Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

This Means War

There are few things Michonne and I love more in the food world than a good burger.

The best I’ve ever had came from a steakhouse in Buffalo, Wyoming, called the Bozeman Trail Steakhouse. It was a medium-rare bison burger with only a slice of American cheese on it, and it was divine. It is one of my lifelong missions to return there for a second helping.

In Chicago, however, there’s a burger joint on every corner. Half are fast food (McDonald’s World Headquarters is a 30-minute drive from downtown in Oak Brook), and half are a little more expensive. We live around the corner from a few decent burger places (Hackney’s, which I raved about recently on my own blog, as well as the White Palace Grill–both featured by a classic Camaro-driving, spiked-haired television personality who answers to “Guy”), but I can’t say as I’ve had that many great burgers in this town.

We went to a place on the northwest side called Kuma’s Corner, which won the Chicago Reader Reader’s Poll award for best burger joint in the city in late June. It was good, but way too loud and entirely too crowded, and the burgers were massive (10 ounces) and uniquely dressed. Every burger was named after a metal band–I ordered the Black Oak Arkansas, which had a red wine barbecue sauce, bacon, aged white cheddar, and alpha king battered fried shallot rings (those were particularly impressive) and a Great Lakes Brewing Company bottle of their amber ale, Eliot Ness. It came with fries, but fries done in peanut oil just don’t do much for me.

It was beyond packed, almost all standing room only, and I could barely hear anything even in my own head. The metal music was cool at first but a bit much after a while, and bloody movies on the big screen (they were showing “Kill Bill”) just added to the, well, intense ethos of the place.

Our server was a nice girl, and heavily inked. Matter of fact, all the employees were probably frequent customers at the tattoo parlor down the block. The neighborhood, Irving Park, was otherwise unassuming except for this one corner place. I didn’t hate it, but it failed to impress me. Michonne will disagree with me, and she’ll offer her rebuttal in a little while. First, however, I do have to say that we’ve been to a burger joint that was better than I expected.

For our 18-month anniversary, we had dinner at a burger place right near work, simply called Burger Bar. They took reservations so M used Open Table to get us a table, where we sat in a big open room surrounded by old-school brewery decor, wooden booths, and chalkboards with drink specials ($4 microbrew tap drinks, including Bell’s Oberon, which came from God above to make us happy), food specials (beer-steamed mussels), and other special events.

Our server took our appetizer order–Fried pickles with Urban Sauce, which were perfectly crunchy and tangy, and the sauce made it even better–and then our dinner orders. I ordered the Elk Burger (exactly what it sounds like), with andouille sausage, grilled onions, and the Urban Sauce. It was everything I’d hoped it would be and more. I love eating game meats, and this was excellent. It was cooked perfectly, and the toppings fit the burger perfectly.

I will admit, our server was a little slow and oblivious and could have been better, but the atmosphere and the food were perfect and I will be back to Burger Bar.

-Adam

You can tell Adam is older than I am, can’t you? Kuma’s was too loud, Kuma’s was too crowded.  I didn’t know I was living with Andy Rooney.

Let me tell you what Kuma’s was really like. Is it loud? Sure. Most bars are. Was it crowded? Absolutely. All good restaurants are. What he didn’t tell you is that while the wait for a table was at least an hour, we were fortunate enough to belly up to the bar within 10 minutes.

We went to Kuma’s on the recommendation of my friend Isabel, who has excellent culinary tastes. She warned us the wait would be long, but promised the burgers would be worth it.  They were. Beyond words. I’m not prepared to crown it the best burger I’ve ever eaten (but only because I just can’t decide), but it was without doubt in the top 3.

I had the Lair of the Minotaur, a badass title which seems a bit belied by its somewhat fru-fru toppings: caramelized onions, pancetta, brie, and bourbon soaked pears. But badass it is. I ate the entire thing. All 10 ounces of luscious, juicy beef, plus pretzel bun, toppings, and two beers. And as someone who never leaves a restaurant without a doggie bag, that is really saying something. (In fairness, I ate very few of the fries as I suspected a couple of bites in that they had been fried in peanut oil, and I didn’t want to risk an allergic reaction.) Even without the excellent array of toppings, the burger would have been among the best I’ve eaten. The patty was juicy, tender, and tasted amazing.

The heavy metal theme can be a bit much for some, but if you know it’s coming and you know what you’re about to eat, it’s easy to get over. I didn’t find the music to be excessively loud–we could still carry on a conversation just fine. The art on the wall might make my mother blush, but I’ll still take her there for a great burger (I’ll just tell her to avert her eyes). And I liked the Tarantino movies on the screen. It was nice to have something other than sports and news to watch while out for once. Kuma’s is upfront and unapologetic about what it is, and that’s to be lauded.

That’s not to say I didn’t like Burger Bar. I did. But it seemed a bit more… staged compared to Kuma’s genuineness. The decor–stylized wall art made from brewery crates and signs–was definitely the work of a pre-planned theme. Not that there’s a problem with wanting your restaurant to have a cohesive feel, but it lacked some earnestness. And unlike the inked bar babes at Kuma’s who both checked in with us frequently, our waiter at Burger Bar was less than attentive–although he did make the excellent suggestion of dipping Adam’s sweet potato tots in urban sauce.

I got the Belly Up–a burger with cider braised pork belly, apple slaw, roasted onion, and garlic aioli. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected. When I see pork belly, I expect a slightly crispy, fatty bacon-like cut. What was on my burger resembled something more like rib meat. I suppose “braised” should have been a clue for me. It was still good–and the apple slaw (which, from what I could tell, was really just apple sliced into matchsticks)–was a nice touch of crunch and sweetness. But it felt like Burger Bar was more concerned about providing fancy-sounding descriptions than it was about just describing the good food they have accurately.

Burger Bar did beat Kuma’s on one count for me–the fries. I upgraded to truffle fries, which were amazing. And I did like the fried pickles and informative booklet that provided descriptions of all the beers they offer.

But I’d take Kuma’s Corner over Burger Bar any day–loud music, crowds, and all.

Adam and I will have to agree to disagree. And I’ll be happy to go back to Burger Bar again… but only if he takes me to Kuma’s and apologizes to it first.

~Michonne

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