Chicago, IL: Dense Beef at Old Town Social
Old Town Social
455 West North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60610 (map); 312-266-2277; oldtownsocial.com.com
Cooking Method: Griddled and grilled
Short Order: The ingredients are solid, but the beef is just too dense
Price: OTS Burger, $13, Animal Style burger, $11; fried pickles, $4; fries, $5
Let's rewind the clock to about a month back, when I was in Las Vegas for a trade show for my day job. I'd been working for three straight days, I was finally done, and I had only a few hours before my flight back to Chicago. I only had one mission: To get a burger from In-n-Out. So I cabbed my little Korean butt to the nearest In-N-Out ($13.50 cab fare each way, ouch) to get...that's right, an Animal Style burger. We don't have those here, and that is the saddest thing in the world, other than my incessant jokes. It was fast food heaven.
Fast forward back to present time, where I've been daydreaming about an Animal Style burger ever since. I'm doing my AHT research when Old Town Social popped into my brain, after doing this Mac and Cheese Roundup, and it turns out they have an Animal Style burger. I cried with joy, the tears streaming down my face, as I stepped into the pouring rain, looking into the sky, Shawshank Redemption style.
The Animal Style burger ($11) comes out looking sexy, wrapped up tightly in a little brown paper number, dressed with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, cheddar cheese, sweet homemade bread and butter pickles, and Thousand Island. Because it's griddled, the server let me know beforehand that it'd come out either medium or medium-well, and that's precisely how it arrived, with a nice layer of griddled crust. But once I sliced it open, I knew something was up.
As you can see from the picture, the meat is dense, with a fine grind, and upon first bite, you'll notice the texture is chewier than it should be, similar to breakfast sausage. I have two theories: that the meat is a superfine grind and packed tightly, or that the meat is pre-salted before cooking, which is a burger sin. Just ask Kenji. Due to the texture, I'm leaning towards the latter.
The OTS Burger ($13) is also picture perfect, dressed with Gruyère, crisp bacon, and an egg, a tried and true combination of toppings. The Gruyère is very mild and its nutty Swiss-ness gets lost from the bacon and vinegary sweetness of the pickles.
But again, the meat suffers from the same problem. Even though it's cooked to the requested temperature, the texture is still disconcertingly like sausage—perhaps even more so due to the patty being bigger. It's a fatal flaw. All the ingredients are high-quality, from the sweet eggy bun, to the ketchup, to the beef itself, which is butchered in-house, so the execution on the beef is puzzling to me.
The fried pickles ($4) are like puffy beignets with sweet bread and butter pickles hidden in the middle. The pickles are very sweet, almost like candy, tempered somewhat by the batter and the spicy aioli (which isn't too spicy).
The Belgian-style frites ($5) are thin and blonde, but they do have a light crispness to them. The house-made ketchup is sweet and heavy on the toasted clove, which lends a strong spiced flavor to the condiment. There's aioli, too, which doesn't have much of a taste in and of itself, so take it or leave it.
Chef Jared Van Camp even mills his own flour at his other restaurant, Nellcôte, so it's disappointing the patty on the burger doesn't do the beef justice. Justice, that's it. In the end, that's what the beef needs. Sweet, sweet, justice.
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.