I never thought that I would be back this soon, this deep into the jungle that is graduate school at Northwestern University, but here I am! Back for a limited time on Mastication Monologues, but hopefully I will be able to write more once this mad quarter is finished. This year has been flying by, and I have visited and eaten at tons of great locations across Chicagoland. However, today’s review involves a restaurant/diner known best for its hotly-touted cheeseburger. In a foodie city like Chicago where we love our meat based dishes, especially hamburgers, the previous sentence will elicit a different response almost every time you ask someone from Chicago depending on where they are living in the city. We even have the Billy Goat Diner made famous by Saturday Night Live and a curse featuring a certain Northside team that is currently trying to break the same curse and win the World Series. Go Cubbies! Yet, Au Cheval (French for “On horseback”) is one of the most highly regarded establishments across the city when it comes to the signature American dish of cheeseburger and fries. (Quick note: Two other great restaurants, Cochon Volant and Small Cheval, have similar burgers minus the typical long lines)
Located on Randolph Street in the West Loop/Fulton Meat Packing District a.k.a. Google Headquarters new backyard, it is the flagship on a block of heavy culinary hitters including Stephanie Izzard’s so-famous-you-need-reservations-six-months-ahead-of-time Girl and the Goat (highly recommend this restaurant too). Au Cheval is relatively new in a city of numerous old establishments that have withstood the test of time, and based on our experience, there exists the distinct possibility that this burger joint might become part of the city’s fabric if it hasn’t already. Janice and I met up with our friends Katelin and Dan for lunch. They have metered street parking that we took advantage of, or you can reach it by taking the L (subway for you non-Chicagoans). It is a very popular eatery if you couldn’t tell based on my description before, and they do not take reservations. Because of this fact, it is often subject to mob scenes of people lining up outside during peak lunch and dinner hours to sample their offerings. Luckily, we managed to beat the lunch rush and were immediately seated in their slightly dim, modern diner. As I surveyed the tiny interior, I wasn’t blow away by my surroundings, but I’m a gourmand, not an interior designer. Dan and I started the meal off with their Mad Town Nut Brown that was dark, had 7 different malts, and had nice hazelnut notes. Au Cheval also offers a wide variety of mixed drinks, shots, and non-alcoholic beverages. Food-wise, I could describe them as a very upscale diner that managed to find a twist on simple creations like bologna sandwiches or scrambled eggs served with fois gras. Breakfast offerings aside, Janice and I were there for the burger that has been proclaimed by the Food Network, Forbes, etc. as “The Best Burger in America” for multiple years. They had a single ($10.95) or double patty ($12.95) option for an upcharge as well as the egg and bacon. We followed Dan’s advice for choosing the double patty with egg and bacon. He followed suit, and Katelin ordered the raw vegetable salad with apple and blue cheese ($10.95). Surprisingly, before you could say “Da’ Bears”, our burgers were in front of us in their full glistening glory as well as a side of fries.
First, let’s discuss the much talked about burger. Now, I am not typically a fan of the egg-on-burger trend that has been sweeping America, but visually this fried egg seemed like a work of pure art with its off-center sun in the sumptuous solar system of flavors in front of me. Plus, if a burger has an egg on top, it is described as being “on horseback” hence the name of the restaurant “Au Cheval”. Then there was the slabs of pure pork that were stacked like massive redwood planks over two serious beef patties donning flowing robes of American cheese. The Eastern European side of me also appreciated the dill pickle spear on the side to cut through the grease. Once I stacked it all together, it was a soaked monument to gastronomic greatness. I hefted this sandwich to my maw and was immediately drawn into the aromas of beef and sweet pork belly like bees to honey. I was smitten at first chomp. The beef was grilled to medium rare perfection while the cheese was omnipresent yet not overwhelming. I was partial to the pork belly that shone through and enhanced the flavor profile with a maple syrupy sweetness that your run-of-the-mill, crispy, thin bacon could not accomplish in a million dinner parties. The only downsides to this burger were the aforementioned egg which kind of made the brioche bun hard but not impossible to grip, and the bottom part of the bun which left my burger hanging by my fingertips at the end of this white-knuckle ride of a meal. The fries on the side were just as great as the burger with a palatable amount of salt and just the right amount of fry to their golden hued exteriors. Katelin said her salad was delectable too even though it wasn’t served between two pieces of bread or hiding beneath a sea of gooey cheese. A good option if you want to balance your cholesterol out after downing one of Au Cheval’s incredibly rich burgers.
We left the restaurant to a sunny afternoon with bellies full and greatly satisfied. I could now see what the hubbub was all about when we would go by the establishment and see people jostling for position in line. Great restaurant owners know great ingredients which in turn lead to great burgers. This chain of events was displayed during our visit to Au Cheval, and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking to try a burger worthy of having the word “greatest” in its title. You might disagree with me about it being the be-all, end-all of burgerdom, but it is a high quality burger for a very reasonable price even with a bit of a wait. So, if you don’t know where to go for lunch or have time to wait during dinner, gallop over to Au Cheval!