The Bad Apple
4300 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL 60618 (map); 773-360-8406; badapplebar.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Top quality beef plus a wide array of creative complementary toppings equals one of the best burgers in town.
Want Fries With That? Most definitely. These hand cut beauties are offered plain or with any of six different seasonings and they're excellent.
Price: Range from $8 to $11
When Craig Fass and Mandy Franklin set out to open a bar/restaurant in Lincoln Square that was going to feature burgers, Fass reached out to a longtime friend and old fraternity brother who is well known in New York burger circles but a complete non-entity in Chicago: Pat LaFrieda, scion of New York City's first family of burger meat. Not content to rest on his friend's laurels, Fass has taken LaFrieda beef and added an array of creative toppings to quickly establish himself as one of the better burger purveyors in Chicago.
When any fan of Chicago burgers hears of creative toppings, their mind is understandably going to go straight to Kuma's Corner, the Chicago institution that has grown from neighborhood metal bar to a destination dining spot in just five years almost entirely on the strength of its burgers. I'm a big fan of Kuma's; it was my desire to see it covered on AHT that inspired me to write about burgers on Serious Eats. But in the land of creatively topped delicious burgers, with better beef, much better fries, a better beer list, and, for now, a much shorter wait, The Bad Apple is the new king.
The cuts of meat that go into Bad Apple's burgers remain a closely guarded secret. All I could get out of Fass is that they are made from three different cuts, none of which are chuck. Honestly, if he had told me they were all chuck, I would have believed him—the fat content seemed about the same and I would have thought there was just some particularly beefy meat involved. Regardless, these are some seriously delicious well-seasoned patties and the mystery of the cuts will have to remain hidden until Kenji does some more reverse engineering.
The aptly named Slow Burn is topped with a combination of red and orange bell, poblano, Anaheim, Hungarian hot, Serrano, and habanero peppers that are cooked together in Left Hand Milk Stout. The peppers release a series of ripples of heat that slowly climb up the Scoville scale, but never get too hot. The burger also features white cheddar, onions, and thick-cut maple-smoked bacon. Even with all of those flavors on top, the flavor of the meat is still the unquestioned star of the Slow Burn. I had this one on a pretzel bun and the result was one outstanding burger.
One of the simpler burgers on the menu is The Pat LaFrieda, which comes with tomato, arugula, Danish blue cheese, and mayonnaise. A friend ordered this one medium, a temperature they met perfectly. Ordinarily, a burger cooked to medium will severely impair my eating experience because I find too much of the beef flavor is cooked out. But even overcooked for my tastes, the LaFrieda shined.
The LaFrieda reinforced my belief that, with good meat, blue cheese is as good as any on a burger. The cheese was far from the most pungent blue around, but it had that nice extra tang that I think works incredibly well with a strong beef flavor. The one slight drawback with this burger was the regular bun. Like the pretzel bun, these are from Turano. Turano makes a good bun, but in my experience elsewhere and here, it's just not strong enough to stand up to a well-topped half pound burger. A switch to Highland or Labriola would be a big improvement.
At $11, the Sir Loin is currently the most expensive on the menu and of the ones I have tried so far, it's the best. I tried it on a previous visit and I only didn't get it when I went for review purposes because I already had a decent picture. Topped with four ounces of sliced grilled sirloin, horseradish herbed aioli, and provolone, this burger gets me salivating at the mere thought of it. The mild provolone was largely irrelevant, but the aioli added a nice creamy kick and the sirloin upped the beefiness quotient and contributed a much appreciated chewy texture.
The hand-cut, twice fried potatoes at The Bad Apple are outstanding plain. But like the burgers, fries are available with a variety of toppings: truffle, old bay, curry, garlic, hop 'n honey, and Creole. I've had the curry and the hop 'n honey so far and both are outstanding. Curry is not an uncommon fry seasoning and the sauceless version at The Bad Apple is excellent. The hop 'n honey, which is considerably more out of the ordinary, was correctly described by my server as having a sweet earthy taste. I kept going back and forth between the two piles of fries as I ate. I'm not sure which I like more, but together they make a great combination.
As good as The Bad Apple is, they're still working on getting better. Fass says he will continue to work on and expand the menu which already includes 13 burgers and two veggie burgers. He and LaFrieda are in the final stages of developing a 90-day dry aged prime rib waygu burger that's going to cost $26. All that's left to do is improve the buns and increase the lighting so people can actually see the burgers while they eat them and all would be right. Seriously, my gripes are minor: The Bad Apple serves some truly outstanding burgers. Word is getting out about the place, but I've yet to encounter a bad wait. I just hope more people don't find out about it. ...Oops.