205 W. Lake Street, Chicago IL 60606 (map); 312-357-6665; mmonks.com
Cooking Method: Broiled
Short Order: Pre-frozen patties made from low-grade beef are never going to be great, but Monk's shows that when properly cooked and reasonably well-topped, they can be good enough
Want Fries With That? Not at all; these flavorless frozen spuds aren't worth the calories
Price: Black and Blue Burger, $9.30; Total Burger, $10 (both come w/fries)
In today's version of burger utopia, every patty is hand-formed out of never-frozen freshly ground beef from a cow that was lovingly tended to by a farmer more interested in turning out a quality product than maximizing profits. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the land of burger convenience, where we're all better off ignoring pretty much every aspect of the chain of events that leads up to cheap burgers available on a moment's notice. Occupying a significant part of the vast middle are burgers that might not be made of the highest quality beef, but are still capable of satisfying most eaters.
Monk's Pub was born downtown on Lower Wacker Drive in 1969 but moved to its current location in the shadows of the Lake Street El a couple of years later. The place is packed every day at lunch and again after work. That might have more to do with the location and the friendly and efficient service, but the food, including the burgers, is good enough to keep hordes of downtown office workers coming back.
The Black and Blue burger gets its name from the Cajun spices that surround the patty (black) and the cheese on top (blue). The Cajun seasoning was much better as a salt additive than a particularly distinct Louisiana flavor. The slight kick on the burger actually comes from the chipotle mayonnaise spread on the soft grocery store quality sesame seed bun.
The meat itself is a pre-formed half-pound patty that offers only moderate beef flavor, also known as "significantly better than chicken." I requested the burger medium rare and got what I asked for, at least on the Monk's scale of doneness. The flame-broiled patty is surrounded by a substantial crust topped with a large pile of crumbled blue cheese that makes up for its lack of intensity with quantity.
The Total Burger comes with bacon, sautéed mushrooms, and a choice of cheese. The bacon wasn't crispy at all, but it was good for some extra fat and salt. The salt was particularly important because the patty itself seemed to have no seasoning. The sautéed mushrooms added nothing, but my choice of American cheese worked out well.
I ordered the Total Burger rare and once again the kitchen delivered a patty cooked to temp and with a nice crust around the exterior. The densely packed patty was on the firmer side, but not overly so. Other than the quality of the beef (yes, a massive disclaimer), this was a very well-executed burger.
The fries tasted like well-salted frying oil and were useful vessels for ketchup. The onion rings, available for a one dollar upcharge, were pieces and not rings, and had almost no onion taste. On the bright side, both the fries and the onion "rings" were crisp, which was nice. Still, the lack of redeeming value in terms of taste meant that both went largely uneaten.
We don't yet live in a burger dream world where high-quality beef is the norm. As long as diners are happy saving a couple of bucks even if that means getting inferior beef, there are going to be restaurants happy to fill the need. But that doesn't mean those restaurants are mailing things in entirely. Monk's offers ten different toppings combinations and, in my experience, cooks their patties precisely as ordered. And sometimes, that's good enough.