Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Best Burger in Chicago

I finally made the trek down to Beverly to try what many claim is the best burger in Chicago. Top Notch Beefburgers is located at 2116 W. 95th, just a bit east of Western Ave., and yes, it's all it's cracked up to be.

What can I say, other than to add my name to the pile of admirers who have crowned Top Notch as the standard-bearer? It's the best of the form. Hands down.

The beef is incredibly fresh. Top Notch uses round for their burgers, and they grind the beef fresh, in-house, every morning, from great 90-lb primal cuts of beef. They patty their fresh beef into thin, 5 oz. burgers, and griddle cook them, gently, until they're just cooked through, but still juicy, with tons of wonderful fresh beef flavor.

The bun is the classic, flabby, nondescript, white bread burger bun. It wouldn't stand up to a larger, medium-rare burger, but it's perfect for the style that Top Notch is serving, mainly because it stays in the background and doesn't interfere with the beefy flavor of the meat, which is really the focus here. I had mine with grilled onions and cheese (sharp American comes standard), which I believe to be the purist's preference.

I've gone into some detail already about what I'm looking for from a burger, so I won't repeat myself, but I want to state for the record, right here, that Top Notch delivered exactly what I have been seeking from a burger. The raves are on the mark. It's just too bad this place is roughly 167 blocks south of where I spend most of my time.

Oh, and the fries! I didn't mention the fries yet, but they are fabulous. They may not be the best fries in the city, but they're damn close. A place with a burger this good doesn't need to turn out a perfectly-done version of the fresh-cut, double-cooked fry. Their burger is the draw, right? So they definitely don't need to cook their fries in beef tallow, do they?

But they do, and they're perfectly seasoned, crisp, and nicely browned without even approaching dark. While I was sitting at the counter, during a fairly busy lunch, I saw the fry cook make batch after small batch of fries which went straight onto plates with their burgers almost every time. The guy could've made two or three really large batches, considering the rate at which they were serving them up, and just worked from the heat-lamped dump pan, but he didn't. Instead, almost every customer got fries that had just emerged from their sizzling hot bath of beef fat.

Details like that are what makes this place so awesome. They get it.

I could go on and on about the retro-without-trying-to-be wood paneling and formica counters, or the milkshakes made on the old spindle machine with milk straight from the "cow". But, honestly, I wouldn't care if they served these burgers and fries to me out of the back of a rented moving truck or from a kiosk inside of a Wal-Mart--they're just that good.

Life is generally better when viewed through a vanilla malt.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Road Trip--Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY

The final stop on my trip back from the Greenbrier, earlier this month, was a visit to what I now know to be the legendary Buffalo Trace distillery, where they create some of the finest Kentucky Bourbons on the market.

Buffalo Trace is a part of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. It's being marketed to tourists and Bourbon lovers as a destination, and there are folks who even buy the "passport", make a trip of it and try to visit as many of the eight distilleries that ring the area around Frankfort as they can.

In keeping with this attempt to make this whole thing more marketable and accessible for tourists, I found the area to be well-marked, with street signs indicating where to turn once I got off the main highway, so finding the place was fairly easy. I pulled off into what appeared to be a large estate, and the drive wound around past some very well-kept gardens until I pulled into what was obviously the working distillery and tour zone.

As soon as I stepped out of my car, I was smacked in the face with the smell of bourbon. The distillery's parking lot sits right next to one of the large barrel aging warehouses, and the grainy, caramelly, woody smell seems to hang in the air around the compound of more than 100 buildings that make up the distillery. This smell, along with the fact that the 55 gallon barrels can yield as little as 5 gallons of finished product, have given rise to the term "angels' share" to refer to the huge quantity of the tasty brown liquor that evaporates into the Kentucky air as the environment and its temperature fluctuations work their magic and turn grain spirits into fine Kentucky bourbon.

I did what they refer to on their website as the "hard hat tour", which took me, according to their literature, "behind the scenes of the bourbon making process where the magic happens". As part of a small group of four guys, the tour guide walked us through the entire brewing/distilling/aging process from where the grain gets trucked in, right through to where the pure spirits go into the barrel to age.

The grains (corn, wheat, malted barley) are cooked in giant pressure cookers.

The mash is then cooled, yeast is added, and it's allowed to ferment in huge vats. The mash is constantly bubbling furiously and an oily, bubbly scum forms along the top. It smells like beer.

Buffalo Trace is really a pretty amazing place. The name refers to the fact that buffalo herds used to cross the Kentucky river at this particular spot, and is the owners' way of paying tribute to the "mighty herds that carved paths in the wilderness and a destiny for our ancestors."

The site was first settled in 1775 by brothers Hancock and Wills Lee, and was originally called Leestown. The story goes that the region's fine limestone-filtered water and burgeoning grain farmers made it an ideal place for a distillery, and, perhaps due to those circumstances, there has been a working distillery on the site since 1787.

It's gone through a lot, though. It was known as Blanton in the early 1800's, then was purchased by George T. Stagg in the 1870's and rechristened O.F.C. distillery. It eventually came to be known as the George T. Stagg distillery, which is what it's called on the National Registry of Historic Places.

During prohibition, George T. Stagg distillery was one of only four distilleries in the country to be granted a permit to continue producing alcohol for "medicinal purposes". People could get a prescription from their doctor to purchase whiskey, and some 5 million people got in on the act, purchasing the quart maximum that they were permitted every 10 days.

In 1992, it was sold to the New Orleans-based Sazerac company, which gave the distillery its current name and, in 1999, started marketing bourbon under the Buffalo Trace (which is a Kentucky Straight Bourbon) brand name.

Which brings us to some of the rules and nomenclature associated with bourbon. The label "bourbon" is a federally-protected descriptor. In 1964, the US Congress recognized Bourbon Whiskey as a "distinctive product of the United States." The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 CFR 5) state that bourbon must meet these requirements:
  • Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
  • Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
  • Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels
  • Bourbon may not be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
  • Bourbon which meets the above requirements and has been aged for a minimum of two years, may (but is not required to) be called Straight Bourbon.
  • Bourbon aged for a period less than four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.
  • If an age is stated on the label, it must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.
The distinction, then, between bourbon and other various types of American whiskey, is an important one. Bourbon need not be made in Bourbon County (there are, in fact, no distilleries in Bourbon County, Kentucky), and it doesn't even need to have been made in Kentucky to be called bourbon. But it does need to adhere to the requirements above.

So, for example, Jack Daniels, is categorized as Tennessee whiskey, and cannot, by law, be called bourbon.

Now that the term "bourbon" has been fully explained, we can tackle the concept of "single barrel".

Basically, as bourbons go, the less expensive commercially-produced brands like Jim Beam or Maker's Mark, while they are legitimately called Kentucky Straight Bourbon, they are not "single barrel" bourbons. These brands consist of the contents of hundreds of barrels--some may be ten or twelve years old, others as young as two--which are then combined (don't say "blended"--I learned the hard way) so that a consistent color and flavor profile is achieved.

Which is fine. There's a certain consistency and appeal to these products, and the price is right. Buffalo Trace's eponymous brand falls into this category.

But the real draw here is the single barrel stuff. In 1984, the world’s first single barrel bourbon to be marketed commercially was released under the label, Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon, named after Colonel Albert B. Blanton, who dedicated his life to preserving the tradition of handcrafted small-batch produced bourbon amidst a quickly-modernizing industry.

Buffalo Trace makes and markets its own brand of single barrel, Eagle Rare, which is available as a 10 year-old single barrel at 90 proof and a 17 year-old "antique collection" offering.

But what I found really cool is the fact that Buffalo Trace produces and ages a number of other brands, each to the specifications of their master distiller, each with a different personality and flavor profile; Blanton's is a great brand with a number of different offerings, Elmer T. Lee is named after Buffalo Trace's distiller emeritus, and is bottled when he decides the time is right, and Rock Hill Farms is much prized, but difficult to find. There are others.

These distillers get first crack at the prime aging spots. Experts claim that specific floors within specific aging warehouses are superior; they offer the best temperature fluctuations between Kentucky's hot, humid summers, and cool, foggy winters, and that these severe temperature changes are what gives the contents of the barrel its distinctive mellowness and flavor notes. According to their website, "the fourth and fifth floors of Warehouse C and the fourth through sixth floors of Warehouses I and K produce our absolute best whiskey." Who knew?

Other products produced at Buffalo Trace include Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, which is a wheated bourbon, has been rated the number one bourbon whiskey in the world and goes for around $250/bottle, and Sazerac Rye (rye whiskey is a smoother, yet spicier version of bourbon) are also made at the distillery. Rain vodka (the only vodka made exclusively from organically-grown American grain) is also produced at BT.

Bourbon is a distinctly American product which, despite achieving some degree of notoriety in recent years, hasn't even begun to approach the prestige level that Scotch whiskey has enjoyed forever. Until I went and immersed myself in the history of this fine amber sipping liquor, I was sorely ignorant of the amazing tradition, incredible standards, and great variety that Bourbon offers to those who are inclined to delve deeply into the genre and start learning and drinking. There's simply a ton to know, and there are lots of great resources out there.

And, amazingly, the center of the bourbon universe is a short 5-6 hour drive south of Chicago, tucked away in the country between Lexington and Frankfort, Kentucky, just waiting for city dwellers like me to discover, which, in my mind, is a pretty good excuse for a road trip.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Granola Recipe

I referred to making granola in an earlier post, but never posted the recipe. We've been working from a recipe that I got from the Food Network's recipe website for nearly a year now, and I've tweaked it to the point that it gives us great, consistent results.

This makes a big batch, maybe 2 weeks' worth for a small family, but it keeps just fine in a sealed plastic container.

6 Cups rolled oats
1.5 Cups freshly-ground flax seeds
1.5 Cups wheat germ
1 Cup brown sugar
2 Cups shredded coconut
1 Cup toasted sunflower seeds
3 Cups other nuts (we use walnuts and pecans), chopped
1 Cup vegetable oil
1 Cup maple syrup (real)
2 T. salt
1 T. vanilla paste

  1. Pre-heat oven to 275°
  2. Mix the dry ingredients.
  3. Mix the wet ingredients.
  4. Combine and mix until well coated.
  5. Spread mixture evenly over two half-sheet pans.
  6. Bake on bottom rack until well-browned and dry (maybe 1 hour).
  7. Turn pieces over, lower oven to 200°, bake another 45 minutes to ensure it's fully dried and crunchy.
(my blogger software is changing the numbers on that list to little flowers, for some unknown reason. Somone who knows html, could you write me on how to fix that?)

It's a great breakfast option to have on hand for everyday, get-out-of-the-house type eating, combined with some nice creamy yogurt, or just milk.

I used a vanilla paste that's made by Rodelle Vanilla that's just fantastic as well. Vanilla paste is the actual pulp from the vanilla beans, pre-scraped and mixed with a bit of extract and corn syrup, so the texture is nice for this kind of application. If I poured vanilla extract straight onto the granola, it would quickly soak into only a few chunks; this pasty stuff allows it to thoroughly mix with the dry, sticky granola ingredients.

(full disclosure--they sent me some swag after I did a review of their whole vanilla beans that I buy at Costco)

No long commentary here. Truth is, I'm doing some late Spring cleaning and I almost threw out the original recipe. I haven't re-written it with the alterations, and just wanted to get it down somewhere that I wouldn't lose it. Paper is so obsolete.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Road Trip Photos--Hip Louisville

Ok, I will readily admit that I'm not as cool as I used to be. I'm forty. I have two young kids. Sorry. I try my best.

But as a once-hip indy-record-store-dwelling post-collegiate goof-off of some notoriety, I feel that even in my advanced middle-aged state, I can appreciate a good thing.

During my recent trip through the mid-South, I stopped in Louisville one evening for dinner and a stroll and happened up a great neighborhood along Bardstown Road that featured lots of urban hipster eye-candy in the form of cool bars, restaurants, and shops, live musicians playing outside a coffee shop in what I think is called Deer Park, and just a really nice neighborhood, with many friendly folks out and about.

Lots of cool signage in this area. I'm a sucker for creative and retro signage.

I had some food, which didn't actually impress much (maybe Louisville isn't a barbecue town, despite its proximity to Owensboro, which happens to be one of the great barbecue regions of the US), so I'm not really going to speak to the restaurants much with this post. But the neighborhood and the people really struck a nice tone for me on a warm late-Spring night.

I love record stores.

Walking a block or two off the main strip, I found a nice neighborhood with old trees and architecture very reminiscent of Chicago bungalows. Lots of brick, limestone, and squared-off corners which are everywhere in the Midwest and always give me a very comfortable and familiar feeling.

A little further off the main shopping drag, there are some amazing turn-of-the century mansions, too. You'll have to crane your neck out your car window to see them, since the most ornate and stoic examples sit perched way up on their own little hills, but park real quick and get out and look around at these beauties. They're amazing.

I was amazed at how, only five hours south of Chicago, Louisville felt so positively southern. Despite the quick drive, I was in The South; people had accents, every restaurant served cornbread and biscuits, and it was so much more warm and humid and green. This would be a nice place to live, I think.

The proof that I'm old, of course, is that I came back buzzing about Louisville and the impression it made on me, but instead of suggesting to my wife that we pick up and move there right now, as I might've done when I was in my 20's, my thought was that it would be a great place to retire to someday. Sad, this getting old thing. But also kind of cool.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

My Post-Symposium Post

Sorry for the prolonged absence. I've been out of town the past week at the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier in West Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

It was an incredible honor to be there. The whole thing was hugely inspirational and validating, both as a writer, but also just as someone who's as interested in food as I am. Spending a week with similar-minded people was great fun and really re-charged my batteries on both an intellectual and spiritual level.

Now, the challenge is to harness that energy. Many of the successful presenters at the Symposium shared their methods and models with the attendees, and I find myself going in twenty directions at once, trying to write for this or for that potential project, so I've taken a few days off from posting here, out of sheer inability to organize my thoughts and head in one specific direction.

I road-tripped it down there, so I took advantage by visiting a few food-related spots. I spent an evening in the hip Highlands area of Louisville, visited a farm where they make country ham the old fashioned way, ate lunch at a cool art deco diner in Charleston, West Virginia, and toured a bourbon distillery that's been in continuous operation since 1787. I'll be blogging about all that stuff under the new header "Road Trip" which will feature stuff that's outside the scope of Chicagoland.

I've also started a second blog, where I'll be documenting the process of opening and running my restaurant; it's going to be a good quality burger joint here in Chicago and I'll be blogging the story more or less in real time. As a business owner, I'll be hoping for things to run smoothly, but the writer part of me wants to see plenty of challenges and drama, which always make for better storytelling. As a restaurant industry vet, I know I can safely count on the latter.

The burger blog is in development now, but it'll be fully up and running soon.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

More Burger (and Fries) Research

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.

Kuma's Corner
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.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Happy Birthday To Me!

Today's my 40th birthday!

I'm not one for big blow-out type birthday celebrations; I usually just work on my birthday and don't make a big deal of it. Today I'm packing up the family and going out for breakfast at an old-fashioned diner I've been meaning to try, and then heading over to the Kane Country Flea Market. My wife hates going to antique stores and flea markets so I try and drag her to one on my birthday, when she can't protest or complain about it.

Later, we'll all go out for dinner with my parents and the plan is to follow it up with a visit to Margie's Candies for some of their amazing ice cream, which, for me, is far superior to cake.

On days like this, I'm just happy to spend time with family, appreciate the fact that we're all healthy, relatively happy, and in a position where we can spend quality time together.

Thanks to everyone for the kind birthday wishes. And, since forty is "the new thirty" (or so I'm told), I'm not at all worried about being old. (Yeah, right!)