1578 N. Clybourn, Chicago IL 60642 (map); 312- 255-0055; burgerbarchicago.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Innovative toppings combined with quality patties cooked precisely as ordered make for one excellent burger experience
Want Fries With That? Hand-cut fries are flavorful, but my batch lacked crispness; homemade chips were much better
Price: Belly Up, $14; regular half-pound burgers start at $9; Tallgrass burgers start at $12; fried pickles, $6; Malted Milk Ball Madness, $6
For most of his career, chef John McLean had a hand in the food eaten by millions of people across the country, nearly none of whom had a clue that he existed. McClean was the chef de cuisine at Levy Restaurant Corporation, the Chicago-based culinary juggernaut that is focused on running kitchens and upscale catering operations in stadiums across the country. Last year, McClean turned his focus away from developing other people's menus and focused on his own. He opened up two restaurants next door to each other in Chicago: SoNo, a pizzeria I reviewed for Slice, and Burger Bar.
The burger portion of Burger Bar's menu includes nine different "Stackers," which are half-pound patties with a variety of toppings piled on à la Kuma's and Bad Apple. By default the burgers are made with grain-fed beef, but diners can swap in a grass fed Tallgrass patty for $3 extra.
For my Belly Up stacker, I stuck with the cheaper beef and was not at all disappointed. Like most of the meat at Burger Bar, the grain-fed beef is from a relatively local producer (Michigan in this case). The beef is a 75/25 secret blend that is loosely packed into patties in-house and nicely salted before being tossed on the grill. The burger was topped with cider-braised pork belly, apple-pear slaw, and butternut squash aioli, which together provided a remarkable combination of textures and flavors. The chewy, slightly sweet and tangy pork belly and the crunchy and sweet slaw were tempered very well by the nutty aioli.
There was unquestionably a lot going on here other than the meat, but the beef held its ground against the onslaught of flavors to retain its role as the centerpiece of the burger. I requested rare and got a patty that was dark pink but warm throughout. In other words, the kitchen delivered precisely the burger I ordered. The bun, a sturdy but not chewy specimen from Labriola, held up to the juicy meat and heavy toppings with no problems at all.
For my second burger, I went with the build-your-own option and opted for the Tallgrass patty. The "Burger Bar" section of the menu includes a wide array of optional toppings, including 11 free ones that range from the traditional lettuce and tomatoes to the more creative, like house pickled red onions. For a dollar apiece, diners can also add one of seven cheeses as well as arugula, avocado, bacon, and a fried egg.
I kept things fairly conservative with my choices and opted for cheddar and bacon along with pickles and pickled jalapenos on the side. The fairly mild bacon added some excellent fat and chew without bringing in too much smokiness. My only minor gripe with this burger was that pickled jalapenos were not particularly pickled.
Without all the trappings like those on the various Stackers, this burger needed a particularly good patty to stand out. Fortunately, the 90/10 beef was absolutely delicious. There are too many factors, most notably freshness, that go into the flavor of beef for me to make a blanket statement that one type of beef is better. But at Burger Bar, where I was told all the beef is ground in-house each day, the grass-fed beef was definitely worth the extra $3. The patty in the Belly Up was no slouch, but the Tallgrass one was significantly more flavorful.
Every burger at Burger Bar comes with a choice of fresh regular fries, frozen sweet potato fries, housemade chips, or salad. The fries we had were decent, but not close to being on par with the burgers. They were not crisp at all and were left largely uneaten at my table. The chips, on the other hand, were very crispy and were devoured. There are 10 sauces on the menu ostensibly for putting on burgers, but some of them seemed much more suited for potatoes than beef. I particularly liked the lime crema, a refreshing and creamy condiment.
In addition to the gratis fries, there's a range of starters and sides available that elevate the restaurant far beyond a standard burger joint. The thin slices of fried pickles had a much higher batter-to-pickle ratio that is typical, which reduced the "pickledness." Out of the menu's ten shakes I opted for the Malted Milk Ball Madness. It was good, if a little thin for my tastes, but Malted Milk Ball Mildness would have been a more appropriate name. The malt-tinted vanilla was surprisingly mild given the intensity of most of the menu.
After trying SoNo a couple of weeks ago and having less than exciting pizza, I didn't know what to expect out of Burger Bar. But there's no question Burger Bar far outshines its pizza brother. And fortunately for the rest of the country, McLean is tapping into his corporate roots and is already, less than a year after opening, seriously investigating new locations. The manager I spoke with says that Tampa and Los Angeles are looking particularly ripe for expansion.