Old Town Social
455 W. North Ave., Chicago IL 60610 (map); 312-266-2277; oldtownsocial.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Perfect patty with outstanding toppings, but on a dense bun that distracts
Want Fries With That? Yes; the skinny herbed fries are crisp and delicious; onion rings are even better
Price: Burger Our Way, $12; basic burger, $9; fries, $5
Notes: Burger is worth trying, but it pales next to the house-made charcuterie
I first encountered Old Town Social last year at Chicago Gourmet when Chef Jered Van Camp presented some of his house made porchetta with a tangy mustard-based piccalilli. I'd always intended to get to the restaurant to get a more complete sample of his charcuterie and whatever else he might be putting out, but my preconceived notions of the style of the place kept me away (the two guys bankrolling the place, Chris Freeman and Chris Dexter, have a history of success in somewhat trendy bars that are better known for their scene than their food).
But like most prejudices, the one behind my hesitancy was, quite frankly, stupid. Van Camp, an Illinois native from the small town of Danville, came to Old Town Social after stints under Paul Kahan and Rick Tramonto. There's no question the guy has the cooking chops and now he's been given free reign to celebrate meat in a huge venue that's part neighborhood gastropub, part uberhip gathering spot and part sports bar (loads of flat screen TVs come out of hiding only during sporting events).
Old Town Social offers two different burgers, both of which start with a half-pound of grass-fed beef, ground daily in the restaurant. The Basic burger comes with nothing but pickle, lettuce and tomato (PLT). But there's no reason to get that when the Served Our Way is on the menu. That one comes with house-made bacon, cheddar cheese, PLT, a fried egg, and garlic aioli.
Other than missing rare by a little bit, the burger was pretty much perfect. The rich beef was the kind of quality meat that burger lovers have dreams of swimming in. The bacon is cured and smoked in house. It's on the sweeter side, but just barely, and it added some excellent chew to the burger along with its outstanding flavor. The garlic aioli was fantastic as well, adding in some nice creaminess as along with the garlic zing. And, of course, the fried egg made the whole thing a little extra special.
The one flaw in the burger for me was the bun. I appreciated that it was toasted and that it held up sturdily to a half pound of beef dripping with egg yolk, but it was too dense and had far too much sesame flavor. It reminded me of the sesame bread often served at Greek restaurants. That heavy bread is fine with something like taramosalata, but I thought it distracted in taste and texture from an otherwise outstanding burger.
The hand-cut fries, which don't come with burger, are delicious. They were on the crisper side, but still retained a soft interior and were nicely seasoned with salt and a little herbage. As good as the fries were, I thought the onion rings were a shade better, though I'm generally partial to onion rings. The batter was crisp but had a little more chew than is typical.
As good as the burger is at Old Town Social, the unquestioned star of the restaurant is the incredible charcuterie selection. There were 16 different meats offered when I visited and I wanted to try them all. We ended up going with the chef's selection of five, the stars of which were the fennel-scented Finnochiona, the lardo, and the amazing chorizo that brought some excellent heat on the back end. The beef pepperone was also nice and the summer sausage was fine, but paled in comparison to the rest.
In addition to the meats, Old Town Social offers an impressive array of cheeses along with a variety of tempting bar snacks, including some outstanding pickled deviled eggs that are begging me to come back soon.
Chef Van Camp is an incredibly busy guy these days. Old Town Social is less than a year old, but he's already turned his attention to his even newer place in San Diego, Quality Social. Unfortunately, that seems to have left him too busy to keep up what looked like it was going to be an amazing blog. When Van Camp is off in Southern California, he leaves Old Town Social in the more than capable hands of sous chef Yoni Levy.