1747 N. Damen Ave. Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-489-1747; hotchocolatechicago.com
Cooking Method: Gas grill
Short Order: The desserts make this place a culinary landmark, but the burger is not to be missed.
Want Fries With That? The burger comes with chips, not fries; they're fine but not especially exciting
Price: $13 or $15, depending on whether optional egg is included.
I think it's fairly well accepted that Mindy Segal, thrice nominated as the nation's best pastry chef by the James Beard Foundation, cooks up the best desserts in Chicago. Since graduating from culinary school in the city at Kendall College, she has put together one of the more impressive Chicago restaurant resumes around, spending time at Ambria, Spago, Gordon, Charlie Trotter's, MK, Metropolis 1800, and a few more. Five years ago, she went out on her own and opened Hot Chocolate.
Since the day it opened, the dimly lit restaurant has justifiably been packed on a nightly basis. When I went a couple of weeks ago on a cold weeknight filled with freezing rain, every table and every seat at the bar was occupied. The insatiable demand for the place would be justified even if Hot Chocolate served mediocre food with Segal's desserts. But the savory side of the menu offers top-notch seasonal American cuisine that's good enough to bring back diners uninterested in sweets. That includes the delicious burger, created by former chef Mark Steuer and unchanged by his recent replacement, Arik Meich.
I don't know what cuts of meat Hot Chocolate uses for its burger; all they will say is that is a blend of two cuts from Heartland Meats that are ground in-house. Whatever they're putting in there, the result was excellent. My burger was cooked to a perfect rare on a gas grill that was hot enough to put a nice sear on the outside of the patty. The meat seemed a little lean, a feeling that was confirmed when I learned Heartland beef comes from Piedmontese cattle, a cow known for having less fat. Despite the lower fat content, the well-seasoned patty was remarkably juicy. Unadorned, this would be an outstanding burger, but when you add the toppings and bun, it graduates to exceptional.
Every burger comes with a few pieces of excellent Gunthorp Farms bacon that added some needed fat to the meal along with a touch of smokiness and a bit of chewiness that contrasted well with the soft burger. The sharp 4-year aged cheddar from Widmer's in Wisconsin was intensely flavorful and among the better burger cheeses I've tried. The housemade dill pickle slices were so good I had to stop myself from eating them straight so I'd have some left for the burger. And the optional $2 egg was ridiculously rich and should be served alone to anyone who doubts the benefits of eggs from happy chickens.
The toasted housemade garlic-buttered bun manages to hold everything together very well despite moisture from the juicy burger and runny egg yolk. Much more than a placeholder, the bun is an expertly crafted brioche (not sweet) that would enhance any burger experience.
All that said, as good as every element of the burger is, and each part is flawless, I did have one complaint. The burger, which is purportedly 8 ounce—though I would have sworn was no more than 6—did not stand out against all the extra flavors. To say the beef was overwhelmed by everything else would be going too far, but the meat flavor was partially obscured.
While the burger was exquisite, neither of the accompaniments excited me. The chips, made in house, had a really good flavor but were not warm. Once homemade chips cool off, I find that they lose a good portion of their advantage over higher quality store-bought chips. The coleslaw has a little trouble deciding if it wants to be mayo-based or vinegar-based and ended up being a disappointing combination.
I've recently come to the decision that milkshakes are, when available, a crucial part of the burger eating experience. With that excuse in mind, I tried the cider caramel shake, which I ordered with the burger but inexplicably arrived as an appetizer. The extra tangy apple flavor went perfectly with the caramel flavor in a way that allowed both elements to come through very strongly while playing incredibly well together. It was outstanding and like nothing I'd had before.
Of course, skipping dessert at Hot Chocolate is simply not an option for any non-diabetic who takes food seriously. When Ed came to Chicago a few months ago and went to Hot Chocolate, the darkness of the restaurant was too much for his camera to overcome. So, as a favor to Ed I took one for the team and ordered two desserts to get him some better shots. Look for his report on some truly extraordinary treats soon on Serious Eats.
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