Serious Eats: Chicago
Burger Day 3000: An All-American Celebration in Chicago
Every summer, Americans look forward to celebrating the birth of what is undoubtedly one of the greatest 196 nations on Earth. And this year, with the Fourth of July falling on a Monday, Providence granted us a minimum of three full days of patriotic celebrating, giving us cause to plan activities far more elaborate than the requisite parades, cookouts, and fireworks. This year, a few friends and I spent a day that weekend on what I'd argue is an even more fitting tribute to America than the traditional trio: Burger Day 3000.
Before getting to the details of this celebration of very affordable gustatory overindulgence, a bit of background is in order. The original Burger Day developed organically in March 2010, when I met up at at Edzo's with a friend visiting from Los Angeles. When we were done, we headed downtown after another friend successfully tempted us with coupons for free burgers at M Burger that were due to expire that day. Later that night, for reasons I can't remember, we decided it would be a good idea to end the day with more burgers, which took us to The Bad Apple.
Even before we left Bad Apple, we realized we'd stumbled onto something beautiful, and after dubbing the event Burger Day, we started planning Burger Day 2.0. Last August, the three original burger eaters reunited and were joined by two more in a ridiculous quest. The plan, which the majority achieved, was to eat entire burgers at each of six places: Moody's Pub, David Burke's Primehouse, Top Notch Beefburgers, J. Wellington's, Flub a Dub Chub's, and Tiny Lounge. We started the day positively giddy, but by the final burger, I was in severe pain, was sweating profusely, and actually lost the ability to taste what I was eating. It was a day I will never repeat, but it was one all who participated reflect on with tremendous pride.
This year, we decided to once again visit six burgerias—Edzo's, Burger Bar, Marc Burger, BIG & little's, DMK Burger Bar, and the Wiener's Circle—but this time limit ourselves to just half a burger at each place. But because that was not sufficient to fully honor America, we committed to eating a minimum of 20 fries per stop and half a shake at each of the four places that offer them. As you read the report of this magnificent day, I recommend you play the video above (multiple times if necessary) so that you can let the patriotic warblings of Lee Greenwood wash over you. We played the song multiple times throughout the day and I think you'll find it enhances your burger-reading experience as much as it did our burger-eating.
Because four of the six stops do not serve liquor and because alcohol consumption is vital to any truly American celebration, we decided to pick an official drink of Burger Day 3000: the Moscow Mule. This blend of vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice makes for a remarkably refreshing summer beverage and, we discovered, goes quite well with burgers. Oh, and because we would not consider bringing anything Russian into this great American celebration, it's important to note that, despite the name, the drink is actually an American invention. Moreover, we shunned imported vodka altogether, opting for Tito's, a smooth libation out of the decidedly non-communist state of Texas.
Edzo's (10:35 AM)
At 10:35 AM, four eager burger eaters gathered at Edzo's (reviewed here), a place where burger satisfaction is all but guaranteed. Edzo's offers a choice of meats ("regular" beef, Dietzler Farms beef, and grass-fed beef) and serves half-pound patties from the grill and quarter-pound ones off the griddle. We decided to try one of each style, each made out of beef from Dietzler Farms that was ground that morning.
The grillmaster nailed medium-rare on the half-pound patty and delivered a charred and juicy burger that Thomas Jefferson would have treasured, had he known what a hamburger was and had Illinois been a state. But as good as the thick burgers are, it's possible the griddled smashed burgers are even better. These thin flavor bombs of beefiness come surrounded by a gorgeous crust that arguably sets the standard for the style.
If Edzo's only sold burgers, it would still qualify as destination dining, but the place also puts out some of the best fries and shakes in Chicagoland. We tried two of the ten varieties of fries available. The Angry Fries, which come with an enticing combination of spicy toppings including buffalo sauce and jalapeños, were more mildly perturbed than angry, but they still packed a drool-inducing punch. The Taylor Street fries, named after the main drag in Little Italy, feature Italian Beef gravy along with sweet and hot peppers, and might be the best potatoes on the menu.
For my half-shake, I went with one of the specials, strawberry and balsamic. Made with fresh strawberries, this well-balanced sweet and acidic, thick and creamy drink was one of the best shakes I've had in a long time.
Suffice it to say, Burger Day 3000 was off to a magnificent start.
Burger Bar (12:10 PM)
From Evanston, we headed south via the Purple Line and then the Red Line to North/Clybourn where we ducked into Burger Bar (reviewed here). Build your own burgers is an option, but I opted for one of the designed "Stackers," the Hey Shortay, which includes a patty topped with braised short ribs along with a fennel-onion slaw. Unfortunately, few burgers are going to shine when eaten so soon after a visit to Edzo's, and this one wasn't up to the task. That's not to say it was bad; it's just that the patty was not as flavorful as our last stop, was slightly overcooked, and was overwhelmed by the extra beefy short ribs.
The hand-cut fries, which I wasn't particularly impressed with when I reviewed this place for AHT, were better this time around, but still unremarkable. The sweet potato tots, on the other hand, were things of beauty. Crisp, soft, and greasy like any good tot, but with the added bonus of being condensed shots of sweet potato, these are definitely worth another visit. (If you want to make sweet potato tots at home, check out this Food Lab post.)
On the shake side of things, the Malted Milk Ball Madness is an insufficiently malty but otherwise delicious malt-tinged vanilla shake with a Whopper-like ball in it. The Orange Dreamy, on the other hand, is basically a float made with overly sweet orange pop and has no business being listed under the shake category on the menu. The bottom line on Burger Bar is that it's fine for a regular burger meal, but not worthy of a fully engaged celebration of America.
Marc Burger (1:15 PM)
We left Burger Bar, jumped back on the Red Line, and continued south to the heart of downtown Chicago, where we made our way to department store formerly known as Marshall Field's. Since Macy's took over, the quality of shopping has dropped considerably, but the building remains stunning and there's now a quality food court on the 7th floor that includes Marc Burger (reviewed here), the fast casual burger stand from honorary American Marcus Samuelsson. The six-ounce patties of grass-fed beef were nicely grilled, a particularly impressive feat for a food court in the midst of the lunch rush.
No caveats are needed when it comes to praising the fries and shakes at Marc Burger, both of which are great. The fries are crisp and soft, and the potato flavor is made all the better by the salt and cracked pepper generously sprinkled all over the fries. The vanilla shake, made with Häagen-Dazs ice cream, is simple and delicious.
But the real highlight of Marc Burger was the seven-story American flag that hung down the center of the atrium. USA! USA! USA!
When planning Burger Day 3000, we decided it would be a good idea to buy burger-themed T-shirts for the occasion. The very day that decision was finalized by the Planning Committee, a daily deal websites offered up a discounted session at a Sears Photo Studio. Some people would call that a mere coincidence, but we know it proves God believes in Burger Day and She believes in America.
BIG & little's (4:30 PM)
Following the photo studio and some time making generous use of the facilities at the Palmer House Hilton, we grabbed coffee at Intelligentsia, hopped on the Brown Line, and headed north to BIG & little's (reviewed here). I haven't had everything on the menu, but based on what I've tried, these guys simply do not miss. And given that they are going to move at the end of the summer a couple blocks south to a location that will hold more than four times as many people, I'm not alone in loving this place. The hand-formed patties, which are seasoned as they sit on the grill, are about as good as a $6 burger can be. We got ours topped with Merkt's cheddar, made extra gooey thanks to some time atop the stove before being poured on the patties.
As was the case when I reviewed it, the foie gras fries stole the show. The burger is delicious, but these fries are among the greatest burger-related foods around. The dish starts with hand-cut twice-fried potatoes that are seasoned just before being served and are top-notch on their own. But top with some tender, seared foie and pour a whole lot of melted foie fat all over the final product, and you've got something truly special.
After eating far more fries than I should've at BIG & little's, our second and final break in the action could not have come at a better time. We walked over to Dave & Buster's for a couple of drinks and some heated basketball competition. It's hard to call shooting hoops from so close a workout, but the games definitely prepared us for the final third of burger day. Plus, with all the tickets we won, we were able to score some sweet "Burger Friends Forever" bracelets.
DMK Burger Bar (7:15 PM)
From Dave & Buster's, we hopped on the Clark Street bus and headed north to DMK (reviewed here) for excellent burgers and fries as well as our finals shakes of the day. After about a half an hour wait, we were taken to our table where I went with my go-to burger there: the Big DMK. This blatant copy of a Big Mac should be force fed to anyone who maintains the original is always best. This triple-decker burger stars two five-ounce patties made from grass-fed beef, three pieces of potato bun form, and, of course, special sauce.
The fries at DMK are every bit as good as the burgers. And because the place offers small servings, we ordered three. Every order of fries featured magnificent Russett potatoes, hand-cut and with a nice crisp exterior and tender interior. I've never had a poorly cooked fry at DMK. The sweet potato fries, which come with lemon tabasco aioli, remain the best sweet potato fries I've ever had. The sea salt and black pepper fries, served with a housemade ketchup, are simple and delicious. The Amish blue cheese and smoked bacon fries should have been too rich for me to eat at that point in the day, but they were so good that I couldn't stop shoveling them into my mouth. Our server comped us a fourth order of fries, the Parmesan truffle cream fries. They were fine and the gesture was appreciated, but I'm reaching the point where I'm over truffle on fries.
The Wiener's Circle (8:30 PM)
We left DMK and walked to our final stop of the day, The Wiener's Circle (reviewed here), at a time when the staff was ready for late-night confrontation but none of the customers I saw were. Other than some extorted gratuities, Wiener's Circle was still in solid neighborhood hot dog and burger stand mode. These grilled patties aren't going to blow anyone away, but they're good enough that at the end of a long day of burger eating that included a couple of the best spots in town, eating these wasn't a chore.
As with the burgers, the fries at The Wiener's Circle are better than they need to be at a place that does so much of its business late at night. These hand-cut potatoes nail the crisp/soft balancing act. We decided to get ours without the Merkt's, a decision that is normally inexcusable, but at the end of a day like this one, perfectly acceptable.
I've planned quite a few food adventures over the past couple years, but none have been as successful as Burger Day 3000. It was a celebration of burgers, a celebration of Chicago, and possibly with a dose of sarcasm, a celebration of America. More importantly, it was a great way for a few friends to continue a grand tradition that burger lovers around the world should emulate. We're already looking forward to the next edition of Burger Day, which should take place in December and will be drastically different from this one.
BIG & little's
939 North Orleans Street, Chicago IL 60610 (map)
The Wiener's Circle
2622 North Clark Street, Chicago IL 60614 (map)