Note: Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans is better known for his Chicago pizza reviews on Slice, but now he'll be covering the burger scene as well (hopefully not doing too much damage to his health in the process). Look out for his burger reviews every other Thursday on AHT. Take it away, Daniel!
2925 N. Halsted Street, Chicago IL 60657 (map); 773-528-7200; erwincafe.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: The burger is seasoned so well that it tastes very good even when overcooked.
Want Fries With That? Definitely. The hand-cut skin-on fries come with the burger and are great.
Price: $13, + $1 for cheese and +$3 for bacon
I hate to start my stint as a regular contributor to A Hamburger Today with a less than stellar review, so let me start by putting as positive a spin as possible on the next few paragraphs: I liked absolutely everything about Erwin except for the fact that my burger was severely overcooked. The seasoning, the fries, the service, and the dessert were all good to excellent. But the burger, #20 on the recent Chicago Magazine list and recently ranked by Time Out Chicago as the best classic burger in town, was disappointingly cooked to medium/medium well and I ordered it rare.
Erwin, the eponymous restaurant of chef Erwin Dreschler and his wife Cathy, both former teachers in Chicago Public Schools, has been going strong in the heart of Lakeview for fifteen years. Erwin has long featured local seasonal ingredients in making what the restaurant calls "Urban Heartland cuisine." While many of the menu items change, the popular burger is a permanent fixture.
The classic hamburger, which comes with hand cut fries, cole slaw, and three slices of a homemade pickle, is offered with either a white cheddar or a blue cheese. Applewood smoked bacon is an optional add-on as well. While I ordinarily jump at the chance to add good quality blue cheese to my burger, our server emphasized the white cheddar, so I followed her advice. I skipped the bacon and requested my burger rare.
The burger is served on a good toasted roll that has a texture between a standard bun and a pretzel roll. I appreciated the extra heft that the bun brought given the seasoning in the meat, though I would have liked it even more with sesame seeds on it. The hand cut, skin-on fries at Erwin are excellent—surprisingly greaseless, well salted, and absolutely packed with potato flavor. The cole slaw, which also comes with the burger, was also excellent and found a nice balance between creamy and vinegary. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to the quality of the homemade pickles as my dining companion stole them.
As soon as cut into the burger, my heart sank (and it sank again when I realized my picture was blurry). I know there are people out there who think that a well done burger is acceptable and even desirable. I am not one of those people. That said, I have issues about sending my food back—I almost never do it. So there I was, crestfallen at facing a burger that I'd ordered rare, but had not even a morsel of pink beef anywhere inside.
I took a bite of the burger and was pleasantly surprised. Although it didn't live up to my high expectations going into the evening, it vastly exceeded what I thought I'd be eating based on the brownness of the meat. Texturally, it was a very good burger—there were ample bits of char along the outside and the inside managed to be both very soft and relatively juicy. The burger was actually so soft that, had it been served rare, I would be worried about the texture.
The seasoning in the Erwin burger, supposedly the result of garlic and a chili sauce, is very good. I didn't think I tasted anything resembling chili sauce, but the garlic was there as were a variety of other flavors that really worked well together. Also, because the burgers at Erwin are cooked over a wood-burning fire, the meat was infused with a smoke flavor that makes virtually all cooked foods taste better. Between the good seasoning and the smoke, I was able to thoroughly enjoy what was, to my tastes, an overcooked burger. I can easily see why people who like their burgers cooked medium or better would identify Erwin's as one their favorites in Chicago.
A review of Erwin's would not be complete without mention of their desserts. This is a restaurant that offers ten different entrees and eight different desserts. Clearly, sweets are no afterthought. After some deep soul-searching, I went with the sour cherry pie, which featured Michigan cherries and came with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream. The pie was exquisite. Between the light, buttery, flaky powder sugar-covered dough was a massive amount of sour cherries bathing in a complementary sweet filling. And because ice cream just makes everything taste better, the scoop beside the pie was a welcome addition.
For those particularly interested in Erwin's style of cooking, chef Erwin is offering a shopping and cooking class three more times this year that includes a Saturday trip to a farmers' market and a Monday cooking class and meal at the restaurant. At $50 per person, including wine, it seems like a good deal. And Speaking of good deals, if you're heading to Erwin Café, don't miss out on restaurant.com's $25 gift certificate.
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