Chicago: Standout Char Burgers at Phil's Last Stand
Editor's note: Blake Royer has been on Serious Eats in 2007—starting with Dinner Tonight and more recently, Sausage City—but this is his first time reviewing burgers. Please welcome Blake to AHT! He'll be alternating Chicago burger coverage with Dennis Lee.
Phil's Last Stand
2258 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-245-3287; philslaststand.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Phil's puts a spin on California-style skinny burgers by giving them plenty of smoky char. It works very well.
Want Fries with That? Yes you do, as long as they're extra crispy; inconsistency means you need to ask.
Prices: Single Fatso, $4; Double Fatso, $5.40; w/cheese, +50¢
A few days ago on twitter, Phil's Last Stand declared itself "the best fast food burger in Chicago." And that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the place. In a grand Chicago tradition of hot dog stands, Phil's is combining the values of fast food (unabashedly caloric, indulgent, delicious, fast counter service) with a connoisseur's vision of great old-fashioned American food. With a healthy dash of Chicago attitude, of course.
Besides hot dogs, fried shrimp, and mac and cheese, Phil's serves up a classic and obligatory Chicago "char burger," the subject of this review. They call it the Fatso and it comes single ($4) or double ($5.50), with our without cheese (+50¢). Chances are, Phil himself will take your order at the counter, at which point his strange army of hipsters will cook and prepare it.
Either way, the burger begins with a layer of "Fatso sauce" on the bottom bun, which is essentially the same Thousand-Island style mayo-based mixture you see at In-N-Out (more on In-N-Out later). Next comes lettuce and tomato (a pickle doesn't come standard; you have to ask for it), and the patty or patties.
Then, you have to make a couple choices: How will you take your onions, and what kind of cheese will it be? American cheese and grilled onions are an obvious choice, and a good one, which is how I ordered the single.
But I'd suggest instead a dollop of their Merkt's-style cheddar spread, which is how I ordered the double (rather than using Merkt's, Phil's offers Verns from Chilton, Wisconsin. He demurred on why that's the case, and I couldn't promise that I'd tell them apart in a dark room.)
Cheddar spread on dogs and burgers is becoming a common thing in Chicago, and it's a wonderful development. You get that all-important creamy mouthfeel that only a processed cheese can provide, but a little more tang and flavor than plain Jane American slices. Remember, this is fast food we're talking about.
And it also makes for wonderful cheese fries ($3). The fries at Phil's are excellent and well-seasoned, though you have to make sure they're well done; two orders of fries at the same visit came out two distinctly different levels of doneness.
The burger's meat comes from a butcher in Skokie that Phil has known for 40 years, and it's ground and pattied just for them. The meat has a fine grind, and I wish it was a little looser, but it has a decent beefy flavor and most importantly, it's seasoned well. They don't ask you for a temperature, and it comes pretty much cooked through, though at times you'll see a hint of pink.
So, single or double? I'm actually a stickler for bun-to-meat ratio, and too much meat in a burger without the appropriate balance of bun and toppings is a huge turn off. But in this case, double is definitely the way to go. By stacking two patties, you get the right amount of beef but more crust. The bun is substantial enough to handle the extra patty and and if they apply enough Vern's cheddar, this is a very, very good cheeseburger.
What's the takeaway? Phil's puts out a very good burger. In many ways Phil's Last Stand is quite similar to Edzo's. Both serve elevated fast food (with slightly elevated prices), both use skinny patties, and both draw deep inspiration from California-style fast food burgers like In-N-Out.
But while at Edzo's, the griddle is king, Phil's stick to their Chicago guns and grill their skinny patties over an open flame. The beefy flavor is there, but what really makes this unique is the smoky flavor. In this context, you expect a griddle burger, the toppings seem like they belong to a griddled burger, everything else makes it seem like In-N-Out (even down to Phil's "secret menu" that Joe Roy recently explored). But no: This is a char burger, Chicago-style, in a city where most char burgers are made from frozen pucks of beef.
And for that we should be thankful: a freshly-made Chicago-style char burger done very well. Order a double, grilled onions, plenty of Vern's cheddar, and extra crispy fries. It'll be a happy moment.