Serious Eats: Chicago
Kuma's Corner: A Chicago Burger Even Upton Sinclair Would Love
Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with a piece of intel on the Windy City burger scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.
2900 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago, IL 60618 (map); 773-604-8769; kumascorner.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: The creative burgers are so good that this heavy metal bar is often overrun with a decidedly non-metal crowd
Want Fries With That? The waffle fries are cooked to perfection but the flavorful housemade chips are better
Price: $10 to $13
Notes: In the summer, outdoor seating is available in back, but the extra grill space devoted to the additional tables means no orders to go during those months
Chicago has been the center of America's beef world since the Union Stock Yards opened on Christmas Day, 1865. The city's status as the hub of the growing national railroad network and proximity to Midwestern cattle farms ensured that as the country and its demand for meat grew, so too did Union Stock Yards. By 1900, the Stock Yards was 475 acres and had 130 miles of railroad track and 50 miles of roads, and the city's meatpacking industry employed more than 25,000 people and produced over 80 percent of the meat eaten in the United States.
By the late 1950s, technological advances eliminated the need for a large centralized slaughterhouse and part of Chicago's place as the epicenter of the meat industry withered away. But while the cattle may have stopped pouring in and out of Chicago, the cattle futures market remained at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, thereby retaining the city's importance in the beef-eating world and beef's importance in the city's self image. Given that history, it should come as no surprise that the hamburger is well represented in Chicago.
In the middle of 2005, Matt Cain opened Kuma's Corner in Avondale, a working-class neighborhood on the northwest side that has consistently been a first American home for immigrants and has recently become a landing place for hipsters. After a couple of different radical menu overhauls, Kuma's found and mastered its niche by 2007: a metal bar that sells some incredible and creative hamburgers. While the heavily tatted and pierced staff surely scared off some more straight-laced prospective diners in the early days, Kuma's has evolved into a culinary destination for burger-lovers of all stripes—so much so that it is common for people to wait well over an hour to get seated.
Kuma's offers 22 different burgers, 20 of which are named after heavy metal bands. The other two burgers are the eponymous Kuma Burger and a rotating monthly special typically named after a popular current news story (one of which was mentioned on AHT). I have not yet had every burger on Kuma's menu, but it is high on my to do list. One thing that has slowed me down is that the Kuma Burger is so good, it's hard for me to not order it.
The Kuma Burger features 10 ounces of coarsely ground beef—like every burger at Kuma's—and is topped with cheddar cheese, bacon and a fried egg. Between the juice from the meat and the egg yolk, there seems to be danger of making an inedible mess after a couple of bites. But the pretzel roll on which every burger at Kuma's is served is capable of absorbing an astounding amount of liquid.
There are places where so much is made of the toppings that the actual burger is an afterthought. That is not the case at Kuma's at all; my rare burger was cooked perfectly. There was a nice crisp layer on the outside and the center was warm, soft meat. Combined with the crisp and chewy bacon, melted cheese, and molten egg, every bite had an incredible melding of flavors and textures. And because there is so much meat, there was no danger of the burger being overwhelmed by the toppings, something that has held true on every Kuma's burger I've tried, from the Iron Maiden (avocado, cherry peppers, pepper jack, chipotle mayo) to the High On Fire (Sriracha, prosciutto, roasted red pepper, grilled pineapple, sweet chili paste).
When I visited Kuma's Corner in late May, my plan was, as it always is when I go, to finally try the Goblin Cock, which is basically a bacon cheddar burger with a fully dressed quarter-pound Chicago-style hot dog on top. But once again, I was distracted, that time by the monthly special, the Swine Flu. That burger featured fried tortilla strips, chorizo hash, roasted green chiles, pico de gallo, fresh cilantro, and a cream sauce. It was not my favorite burger that I've had at Kuma's, but the competition in that category is fierce. Other than the fried tortilla strips not retaining any crunch at all, the Swine Flu was an excellent burger. While it did not earn a permanent place on the menu, I do hope that chorizo hash will reappear on another burger there soon.
Even though Kuma's Corner has exploded in popularity over the last couple of years, it remains very much a neighborhood bar. There are regulars who know each other and everyone who works there, and Cain has been noticeably generous in hosting fundraisers for small local causes. The combination of good people, incredible burgers, and an impressive beer list that's dominated by craft brews has been a winning one for Kuma's. There have been rumors of Kuma's expanding to other cities, but so far it has not happened. Cain rejected the Venetian's overtures regarding an expansion into Las Vegas, but he has expressed willingness to branch out into cities like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. I would advise residents of those cities to start a letter-writing campaign immediately.