Chicago, IL: Choppers, Home of the Choppak
1659 North Ashland Avenue, Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-227-7800; choppers-chicago.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: The regular burgers are too charred, but the Minis are simple, balanced, and delicious.
Want Fries with That? The steak-cut fries are big, thick, and droopy, while the coleslaw is disappointingly soggy cabbage with mayo.
Price: 1/4-pound burger, $2.89; Choppak, $5.59 (comes with fries and slaw); The Mini by the Dozen, $12.59
After I moved into Wicker Park about eight years ago, I would drive by Choppers and see its sign, proudly stating that it was "Home of the Choppak." Every time I passed it, I wondered what the hell a Choppak was. My imagination ran wild. I had visions, imagining that a Choppak was a thing, an amazing food invention involving unicorn meat, rainbow sauce, french fries (everyone loves french fries!), and flakes of pure gold. A few years later, when I finally visited for lunch, I was sorely disappointed to find out that a Choppak is really just a combo meal consisting of a double char burger, steak fries, and homemade coleslaw. Oh well. Can't win them all.
I hadn't been back in years, so I thought another visit would be in order. Choppers is one of those places you smell first, blocks before you see it. During peak hours, you can see and smell grill smoke billowing out the rooftop, which beckons you to come in with its siren song of charred ground cow discs.
So now that you know what a Choppak ($5.59) is, how does that double cheeseburger taste? These pre-formed, tightly ground, frozen beef patties are salted well enough, and are grilled to order—but they suffer from a fatal flaw. They're cooked over a high flame, charring the periphery of the patties to the point where they taste like charcoal. The acrid taste carries over into every bite and hijacks the flavor of the burger. If you like burned backyard burgers, then you might enjoy it better than I do. I won't judge you.
The bun is a commercial sesame bun, which, unfortunately, isn't toasted, and is entirely too thin for the meat. After just a few bites, the bottom disintegrates into a mushy mess. I noticed that the toppings for both burgers were on the bottom for whatever reason, which contributes greatly to the death of the bottom bun.
In terms of meat-to-bun ratio, the single works much better, mostly because the bun is fairly thin when compressed. And when you ask for everything, like I did, you get lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, mustard, mayo, and ketchup. Aside from the fact that the onions are grilled and mustard is added, you've got a burger that's strikingly similar in flavor to Burger King's Whopper.
The french fries at Choppers are the thick-cut steak ones, and unfortunately, they're pretty soggy and lifeless. Even the smaller ones are soggy. The homemade coleslaw is heavy on the mayo and, well, tastes like mayo and wilted cabbage.
The Minis ($12.59), only available by the dozen, are the real surprise. While the Choppak is the big seller, I like the Minis much better. They have less of the acrid burnt taste from the grill, and are adorned simply with American cheese, grilled onions, and slices of pickle. They come on commercial, pillowy, little white buns that are the perfect size. The combination of flavors is classic—you've got sweet, nearly caramelized griddled onions with slightly charred grilled beef, silky melted American cheese, and a little tart crunch from the pickle. There's no mustard, but you know what? You don't need it.
I secretly like small food, though, because I have small hands. And no, that's not my silver nail-polished hand in the picture. Or is it?
The malts and shakes are about what you'd expect: really sweet and large by default (the regular is 20 ounces). You can mix and match flavors, if you like, so that's exactly what I did. The chocolate banana has real banana blended in, and its always nice to get some fresh bits of banana mixed in with cold, sweet, thick, chocolate malt.
So, maybe I didn't get any unicorn meat with rainbow sauce, but I did find myself surprised at how much I liked the miniature cheeseburgers. And now, in conclusion, here is my grammatical, yet mathematical explanation of the name Choppak. (Choppers - pers) + (Pack - c) = Choppak. I'm what you call a scientician, you see.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.