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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

BIG & little's

939 N. Orleans Street, Chicago IL 60610 (map); 312-943-0000‎; facebook.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Top-notch grilled half-pound burgers of hand-formed chuck are cooked precisely as ordered.
Want Fries With That? The regular fries are merely expertly prepared double-fried hand-cut potatoes; the foie gras fries were among the best I've ever eaten.
Price: Burgers start at $5.00; foie gras fries are $12
Notes: Cash only

Before opening BIG & little's, childhood friends Tony D'Alessandro and Gary Strauss's total combined culinary training was limited to the two episodes D'Alessandro spent on Season 6 of Hell's Kitchen. For most home chefs, no matter how accomplished, the lack of any formal pedigree is an insurmountable obstacle to opening a restaurant. But D'Alessandro, also known as "little" for restaurant-naming purposes, is an optimist of the highest order. During his short time on reality television he declared, "You don't need to go to culinary school because if you have a passion for cooking, you will succeed." Hokey to be sure, but the former culinary store manager has been proving his point for nearly two years.

BIG & little's has a lot working against it. It's a tiny restaurant with just 12 stools (and outdoor picnic tables when weather permits), the menu is limited, and it's in a location allergic to foot traffic. How does a place like that make it? Well, let's just say D'Alessandro was speaking the truth when he proudly declared after Gordon Ramsey booted him, "I still think I have the palate of a god."

The hand-formed patties are made from ground chuck. Toppings are traditional, with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, ketchup, and mustard coming with, and American cheese and fried eggs available as add-ons. The burgers are served on a standard sesame seed bun that's exponentially improved from some time on the grill.

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A careful review of the menu reveals that for cheese fries, there's the option of getting Merkt's cheddar, a wonderfully tangy spreadable cheddar treat from Wisconsin. It turns out that, if you ask, you can upgrade the cheese on your burger from American to Merkt's. Do it; it'll be the among best 50 cents you'll ever spend. One of the cooks actually melts the Merkt's a little bit to make it more spreadable, filling in all of the nooks and crannies on the charred crust that surrounds the grilled patty.

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When I ordered a rare cheeseburger, Straus (BIG) asked if I wanted "rare rare." That's the kind of question that brings a tear to my eye and a spring to my step. I said yes and received a patty that was barely warm on the inside, had a serious crust on the outside, and was fully loaded with beef flavor.

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The burger with an egg and American cheese was also excellent, but not as flawless as its partner. It had an excellent crust and great beefy flavor, but it was a bit underseasoned. It could have been saved by Merkt's or if the egg had been cooked more thoroughly and/or salted, but a patty really should be able to stand on its own.

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This burger was ordered medium rare and, given the aforementioned "rare rare" scale I eagerly consented to, this one was also cooked precisely as requested and provided the same wonderful textural contrast from the soft interior and the charred exterior.

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As good as the burgers were, particularly for the price, they're not why I'm already planning a return trip. The foie gras fries were among the best fries I've ever had and have undoubtedly secured a spot on my list of ten best things I ate in 2011. The fries are blanched and then fried a second time in canola oil. The hand-cut beauties have a crisp exterior and soft interior and are bursting with fresh potato flavor. The foie gras was flawlessly cooked and had a nice crust around the ridiculously soft liver. Bringing the two elements together, D'Alessandro takes the pan he seared the foie in and pours the fat all over the fries.

20110217-big-and-littles-foie-gras-fries-fork.jpgCutting the foie chunks into smaller pieces is key to maximum enjoyment, but the pool of melted foie fat is truly where the magic happens. This stuff makes duck fat seem like child's play. But the best part might be way that even the fries at the bottom of the container — the ones completely immersed in foie fat — manage to stay crispy. There's definitely some food magic going on there.

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The sweet potato fries are also blanched prior to frying, but something was a little off with the texture. The fries looked a bit withered and were far too chewy. Despite those flaws, I'd happily order them again since these are among the most flavorful sweet potato fries around. Well, I'd order them if the place was out of foie gras.

BIG & little's does all the basics right when it comes to burgers and fries. From the fresh meat cooked to the exact temperature requested to the double-fried potatoes that put most places to shame, D'Alesandro has shown that passion and hard work can breed success. But it takes someone with serious creative chops and the "palate of a god" to come up with foie gras fries. Chicagoans need to head over to BIG & little's and worship.

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