sad process of breaking up and part of the split was his relinquishing control of Custom House.
Now McClain is off in Vegas at Sage and Deal, formerly of Tristan in South Carolina, is putting his stamp on the newly renamed Custom House Tavern. In addition to the new name, Deal's influence can be found in a host of new dishes and a near obsession with sourcing from sustainable producers. Deal even deigned to mildly tinker with the restaurant's beloved burger. Fortunately for burger lovers in Chicago, not only is the new incarnation delicious, but the restaurant has retained the tradition of periodically offering the $12 burger for $5. I headed over there at the end of January to catch the discounted delight.
The burger is made of a combination of three cuts of meat from two different animals: short rib and sirloin from our friend Mr. Cow and some ground pork from Mr. Pig. I love pork as much as anyone, but other than bacon, pork's greatest value is that—like chicken, tofu, and pasta—it serves primarily as a vehicle for added flavors. When it comes to something simple like a burger, where all a chef typically works with is meat, salt, and pepper, and a piece of cheese, the cow puts the pig to shame.
All that said, Deal is continuously tinkering with the burger, so it's possible the pork might be eliminated. It's also possible he'll end up using pork belly, a cut that would pass burger muster according to the rule I invented in the previous paragraph. I'm not sure which cut of pork went into the burger I had a couple of weeks ago, but I do know that I had one excellent patty.
Cooked perfectly on a gas grill, the burgers, one medium rare and one rare, had a decent crust and were both bursting with juice. They were well seasoned with a solid shot of pepper coming through with a nice kick that tip-toed up to the line of overpowering without going across it. The burger is served simply with some leafy lettuce and a few rings of raw onion along with a slice of excellent Wisconsin cheddar from Hoffman Farms.
The burger is served on a toasted poppy seed bun that is made in house. The bun, which is not nearly as heavy as it might appear, did well in standing up to the especially juicy rare burger. The only thing missing from the burger were slices of pickles, although it came with an excellent pickle spear and it wasn't hard to alternate bites.
Ordinarily, the fries are included in the $12 burger price, but when the price drops to $5, fries cost $3 extra. We opted to split an order of fries and were happy we did. These perfectly cooked fries were crisp on the outside and filled with billowy potato. We would have gladly polished off two orders, but then we would have been deprived of something even better.
The brussels sprouts with bacon and bourbon were a revelation. The roasted orbs of dense greenery, perhaps the most widely disdained of all vegetables, were transformed into what was possibly the highlight of the meal. Both my guest and I had the same immediate reaction after taking a bite: If we knew brussels sprouts could be this good, we would have tried making them once in a while. Not surprisingly, much of the success of the dish is owed to the bacon. There was only a little bit of it, but the bacon, cured and smoked in house, had an intense flavor that enabled a small amount to go a very long way.
In the pre-Chef Deal days at Custom House, the burger could only be had at lunch. But since the transformation into Custom House Tavern—a switch that was only completed in the last couple of weeks—the tables in the bar area at the front of the restaurant have a menu for lunch and dinner that makes the burger available at all hours. The brussels sprouts continue to be available for both meals as well.