“Hi, there’s three of us. What’s the wait?”
“It’ll be three to three-and-a-half hours.”
“Three to three-and-a-half hours.”
I’d never been to Chicago, which is appalling, I realize. But as an East Coast native who has driven through Chicago no less than seven times in the twelve or so years I’ve considered Minnesota my home, Chicago appears more a shitstain on my journey than a lovely place to visit. Driving through Illinois is a mess of randomly-placed tollbooths, and the city proper is a parking lot masquerading as an interstate highway.
But as my culinary indulgences get the best of me, and with multiple trips to other cities awakening a desire to seek out not only the best the Twin Cities have to offer, but the rest of the damn world, the closest gourmand-baiting destination became increasingly appealing.
Outside of my obvious predeliction, I like eating a variety of things, and I wasn’t about to treat Chicago like the burger-slinging conveyor belt I continue to consider New York. Again: it’s my first time there, and I’d like to take a nice cross-section of what the greater Chicagoland area has to offer. Big Star for tacos, Parson’s Chicken & Fish because fried chicken, Berkshire Room for fancy cocktails, Lost Lake for tiki drinks, MingHin for Dim Sum, Fat Rice for spirit-awakening Macanese, Lem’s for barbecue, Portillo’s for hotdogs and Italian beef sandwiches, Isla Pilipina for Filipino. The Museum of Science and Industry had us running around like little kids, amongst little kids. For you “readers” out there, Myopic Books might be my favorite bookstore in the country. (And, yes, I’ve been to Powell’s. Also, I said “might be”.)
I did many things on this trip, but it all happened for a burger. One burger, in particular, is what pushed me over the edge onto the “gotta go” side of the fence. I went to Chicago to eat the Au Cheval cheeseburger.
Au Cheval opened in 2012 in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, from star restauranteur Brendan Sodikoff. The room is an extremely sexy bistro-pub overlaid on a diner, featuring an open kitchen with bar-hight (rather than diner-height) seating. They fancy themselves “diner-style with European Influences”, with eggy breakfast items available all day, a house-made bologna sandwich, fried chicken, and matzo ball soup, alongside a foie gras terrine and bone marrow. They have a full bar and their cocktail list cites the sources of their takes on classic cocktails, alongside a few originals.
But the wait. The burger’s been a hit here since they opened, but Bon Appetit really tore the lid off, and the people came flocking to the no reservation 50-seater. This is why I had to eat here, why I was willing to wait. I’ve never heard of such wait times, and damn near everyone was just there for the burger. We downloaded an app that showed 45 parties in front of us whittle down to 4 from a bar across the street before we got the call. Then we closed out our tab and ran to Au Cheval.
The burger comes as a single (two patties) or a double (three patties), with two slices of American cheese, diced red onions, and homemade dijonnaise on a toasted locally-made bun. And, of course, you can add bacon (I did) or get it with a fried egg (I also did). The thing’s simply beautiful. It’s everything I already love in a burger, and a few touches I don’t typically go for that worked marvelously. First and foremost, the sear is as perfect as one can achieve with a flattop (The best sears I’ve had came from a cast iron skillet, which is inefficient if everyone is ordering a burger). Au Cheval cranks their griddle up to 500 degrees, and gets an awesome near-crust while cooking to a perfect warm, moist, pink medium. The American cheese coalesced the three patties into a monolith of cheese and beef. And though I was initially dubious of the lack of a third slice of cheese, leaving it off pushed the cheese-beef ratio into an equilibrium that really makes the beef stand out among the other wonderful things going on. I was thrown off by the dijonnaise. I’ve panned burgers for their inclusion of mustard, which is too strong of a condiment in the presence of beef. But in this case, it served more to season the mayo than play a dominant role. Diced onion for a crisp, biting sweetness, and house-made pickles provided those acid high notes to really round out the experience. The bacon is amazing, thick, and black peppery; crispy outside, chewy inside. Just good-ass bacon that’s thick enough to make sure you can taste it, providing a lovely harmony to the beef’s melody.
“Au Cheval” literally translates to “on horseback” but culinarily means “with egg”. Confession time: I don’t love an egg on my burger. I’ll take one if it’s what the chef intends, but I genuinely dislike a crispy fried egg on my burger. It’s texturally incorrect and difficult to bite through so it slides around and ruins the structural integrity, making a mess of everything. And after ordering the egg, I considered hailing down our server and taking it back, but I’m glad I stuck to my rash decision, because the egg was wonderful. Not crispy. Fried, yes, runny yolk, yes, white completely set, but without an iota of crispiness, to a bewildering extent. It was a textural feat that added both yolky sauciness and a wonderful velvety white that’s exactly what I want in an egg on a burger.
Upon first picking up the burger, I was dismayed by the heft of the bun. I’m into squishy buns, and if your bun does anything besides flatten and hold everything together, I don’t fuck with you. But the bun from local bakery Z baking masters both tasks. Midway through, the bun was as flat as it should be, but that density I detected initially did the literal heavy lifting here, holding the entire experience together, only succumbing to my teeth. The real beauty behind this masterpiece of a burger is how perfectly it held together the whole time I was eating it. No component fell out of step, ensuring that just about every bite tasted as fucking delicious as the last. It isn’t something I’ve ever asked for, and finishing a burger with sauce and grease all over my hands and toppings on the paper-lined basket, belly full, is part of the Great American Experience. But this “clean” experience was unexpected and fantastic. From the patties themselves to the diced onion, the thing’s designed to hold form until you bite it. Don’t get me wrong: this thing’s greasy and cheesy and yolky and saucy as all hell, as my plate full of grease drippings will attest. But the structure is sound.
In the end, what matters most is whether or not the burger works, and this guy’s making overtime. Squishy bun, tasty pickles, diced onions, really good bacon…all things I love. Dijonnaise and a fried egg aren’t choices I’d make, but I’m really glad Au Cheval made them. But it’s all there to support expertly executed beef patties with American cheese. Everything is tuned and balanced to make a really damn tasty burger.
As I’ll explain time and time again, there’s no such thing as a perfect burger. But in my journey to eat all the fucking burgers, I’ve rarely come across one that comes so close. Shake shack, in its mass-produced masterpieces, Revival in its refined craft, Brindle Room, Haute dish, Parlour, Saint Dinette…all places I turn to for their absolute understanding of what a burger can and should be, in their own interpretation of my most preferred food item. Au Cheval has skillfully earned their place on this list.