5347 North Clark Street, Chicago IL 60640 (map); 773-275-5725; bigjoneschicago.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Southern standout puts out burgers so good that it's tough to order the excellent regional cuisine that dominates the menu
Want Fries With That? Sides rotate, but the chips fried in beef tallow are sensational
Notes: Cheese and toppings can vary as menu changes regularly
Big Jones is high on the short list of best Southern restaurants in Chicago. Executive chef and co-owner Paul Fehribach, like Chicago-based celebrity chef Rick Bayless, does an admirable job of staying true to the spirit of food from another region while maintaining a strong devotion to local and seasonal ingredients when practical. Fehribach elaborated on the point in one of his posts on LTH Forum in response to an overly critical customer.
But while Bayless's Mexican empire has garnered far more fame, Fehribach has a significant leg up on the Top Chef Master as far as AHT is concerned. There are no burgers to be had at Bayless's Frontera Grill, Topolobompo, or Xoco, but there's an outstanding one on both the lunch and dinner menus at Big Jones. The burger at Big Jones is so good that even though the restaurant is on the map for Southern food, the burger is one of its best sellers.
To say Fehribach puts thought into his food would be a gross understatement. His recent blog post about sourcing meat is one of the more thoughtful pieces on the topic by a chef that I've read. For now, he makes his burger out of a house-ground grass-fed (and grain-finished) sirloin from Niman Ranch though he could soon be switching to a much more local supplier.
Because sirloin has a significantly lower fat content than chuck and grass-fed beef is more lean than grain-fed, the burger started out with two strikes against it. And when I say my burger was cooked to medium well when I'd ordered it rare, the potential for disaster was magnified. But this densely packed patty defied the odds and, while not particularly juicy, was overflowing with beef flavor. I should also note that when I told my server the burger was overcooked, he immediately offered to replace it, but I refused because I had already inhaled half of it and was eager to polish it off.
The fat and moisture problems were both largely alleviated by the organic baby Swiss cheese and the creamy garlic aioli atop the patty. The crisp grilled onions added more texture than flavor but were still a nice addition. House-cured slab bacon from Gunthorp Farms—pork that's among the better pork belly I've had on a burger—delivered more quality fat and some enjoyable chewiness.
The entire menu at Big Jones changes regularly and the burger is no exception. The patty is consistent but the cheese, toppings, and sides are not. When I visited last weekend, the sides were house-made chips fried in beef tallow. These thin, crisp beauties were about as good as potato chips get.
In order to make my meal at least a little Southern, I also got a side order of fried okra pickles. Wrapped in a light cornmeal breading, these crunchy vertically-split lightly pickled treats were sensational. They came with an excellent green goddess dressing, but the okra was so good on its own that dipping it made no sense.
Further adding to the Southern part of my excellent meal was the red velvet cake. Because I'd refused a replacement burger, our server insisted the restaurant treat us to dessert. I'm glad they did. This soft, moist cake with a lightly crisp exterior is made to order. Served with a scoop of cream cheese ice cream, this dish solidified that as good as Fehribach is with burgers, his soul is very much from the South.