Chicago: Say Aloha to an Outstanding Burger at Sola
3868 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL 60613 (map); 773-327-3868; sola-restaurant.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Spectacular patty, well-decorated and expertly cooked, is one of Chicago's best
Want Fries With That? The hand cut fries at dinner are excellent examples of crisp and soft potato goodness; the fried potatoes at brunch were not quite crisp enough but still more than edible
Price: Wagyu Burger (dinner), $16; The Big Kahuna (brunch), $16
Notes: Address is on Lincoln but the entrance is on Byron
If we were to collectively rank all 50 of these United States in order of where we'd expect to find the best burgers, I suspect Hawaii might not appear in the top 45. That's not a knock against the state; I just don't think I'm alone in assuming that a place with much easier access to fresh seafood than beef and with culinary traditions deeply rooted in Asian and Polynesian traditions is going to be a place with great burgers. That said, I am sure there are good burgers to be had in Hawaii. More importantly, I'm absolutely positive that there's an outstanding one available at sola, a Hawaiian-inspired restaurant in on the north side of Chicago.
Chef Carol Wallack, who has no formal culinary training, moved from Southern California to Chicago years ago to join forces with her sister at Deleece. After an extended run there, she opened sola in 2006. The burger was never meant to be a focal point of the menu, but the patty was so popular that last year Wallack had no choice but to graduate it from weekly special to a permanent spot on the dinner menu.
Things started off on a good note when the burger arrived already cut in half and on separate plates. My dining companion and I had split everything else until that point and our server was clearly paying attention. But service and presentation don't mean a thing if the food is disappointing. Fortunately, my meals at sola were outstanding from start to finish.
The griddled patty is made of wagyu beef from Allen Brothers. The meat is topped with some chewy house-cured bacon, a few pieces of arugula, onions that have been caramelized with the help of bacon fat and pineapple juice (Hawaii!), and some cambozola cheese, which is a cross between triple-crème brie and gorgonzola. And that is all served on a pretzel bun from Labriola Bakery, a soft chewy roll that is my favorite bun in Chicago. There's a fair amount going on atop the patty, both texturally and with an inspired blend of sweet and savory flavors, but there's no question the beef is the star of the show.
The patty is made from the kind of meat that you take a bite of and think to yourself, "This is what beef is supposed to taste like." I ordered the burger medium-rare and the kitchen nailed the temperature. The juicy and peppery burger did not seem close to as dense as it looks in the picture, but in retrospect I can't help but wonder whether the outstanding flavors compelled me to overlook a textural flaw. It's also possible the fat content is high enough that it balanced out the annihilation of the individual beef noodles.
On weekends, burger lovers who show up for brunch will find bad news and good news. The bad news is that the dinner burger is nowhere to be found on the brunch menu. The good news is that The Big Kahuna is available. This bunless burger starts with the same exquisite wagyu patty and comes with the same house-cured bacon, but it's really an altogether different food category.
This time, I ordered the burger rare. Once again the kitchen delivered precisely what I requested, resulting in a burger that was noticeably softer than the one I had eaten a couple weeks earlier at dinner. This burger comes topped with white cheddar, grilled onions, and a fried egg covered with hollandaise sauce, and underneath the patty is a pile of fried potatoes. My egg was overcooked to the point that there was no runny yolk at all, but this was still one outstanding breakfast.
The dinner burger comes with top quality fries that have a particularly crisp exterior wrapped around the ideal soft interior. The potatoes that come with the Big Kahuna are more in line with the breakfast side of brunch. The hash brown-style spuds were fine, but would have benefited from more crispness.
As good as the burgers are at sola, it would be a mistake to ignore the rest of the menu. Highlights at dinner include wasabi-crusted scallops and salmon poke and brunch diners should not miss the short rib eggs Benedict. But whenever you go and whatever you order, your meal should end with the housemade sesame brittle ice cream.