Hackney's in Chicago: The Best Underseasoned Mushy Burger in Town
733 S. Dearborn, Chicago IL 60605 (map); 312-461-1116; hackneys.net or hackneysprintersrow.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Decent burgers that are cooked properly, but underseasoned and devoid of charring.
Want Fries With That? Mediocre fries should be skipped in favor of homemade chips.
Price: Burgers start at $8.95; buffalo burgers start at $10.95
When I submitted the list of my top 5 favorite burgers in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I included Hackney's, but offered the disclaimer that it had been years since I'd been there and suspected I might change my mind after trying it again. It turns out that my fears were well founded. That's not to say Hackney's makes a bad burger—for a bar, the burger is pretty good. But as a burger destination, this once great (at least in my head) institution is one that can be skipped.
Hackney's started on Jack and Bebe Hackney's back porch in Glenview in the 1920s, where beer were served during Prohibition along with burgers (according to the main Hackney's website) or corned beef (per the Hackney's Printers' Row site). Jim Masterson, Jack and Bebe's nephew, took over the place in 1939 and Hackney's has remained in the family ever since. Today, there are six location spread around the Chicago area. I went to Hackney's newest restaurant, the Printers' Row location that opened in 2001, which is also the only Hackney's actually in Chicago.
Up first was my Hackneyburger, which I got rare with cheddar on a regular bun. The first thing that people notice when they see a Hackneyburger is its oval shape. When Hackney's first started selling burgers, they were served on Bebe Hackney's dark rye bread—they shaped the burgers so that they would fit neatly on the bread. Today, burgers are available on the same dark rye as well as on regular buns, but regardless of which shape the bread is, the burger still comes out oval.
The burger was cooked perfectly; it could be the poster child for a rare hamburger. The meat, which arrives at Hackney's already formed into patties by a local butcher, is a good quality ground chuck. But—and this was a big problem that eliminated Hackney's from my top five after one bite—the burger was woefully underseasoned. I can't remember the last time I added salt or pepper to a burger at a restaurant, but at Hackney's I had to add both. Another shortcoming of the griddled burger was that there was no charring whatsoever, which made the entire thing way too mushy.
The homemade chips that came with the burger were pretty good, but also suffered from a lack of salt. They were surprisingly not greasy for homemade chips, so much so that I asked our server if they were actually made in the restaurant, but he assured me they were. Either way, they had a nice crunch to them and were pretty good once I added salt, but they were nothing to get too excited about.
Another of my childhood memories that left Hackney's on a pedestal in my brain was the fact that they serve buffalo burgers, something that was pretty exotic to the nine-year-old me. I got the buffalo burger medium rare with havarti cheese and grilled onions, and I had it on the traditional Hackney's dark rye.
Once again, the burger was cooked absolutely perfectly. But again, it was seemingly devoid of seasoning and had nothing resembling a crust on the outside. The meat seemed to be of good quality, though my limited experience with buffalo is pretty limited. But, as was the case with the regular Hackneyburger, the buffalo burger showed that a burger requires a lot more than just high quality meat.
The fries came with a little batter on them, which is a style I generally don't like all that much, and these did little to change my opinion. They weren't terrible—I appreciated the added crunch—but, keeping the theme alive, they were underseasoned and didn't have a great flavor. There's no reason to get them instead of the chips.
Fortunately, all is not hopeless at Hackney's. The star of the show in my youth and in every visit since, including this one, were Hackney's French-fried onions, a massive brick of battered strings of sweet Spanish onions. The onions are served as a half-order and a full order, and since the full size is only one dollar more, it was a no-brainer to go with that one. The brick is huge and the onions are tightly packed in there, so much so that a few pieces in the middle weren't quite cooked all the way. The onions come with a dipping sauce that is basically a thousand island dressing with a little added kick.
This was my first trip to Hackney's in four of five years and it was clearly not what I remembered. I'd like to think they've changed their recipes and that my memory is good, but much more likely is that the recent explosion in quality burgers has significantly altered my standards. Hackney's has been selling burgers for 70 years and they are popular enough that the restaurant actually has a mail order business. But after my experience on this visit, I can't help but wonder how much of their popularity is driven by nostalgia. This was probably my last burger at Hackney's, but it's definitely not my last onion brick.