1645 W. Cortland, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 847-862-7877; cortlandsgarage.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Holy oversalted burger, Batman!
Want Fries With That? Meh; chips were better
Price: 1/2-pound burgers w/fries, range from $10 - $12
On a recent burger search, for reasons beyond my control I had to pick a place in Bucktown. Having already reported on magnificent burgers at Hot Chocolate and Chaise Lounge (now called The Southern), I turned to last year's list of best burgers in Chicago Magazine for advice. Jeff Ruby, author of that extensively researched piece, ranked a burger he had at Cortland's Garage as the 10th best burger in Chicago. I'm not sure if he got the place on a particularly good day or I went on a particularly bad one, but neither burger I tried ranks in my top 100 in town.
Before getting into the detailed description of the burgers I ate, I want to direct your attention back to an early edition of The Burger Lab in which Kenji explains salting meat. In that article, Kenji explains in detail a result that most people figure out once they've cooked more than a handful of burgers: the longer you let your ground beef sit mixed with salt before cooking it, the closer your burger will resemble the texture of a dog's chew toy.
The first burger I tried was the The Cortland Street, one of eight specialty burgers offered and also the one specifically ranked so highly in Chicago Magazine. The Cortland Street comes with white cheddar, smoked bacon, avocado, crispy onion strings, lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise. The combination of toppings actually worked very well. There was a nice combination of crispy, chewy, and creamy textures, and the salt from the bacon and deep fried onions was nicely balanced by the avocado and mayo. Were in placed on top of a good patty, there was certainly potential for greatness.
For those who still haven't read Kenji's extended discussion of salt and beef, let me summarize: If you salt the meat before forming the patties, the coarse ribbons of beef that come out of the grinder lose their individual identity and bind tightly to one another. The more that happens, the denser the patty gets. Making matters worse, the uber-binding diminishes the patty's juiciness. The result of the premature salting at Cortland's Garage was an adequately flavored patty, but one that was so chewy that I kept waiting for it to start squeaking with each bite.
While my first burger was improved by a set of well thought out and well executed toppings that had the potential to make a good patty great, the toppings on my second burger actually had the opposite effect. The Taylor Street burger features an "Italian seasoned burger" topped with pancetta, provolone, roasted red peppers, lettuce, pesto mayo, and giardiniera, all of which comes topped with Parmesan-crusted egg. As is the case with all burgers at Cortland's Garage, this one arrived on a nicely toasted bun, although this one was ciabatta rather than a traditional roll.
When I saw a Parmesan-crusted egg listed on the toppings, it sounded rather innovative and potentially delicious. I envisioned an over-easy egg coated with delicate crisped umami-rich Parmesan. Instead, I got a hardboiled egg completely covered with a layer of something that tasted like ordinary fried batter. The pancetta was difficult to bite through and pesto mayo and roasted red peppers were non-factors. The giardiniera thankfully complemented the burger rather than overwhelming it, but there was nothing special about it. And, as was the case with the first burger, the patty suffered from an early salting. Bottom line, in terms of taste, texture and manageability, this burger was just not good.
Had the fries been plain, they would have been perfectly fine. They had the crisp exterior/soft interior thing going, though they were not bursting with fresh potato flavor. While plain fries are typical, the Taylor Street burger comes with Parmesan fries, which basically meant someone took a Kraft-type Parmesan and dumped it on some warm fries. With the other burger, I substituted fresh potato chips, which were crisp without being crunchy and had nice flavor. Along with the toppings on the Cortland Street burger, the chips were the best food I had that night.
Was it an off night at Cortland's the night I went? I certainly hope so. I'm not sure how many were filled with people who were eating, but virtually every table was occupied the night I was there, which is nice to see for a bar on a Monday night. And I ran into a friend of a friend when I was on my way out who insisted that I try her veggie burger. The house-made lentil-heavy patty was actually very good, so I know that the food is not all bad. But the bottom line is that burgers are the kind of food that should make everyone happier and the two I tried at Cortland's Garage made me sad.
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