Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
You can usually tell when restaurants are trying hard to be cool. Chuck's Manufacturing, located in the lobby space of the Hard Rock Hotel on Michigan Avenue, was trying its best, but struggling. Before that, the space was filled by China Grill, which tried hard to be cool and that didn't work out well either. So now after that confusing history lesson, the owners of Chuck's Manufacturing decided to rebrand the place by inviting celebrity chef Kerry Simon in to revamp everything last November. Its new name is Chuck's: A Kerry Simon Kitchen, in case your head wasn't spinning around already. Mine was, but then again, I've got a permanent case of scatterbrain. Sorry if I confused you.
Kerry Simon's nickname is the "Rock 'n Roll Chef," a name given to him by Rolling Stone Magazine. While I'm not sure how to validate the claim that he's a rock 'n roll chef, I can go visit his shiny joint in the Hard Rock and stuff some food in my face. He did, however, beat Iron Chef Cat Cora on Iron Chef America in 2005, so he's definitely got that going for him. Also, there's a huge picture of him plastered to the wall in the back. If you don't believe me, check out the image on the restaurant's website. Someday, I'd like to do the same thing with my own face, in the Serious Eats office.
Serious Eats contributor Damon Gambuto visited the L.A. post of Kerry Simon's restaurant, L.A. Market, and came away a bit underwhelmed with the signature burger (review here). In his review, Damon tried the same burger I did, albeit with a different name. His was called the L.A. Market Burger, and the one at Chuck's is called the Iron Chef Burger ($14.00). I guess Mr. Simon is still really proud of this burger. Hell, if I won Iron Chef America, I would be too.
The Iron Chef Burger is topped with extra-sharp cheddar cheese, onion jam, bacon, and "fancy sauce." I ordered mine medium-rare and it came out more of a medium. As you can tell, it's not exactly dripping juice, even after I cut it in half. The beef patty is a medium grind, and overall, there's not a whole lot that makes the beef sing. However, the sweet onion jam is a nice touch, and the fancy sauce is a sweet mayo-mustard sauce that helps cut through everything nicely. That aforementioned cheddar cheese does nearly nothing and might as well have been missing, plus, it wasn't melted very much. The brioche bun is well toasted, though, so there's always that. Overall, though, it's a fairly average pub-style burger, which is the same conclusion Damon came out with.
The Tuscan fries (included in price of burger) aren't particularly great. They're dusted with parmesan and flecked with rosemary and parsley, which isn't a bad combination at all. But when the fries are cold, sort of wilted, and only a little crisp, then even thoughtful seasoning isn't going to save the day.
When I saw the Chicago Dog ($14.00) on the menu, I scoffed a little. It was hard not to. Since Chuck's is on Michigan Avenue, tourist central, I thought a $14 hot dog was going to be a fancy interpretation, especially with that price. Turns out I was wrong. This footlong Vienna Beef hot dog is the real deal, topped with all the usual suspects, including mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, pickle spears, sport peppers, and celery salt, all on a giant poppy seed bun. And it's very good, aside from the giant slices of tomato that are pretty to look at and hard to eat.
Now you might wonder why I'd recommend something like this, because it's expensive and silly, but step back for a second. If you're a Loop regular, you'll know that there are very few hot dog stands in the Loop, especially ones that serve a good hot dog. Sure, you're paying for the location and the fact that it's a hotel restaurant, but this is as spot-on as you're going to get when it comes to a Chicago style wiener. Plus, it's a footlong! How often do you see one of those? Don't answer that.
In contrast to the Tuscan fries, the Spicy Tots (included in price of hot dog) are right on. They aren't spicy in the least, but they are fried to a deep golden brown, and stay crisp pretty much forever. I could have eaten a whole bucket of them. Too bad for you dinner folks, though, because the hot dog and the tater tots aren't available at dinner. This is Lunch in the Loop, after all.
Another thing I'd heard ages ago was that Kerry Simon's take on meatloaf, of all things, helped put him on the map. When I visited Las Vegas ages ago, people raved about it. But is Mama Simon's Meatloaf ($20.00) worth an Andrew Jackson? I'm still trying to figure that out. The meatloaf is of a very fine grind, resulting in a loaf so dense you need a knife to cut it up, with some effort (the single fork maneuver almost resulted in a meatloaf catapult). It's liberally seasoned with salt and pepper, to the point where it's oversalted, and it's black-peppery to the point where it hits spicy territory. It comes blanketed in a molasses-heavy barbecue sauce, which adds to the saltiness too. The succotash served along the meatloaf is delicious and juicy, but the potatoes are somehow grainy and a little on the thin side.
If any of you have had the chance to try the Kerry Simon meatloaf in any of his restaurants, I'm wondering what you thought, so let me know. If anything, I'm a little surprised this was a big hit with people. One interesting fact is that Kerry Simon is actually from Evanston, so having a restaurant in Chicago is sort of a homecoming for him. But with all the shuffling in that space, Chuck's might need to think of something different, quick. Because, after all, being cool is easy, but awesome takes practice. There's even a book about it.
While I was writing this, I learned that Kerry Simon is suffering from an aggressive form of Parkinsons, known as MSA (Multiple System Atrophy) from this article, so if you want to learn more, check it out here.