Burger Day 4 in Chicago: High Brow, Low Brow, and Delicious
Burger Day Itinerary
11:05 AM: Gibsons Steakhouse
12:45 PM: Max's Take Out
3:30 PM: Nicky's The Real McCoy
5:15 PM: Chicago Cut Steakhouse
8:45 PM: Byron's Hot Dog Haus
After Burger Day 3000, the Burger Day Planning Committee realized early on that topping our previous burgerventure was likely an impossible task. Still, we knew there were plenty of ways to design something almost as good for Burger Day 4 given the variety of quality burgerias across Chicago. Our initial plan, which we were quite proud of, called for participants to don suits and hit four luxurious steakhouses for burgers, sophisticated drinks, and fancy steakhouse sides. Logistically, however, that presented a bit of a problem. With all of Chicago's best steakhouses centrally located downtown, breaking up the day was going to be difficult. A bigger obstacle was price; four steakhouses done right was going to come out to about $175 per person, and as much as we love Burger Day, there are limits.
Unwilling to completely abandon our steakhouse dreams, we settled on what we initially termed "Burger Day 4: Steakhouses and Outhouses." I think it's a catchy name, but it didn't accurately describe the day. There were steakhouses and there were dives, but the latter are all too good to be compared to bathrooms. And because "Steakhouses and Holes in the Wall that Put Out Classic Burgers" doesn't roll off the tongue, the day was left without a subtitle.
Fortunately, a catchy name was the only thing missing from our excellent burger journey. The four of us spent the day traveling all over Chicago eating a delicious cross-section of Chicago burgers, a Burger Day record number of sides, and quite a few drinks (including extra classy squeeze bottles filled with Moscow Mules). By the end of the night, we'd traveled about 30 miles on public transportation and had one hell of a time along the way.
Gibsons Steakhouse (11:05 AM)
Our day began at Gibsons Steakhouse, one of Chicago's most popular high end beef emporiums among locals and tourists. We kicked off our meal in lunchtime steakhouse style by ordering martinis. The result? The three drinkers in our group were a little tipsy before eating our first bite of the day. The pours were ridiculously generous and left us all wondering how the two-martini lunch ever coexisted with productive afternoons.
Sticking with the steakhouse theme, we shared a massive wedge "salad," the inexplicably delicious classic hunk of decorated lettuce. Okay, it's not entirely inexplicable given that it's covered in blue cheese dressing and bacon, but I'd swear the notoriously flavorless iceberg lettuce itself was actually quite good. Of course, that could have been the martini clouding my judgment. What was delicious regardless of the alcohol were the massive crustaceans in our one-per-person-because-they're-absurdly-expensive shrimp cocktail.
From there it was time for our first burger of the day. Having informed our server of the journey ahead, he kindly saw to it that each of us received a plate with half a burger on it along with some fries. Filled with the excitement of the meat binge that awaited us that day, everyone inhaled their five ounces of ground beef. The salt-deprived fries were fine, if entirely unremarkable, and didn't go down nearly as fast.
Once we had time to think about what we'd just tasted, we realized that none of us were overwhelmed by the burger. It was well-cooked and sufficiently beefy, but Gibson's just isn't putting the kind of effort into their burgers that they put into their steaks. The beef comes from Stockyards and the cheese from U.S. Foods—neither of which are suppliers that inspire expectations of greatness, and the bun was on the dense side. Still, this was a very good way to start the day even if there are a lot of better burgers at the price point. Except, that is, for the asparagus, which displayed an inverse relationship between size (ginourmous) and flavor (nonexistent).
Max's Take Out (12:45 PM)
We left Gibsons and started to walk about a mile to the Loop to visit Max's Take Out, but decided to conserve energy and hopped on the train. Max's, which is one of my favorite lunch spots downtown, is tiny. The restaurant is about the width of a railroad car and not a lot longer. There are a handful of stools, but the bulk of the business is in the form of carry-out orders picked up by a clientele as diverse as the workforce in downtown Chicago.
The burgers at Max's are greasy and delicious. This isn't high quality beef by any stretch; our double cheeseburgers cost $4.50 apiece. But the patties, decorated with mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, ketchup, mustard, and American cheese, seem to melt together to form a high-powered shot of fatty beef flavor that keeps me coming back.
Unfortunately, the fries at Max's suffered from the same lack of sodium that plagued the potatoes at Gibsons. But thanks to some fine workmanship on the deep fryer, there was ample grease flavor going on that made these crisp pre-frozen spuds work well enough that I ate far more than I wanted to.
For the sides at Max's, we went old school Chicago, which means a tamale and pizza puff. Let's start with the tamale, a locally made 70-plus year old tradition that is still around for reasons having nothing to do with taste. There's actually a popular local delicacy called a mother-in-law, which involves one of these tamales covered in chili. Those can be good if the chili is decent, but we went for plain and paid the price. These things, manufactured by Tom Tom, taste like giant flavorless grits glued together and filled with a sparse dose of nearly flavorless beefy meat sauce. But you know what? Sometimes the dining experience is more important than the quality of the food. O.G. Chicago treats fit our day perfectly and I was happy to force down my (very small) share of one.
The pizza puff, another local lowbrow classic, was substantially better than the tamale. (An interesting aside, Iltaco, probably the largest manufacturer of pizza puffs, started some 90 years ago as the Illinois Tamale Company.) These greasy, pre-frozen and deep fried pieces of chewy oily dough are filled with something akin to a pizza-flavored meat sauce. There is simply no explaining the appeal of these things, but I eat about one a year and love it every time.
Full of cheap and greasy deliciousness from Max's, it was time for our first planned break of the day. We walked back north a few blocks to go bowling at 10 Pin in Marina City. We had a battle that nobody could describe as epic, featuring bowlers with skill levels ranging from crappy to mediocre. Still, a good time was had by all, we enjoyed the break, and when we were done, we were ready to eat some more.
Nicky's The Real McCoy (3:30 PM)
After getting rejuvenated with some quasi-exercise, we hopped aboard the Orange Line to head to the southwest side to check out a place with one of the great names in Chicago Burgerland: Nicky's The Real McCoy. Longtime readers will remember when I introduced the AHT readership to the Big Baby in my post on Perros Brothers Gyros. AHT reader awinnerisyou noted that the description of Perros Brothers was really not all that indistinguishable from any number of other joints around the city that feature the Big Baby. He was right, and I haven't reviewed another one since, not because they're not enjoyable, but because there's really not much distinguishing one from another.
But this was Burger Day dammit and, as this outstanding post on LTHForum makes clear, the Big Baby is a key part of Chicago's burger history. And while there is no way to know for certain, Nicky's seems to have the strongest claim as the place where Mama Burger gave birth to a Big Baby. So what is this treat? It's two small patties (1/6 of a pound apiece) separated by American cheese, and served on a toasted bun along with mustard, ketchup, pickles, and a beautiful pile of grilled onions on top.
Okay, yes, it's just a double cheeseburger when you stop and think about it. But if you can suspend reality for a few seconds and sink your teeth into one of these beauties, you'll forget everything bad about factory farming and fall in love with the fact that so much deliciousness can be had for $2.50.
As far as the sides at Nicky's, we opted for a couple of the most traditional burger pairings, fries and onion rings. The fries were mediocre pre-frozen spuds that were what you'd expect from a place like this. The onion rings, on the other hand, are battered in house and might be the freshest things on the menu. Crispy and really flavorful, they were truly a pleasant surprise.
The neighborhood has changed significantly since Nicky's opened its doors and now has a heavy Hispanic presence. While keeping the classics, Nicky's has expanded its menu to include a number of Mexican offerings. We opted for the $1 carnitas tacos, which were filled with essentially carnitas flavored chunks of fat. Given that the tacos cost a buck apiece, I can't complain, but the reporter in me has to acknowledge that these were the fattiest tacos I've ever had in my life. Two Burger Day participants thought tacos were too far outside of Burger Day and refused to partake. But in my mind, there is no limit to what can complement a burger and the racists who rejected the tacos must and will be punished appropriately.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse (5:15 PM)
After enjoying the lowest of our lowbrow stops, we headed back downtown to our fanciest stop of the day. Chicago Cut Steakhouse is the most highly regarded of the recent group of high-end steakhouses to open in the last couple of years, and I was particularly eager to check it out. When we walked in, the restaurant was less than a quarter full. But upon reporting that we had no reservation, we were instructed to sit in the bar while the hostess would check with the manager to see if there was room available. We at Burger Day, not the best-dressed bunch in the restaurant, were happy to enable the hostess to give herself a satisfying jolt of self-importance.
After less than two minutes, the manager apparently gave his approval and we were led to a comfy table in the corner. From there, everything was great, including excellent service from a waitress who was attentive and pretended to be impressed with our burger journey. As we were back in steakhouse mode, we returned to drinks worthy of such a fine establishment, in this case Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, all made with Templeton Rye.
For the appetizers, we had creamed spinach and macaroni and cheese. Admittedly the latter does not fall under the category of traditional steakhouse side, but both of these were really good. I've never had a creamed spinach I didn't like, but this one was particularly good; well-seasoned and not too heavy. The macaroni and cheese, a bone thrown to one of the anti-taco participants who apparently thinks macaroni and cheese is more relevant to burgers, was much better than I'd expect a steakhouse version to be. The bowl of pasta was tangy and creamy and had a really nice crust on top.
This was, by a wide margin, the best burger of the day and the only one I would consider for a full review here on A Hamburger Today. This 12-ounce patty is made of a blend of dry aged ribeye, dry aged sirloin, and filet mignon. It's a truly outstanding blend of beef, ground in house, and comes with one of the best crusts I've ever seen on a medium rare burger. And as was the case at Gibsons, the burgers were cut in half and served on individual plates without us having to ask. The fries, full of potato flavor and exemplifying the crisp exterior/pillowy interior ideal, were also the best in their category of the day.
Traditionally, Burger Day doesn't involve dessert other than milkshakes, but one item on the menu demanded a break from tradition. In Jacky Shen's long and impressive career running successful kitchens in Chicago ranging from steakhouses to an pan-Asian hotspot, one item has maintained a consistent presence on her menu: Jacky's Chocolate Bag. The Bag itself is dark chocolate and is filled with a mixture of white chocolate mousse and fresh berries. The whole thing sits on a small pool of raspberry sauce. It's even better than it sounds and none of us regretted the deviation from Burger Day norm.
After Chicago Cut, with only one more eating stop on the itinerary, it was time for our second workout, this time at Sluggers. Downstairs, Sluggers is an ordinary Wrigleyville sports bar—perfectly serviceable most times and jam-packed with douchebags before, during and after Cubs games. But upstairs, where we spent our visit, is one of far too few places in Chicago with pop-a-shot, air hockey, batting cages, and various other similarly themed games. We spent well over an hour here engaged in various fierce battles and preparing ourselves for our final food stop of the day.
Byron's Hot Dog Haus (8:45 PM)
Fully rejuvenated from our hard-core workout at Sluggers, we took a short trip north for our fifth and final burger of the day at Byron's Hot Dog Haus. Obviously, this place is better known for its dogs, but the griddled burgers steal the show in this small spot on Irving Park Road.
As was the case at Max's and Nicky's, we opted for the double cheeseburgers.These pre-formed patties benefit from an old griddle that has years of flavor cooked into them, ready to rub off on every piece of meat that spends time on it. These juicy burgers, coated with some of the most melted American cheese you'll find anywhere and topped with grilled onions and thick pickle pieces, was a perfect meaty end to the day.
The fries, pre-frozen and not particularly potato-flavored, were surprisingly good. They had the crispest exterior of any of our spuds all day yet still had a soft interior. They were really well salted, a la McDonald's, and of course the dish of processed cheese sauce was delicious at the end of a long day.
For our sides non-potato sides, we started with the most extreme version of a Chicago style hot dog you'll find anywhere. Covered in several slices of tomato, slices of cucumber, banana peppers, pickle slices, onions, celery salt and mustard, this messy beast was as difficult to eat as it was satisfying.
The fried mushrooms, on the other hand, were mushy and flavorless, and were largely and rightfully ignored. We ended the night by heading across the street to spend the final few hours of the evening at a bar. All told, there are few better ways to spend 14 hours.
After four Burger Days in Chicago, we haven't even scratched the surface of potential all-day burger journeys we can do here. We've talked about Burger Days with a gastropub theme, an international theme, a bar and grill theme, and many more. But as excited as we are about continuing in Chicago, it's looking more and more like we're going to take this show on the road in the early summer. Hopefully coming soon to a hamburger blog near you: Burger Day LA!
Byron's Hot Dog Haus
1017 W Irving Park Road, Chicago IL 60613 (map)