Hemingway and his cohorts had Harry's New York Bar in Paris; Dylan Thomas, James Baldwin, and Norman Mailer (among many others) had the White Horse Tavern in New York. So what does it mean that one of Chicago's most famous hang outs for writers/journalists -- your Eberts, Roykos and the like -- is the Billy Goat Tavern? If that weren't enough, a few of the best comedians to ever study in Chicago, Bill Murray and John Belushi, even felt compelled to parody the hamburger joint on Saturday Night Live. Interestingly, one of the things you notice about the famous clip is not that they hammed it up, but they actually kind of played it straight.
Which is a way of saying that the Billy Goat has history. It has an aura. The owner may or may not have placed a real curse on the Cubs that has lasted to this day, and yet it still is as packed as ever. George Motz, the author of Hamburger America, told us earlier this week that it was both "a great bar and a whole burger experience." In fact, it's the sort of place that one hopes never changes. Well, I'd like to change one thing. See, all this fame isn't exactly the same thing as acclaim, and I think I know why.
It's not the beef -- not exactly. The meat is fresh and never frozen, which certainly counts for something. Also, the Billy Goat cooks its very thin patties over a moderately hot griddle -- a technique that I actually prefer to grilled burgers (though Chicago burger expert, Daniel Zemans, would certainly disagree). The burgers don't quite get the same kind of sear that is found on the best griddled burgers in town (Top Notch Beefburgers, DMK), but they occasionally come close.
It's also not due to the condiments. All the burgers come out plain, leaving you free to saddle up to the restaurant's pretty amazing condiment bar. Options include the requisite mustard and ketchup, along with both chopped and sliced onion. But the pickles are kind of shockingly good. Load up.
No, the biggest problem I have with the Billy Goat is its bun. Instead of a normal soft bun, the joint uses a Kaiser roll. It's huge, which may explain why you are coerced (in a comical way) by the employees into ordering a double with cheese. Why? A single patty is so small and insignificant compared to the Kaiser roll that you can barely even see it. (Insert your own "Where's the Beef" joke here.) The double helps even out the bun-to-beef ratio somewhat, but there is a reason no other serious burger joint in town uses a Kaiser roll. It's big, tough, and -- in my humble opinion -- the main reason the Billy Goat doesn't get the credit it deserves.
But what if I just swapped in a new bun?
Knowing that my pleas for a different bun wouldn't go over too well with the management, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I loaded three different kinds of hamburger buns into an Express shopping bag (and yes, there is a men's section at Express), hoping this would help me blend in with all the other tourists packed in during a Saturday lunch. It worked. Here's what went down.
The Line Up
Wonder Bread Hamburger Buns: Super soft and slightly bland, this is the bun of most backyard cook outs -- for good reason. Inoffensive and always the same, it was kind of the safety of the test. If this bun didn't work, none of them would.
Martin's Potato Rolls: The most beloved hamburger bun, at least according to Serious Eats, is produced in Pennsylvania, meaning that it is not often available in the Midwest. Luckily, they seem to have a regular supply of them at Dominicks. I couldn't wait to try this option.
S. Rosen's Sesame Seed Buns: S. Rosen's is the most famous producer of poppy-seed-studded hot dog buns in the city. Though I'd never had its hamburger buns (I don't think), I figured I should give them a shot. Plus, I have thing for sesame seeds.
I ordered four single burgers, replacing the buns on three of them with the different buns that I brought in. All of the burgers were judged with a little onion, mustard, and those amazing pickles.
As I already knew, the Kaiser roll single just didn't quite work. There was just way too much bread compared to meat. Sure, the flavors weren't necessarily bad, but this just confirmed my suspicion that the single at the Billy Goat is kind of a flawed concept.
That was even more apparent when I tried the single with the Wonder Bread bun. Freed from the trappings of the massive Kaiser roll, the patty actually looked like a normally proportioned burger, just slightly sticking out along the edges. But it was Wonder Bread's unnatural softness that really worked. Suddenly you could taste the meat.
So it was kind of surprising that S. Rosen's sesame seed bun was such a disappointment. Though it wasn't tough like the Kaiser roll, the bun was dry, which kind of messed with the balance of each bite. I'm thinking that part of the problem was that this is a bun that needs to be toasted before using. It really suffered from not getting near the griddle.
As good as the Wonder Bread bun was, it was clear that the Martin's potato roll was definitely the winner. Soft, squishy, and yet still flavorful, it provided the perfect ratio of bun to burger for the single. Plus, though it would have benefitted from being warmed, it was still delicious at room temperature.
Interestingly, when I tried the Martin's potato roll on a double it didn't quite work. In fact, the old Kaiser roll actually worked better in this scenario. I'm thinking that maybe the firmer texture of the Kaiser roll provided a better contrast. Everything was just a little too squishy for the double.
I didn't realize this until the middle of the tasting, but the biggest issue was that the hamburger buns that I brought in weren't warm and a warm bun is almost always preferably to a cold one. I could have heated them in the oven and then stuck them in a small cooler, but that would have been an even bigger hassle than sneaking buns in an Express bag into the Billy Goat. This shows the limits of sneaky bun antics.
So, what's the lesson? Is Serious Eats Chicago advocating the smuggling buns into the Billy Goat? Maybe. Or perhaps if you're as dismayed by the massive Kaiser roll as I am, you'll just take the advice that George Motz related to us just a few days ago: "The key to a great burger there is to get a triple with two slices of cheese."
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