Top Notch Beefburgers
2116 West 95th Street, Chicago IL 60643 (map); 773-445-7218; topnotchbeverly.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: South Side institution puts out some remarkable beefy burgers
Want Fries With That? Absolutely. These hand cut beauties are perfectly fried in beef tallow. As good as the fries are, the onion rings, also cooked in beef tallow, are even better.
Price: Start at $3.25 for a quarter-pound patty
Like any serious lover of burgers, I am thrilled at the interest chefs of all stripes are taking in putting out quality patties. The burger boom has completely reshaped many people's visions of what makes a good burger.
An unfortunate consequence of eaters realizing how good burgers can be is that many old favorites, without changing a thing, find themselves viewed as mediocre rather than at the top of the heap. At the same time, some of those places we have loved for decades continue to put out a product that can compete with the best burgers put out by the most accomplished chefs in the finest of white tablecloth restaurants. Top Notch Beefburgers, which was been making burgers on the far south side of Chicago since 1942, is one such place.
As with any burger, the number one key to Top Notch's success is the meat. Top Notch uses fresh beef that is ground in-house on a daily basis, something that is much appreciated although not especially unique. Where Top Notch goes out on its own is in exclusively using the leg of the cow, a part of the animal that is so little desired that most stores don't even sell it. It's easier to get cow offal than it is to get a cow leg. When Kenji Lopez-Alt applied his mad scientist skills to figuring out the best beef combination for a burger, the leg was nowhere to be found. The cow leg is so irrelevant to our consumption of the animal that the standard diagram of a cow identifying where different meats come from doesn't even bother to name the lower leg. I have no idea what cow legs did to anyone to earn their reputation as undesirable edibles, but Top Notch offers conclusive proof that the cow leg can produce some truly excellent burgers.
Top Notch offers burgers in three sizes: 1/4 pound, 1/2 pound (King Size), and 3/4 pound (Super King Size). I started with the King Size burger with sharp American cheese and was immediately blown away. There is nothing at all fancy about this burger. There is no special seasoning in the meat, the cheese is processed, and the pickles are too sweet. The sesame seed bun is of no better quality than a grocery store bun, although it is toasted, which was much appreciated. But there was something about the meat that was hard to put my finger on that made it exceptional.
It makes no sense, but the only way I can describe it is to say it was extra beefy. So much so that I asked our server whether the burgers were basted in the beef tallow used to cook the fries. She denied it, but I'm not sure I believe her. Customers have no say over how the burgers are cooked and they come at least medium. Ordinarily, that is an immediate source of dissatisfaction for me, but I can honestly say that I thought it was cooked perfectly.
The 1/4-pound burger is really the classic size at Top Notch and I think the overwhelming favorite. The advantage they have over their bigger burger brothers is that there is a much higher crisp crust-to-inside meat ratio on the thinner burgers. The disadvantage of the thinner burgers is that the meat to bun ratio is a little lower even though the smaller burger sits on a smaller (and seed-free) bun. Personally, I'm partial to the extra beef, but only by the narrowest of margins.
As good as the burgers are at Top Notch, the real treat for me were the onion rings and the fries, both of which are exceptional thanks to their being fried in a bubbling pool of beef tallow. The fries are crisp on the outside, and soft, almost creamy, in the center. They have a rich potato flavor that most fries can't begin to dream of having. They are, quite simply, some of the best fries in Chicago. The onion rings are coated in a batter that is almost tempura-like in its lightness, but still packed with flavor from the beef tallow. I could have eaten an entire meal of nothing but onion rings and been happy.
Usually when a restaurant features old quotes on their menus praising the food, it's a sign that the place is well past its prime. So when I saw that Top Notch's menu had a 30-year-old quote from the Chicago Tribune, I was a little skeptical. But the fact is Top Notch could go ahead and use a quote from 1949 and it would be okay. This place has been putting out the same burger for more than six decades, and while Americans' burger tastes have evolved over that time, by any reasonable standard, Top Notch Beefburger's patties are exceptional.