As the unveiling of my project grows closer (I'll share more details when I can), I've been cruising around town trying boatloads of burgers and fries.
The more I try, the more I'm amazed at the differences from place to place. Here are some quick reviews of places I've tried recently.
2878 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
This is a classic-looking old place with a sparse, simple menu that regularly gets pretty good marks on the various restaurant review sites. It's very clean inside, the owner is usually running the show behind the counter, and is extremely competent and friendly.
The burger, however, is your standard-issue frozen hockey puck. Besides lacking juiciness and good beefy flavor, which is almost always the case with a factory-formed, machine-stamped frozen patty, mine tasted freezer-burnt to boot. If the best part of a burger is the toppings, it's just not worth it, in my opinion.
The highlight at Muskie's is the fries. They're cutting their own potatoes here, but they're doing a thin fry, just about the same size as that awful place that starts with McD. And, these crispy shoestrings were cooked perfectly. Nicely cooked through with a great crunchy, well-browned exterior. This is the only place I've ever seen do a fresh-cut fry in this style. Very nice.
2134 E 71st St., Chicago
This place has been recommended to me by dozens of people and I finally got around to trying it. The burgers are a nicely-done example of the diner-style griddled smashburger; fresh beef scooped and then smashed on the flat top. I did see (despite having to look through the bullet-proof glass) the guy scoop the fresh beef and flatten it with a specially-bent spatula that he fashioned (I presume) for this specific task, so they're at least doing it the way it's supposed to be done.
As a result, the burger was pretty good. Beef tasted fresh and had that nice crispy-yet-crumbly texture you want from a griddled diner-style burger. It was pretty juicy as well. They have a lot of other interesting-sounding stuff on their menu, and I've heard rave reviews about their turkey burgers, but I was interested in sampling just the straight-up burger and fries, mostly unadorned, in order to really be able to taste and assess the meat.
The fries, while fresh-cut, were abysmal. The trick with fresh-cut fries is to be able to cook them through in the time it takes the outside to brown and crisp up. In order to accomplish this, most places cook their fries twice--first in a lower-temperature oil, to cook the potatoes, and then again, at a higher temperature, to crisp and brown them.
That's-a-Burger, I believe, skipped the first step, resulting in fries that did not fully cook through before they started to brown. Then they wrapped them up in the same butcher paper as the burger, Gene and Jude's style, where the trapped steam caused them to lose any hint of crispness that they might have had when they came out of the fryer. They also lacked salt.
Which wouldn't normally be that big of a deal--I can add salt myself, no problem--except that since That's-a-Burger offers no dine-in options, not even a ledge to perch on while you stand and eat, we were a block and a half away, eating in the car, so it wasn't all that feasible to go back and beg for a salt packet.
Oh, and I also had an issue with the spongy, cake-like bun, which had a kind of strange-tasting artificial sweetness to it that I found just very off.
Another thing about this place was that it took them more than 20 minutes to cook our order of three burgers and fries. We just walked in and ordered, but from what I observed, it seems like the protocol is to call your order in ahead of time. I'm not sure why it would take that long to cook burgers and fries. Wish I could say better things about this place. I wanted to like it, really I did.
3832 Dempster St., Skokie
I stopped at Poochies with the intention of having a burger and fries--honestly. But the really unique item on their menu is the char salami sandwich. They cut thick slabs the long way off of an all-beef kosher salami, and then cook it on the char-grill, crisping it up, rendering out some of the fat, and giving it a great, smoky, charred flavor.
It's served on very good crusty bread, as well. It's quite a sandwich. I ordered mine with the mustard and grilled onions, and I give this combo very high marks.
The fries, though, at Poochie's, are really the star. Here is a perfect exemplar of the fresh-cut fry the way it's supposed to be. Cooked through, almost creamy on the inside, nicely browned and crispy on the outside, and well-seasoned. These fries are perfect. Order the cheese fries and they'll slather a mound of gloppy Merkt's on there too. Just as good as Weiner's Circle, but without the verbal abuse!
They do char cheddar burgers with the Merkt's at Poochie's too (in the same vein as Paradise Pup), so I'll have to get back there fairly soon and check out the burger, although I doubt it's made with fresh beef.
7316 Circle Ave., Forest Park
Another oft-recommended burger spot is Goldyburgers in Forest Park, just west of Harlem Avenue and south of the Metra tracks. This place is definitely worth seeking out. It's a classic old tavern that's just perfect for taking in a Cubs day game.
The burgers are definitely fresh beef, hand-pattied, and have good flavor. They're also pretty big--at least a half pound, I'd guess. The one I ordered was, unfortunately, overcooked, but I believe that if it had been cooked as I ordered it, there would've had a lot more juiciness to it. Even cooked all the way through, it wasn't dry.
The service here was very friendly, in that kind of neighborhood corner bar sort of way. There's a lot of low-rent charm here as well--the food is served on cheap paper plates, 50's-era paper place mats appear after you order food, and kitschy burger-themed salt and pepper shakers adorn the tables.
The fries were nothing worth mentioning, but the feel of the place and the good (potentially very good) burgers make it worth checking out.
2900 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago
Kuma's was a must-try for me, since they've won all sorts of awards for the best burger in the city. So I stopped in for lunch on a weekday around 2pm and the place was packed to the point that I just managed to find a spot at the bar.
I had the "Kaijo" which featured bacon, blue cheese, and "frizzled" onions. As you probably know, all the burgers are named after heavy metal bands at this place. I'm not familiar with the band Kaijo, but the burger sounded good to me.
It was cooked spot-on perfect, as you can see from the picture above, and the meat tasted like it was fresh and looked hand-pattied. It was juicy for days and was, overall, probably the best burger of the bunch I'm reviewing here.
The one thing I didn't love about the Kuma's burger was the fact that it was over-topped. They really heap on the toppings, which, when you're dealing with fresh, good-quality beef, really kind of overwhelms what's supposed to be the star of the show. I also wasn't crazy about the "pretzel"-style bun, but I did appreciate the fact that it was structurally sound enough to stand up to the giant, juicy, over-topped mess (and I mean that in a good way) that is the Kuma's burger experience.
The freezer-bag-to-fryer waffle cut fries and chips are nothing worth mentioning. It's a shame that a place that features burgers this good isn't also doing high-quality fresh-cut fries, but given the volume they're doing and the small kitchen, I understand why they've made that choice.
So, to recap, the Kuma's burger was the best of the bunch, with their good-quality, fresh beef and ability to cook it to the correct degree of doneness. While I prefer the thinner, diner-style griddled burger featured at That's-a-Burger, the main consideration for me is the quality of the beef, the freshness, and the juiciness, and Kuma's really delivered on all three.
The runaway winner for fries was Poochie's, with a special mention to Muskies for their unique shoestring hand-cut fries.
That said, I think I can do better.