May is National Hamburger Month, and that’s as good a reason as any to survey the best new burgers on the Chicago restaurant scene. Not to worry if you’re not carnivorous, as I’ve thoughtfully included some vegetarian (and even vegan!) options as well. I’m stressing “new” burgers because I think by now we are all well aware of the omnipresence of Au Cheval, Small Cheval, Edzo’s, Kuma’s, bopNgrill, DMK, etc. on every Chicago “Best Burger” list. They’ve all made my list before (2016, 2014, 2012), and if this were a ranked list of the best burgers Chicago has to offer, you’d most certainly see them again. But it’s important to acknowledge the deliciousness of the up-and-comers and spread the love around. Some of these burgers showcase new restaurants, while some are just new to me — I can’t believe how I’ve missed out. And if you haven’t noticed, this is the year of the griddled double patty with American cheese. Yet each place puts a personal spin on this winning combo to make it their very own. Ready? Let’s begin.
Reuben Melt ($14)
This one’s all kinds of crazy yum. It’s an inspired mash-up of a Reuben and a patty melt, and 100 percent effective as such. The smoked brisket, caraway and onion sauerkraut, and spicy thousand island dressing are all made in house, but not the baby Swiss cheese. That they outsource because cheese, people. All of that insanity is layered along with a hamburger patty made from New York City’s vaunted Pat LaFrieda beef in between two slices of marbled rye and griddled. All burgers come with house-cut fries, and you might want to upgrade them with curry or spicy chipotle seasoning for a mere 75 cents. It’s burger time in Lincoln Square.
Le French Burger ($16)
Available at lunch and brunch only, this past winner of the coveted Chicago Gourmet Hamburger Hop goes above and beyond in terms of both flavor and cholesterol. But this is no time to count calories! Not when chef Martial Noguier is preparing your pure Angus beef burger — preferably medium rare — on a toasted brioche bun and gilding it with house-made country paté, cognac sauce, dressed shredded lettuce, and so much Wisconsin Swiss cheese. All this, plus hand-cut frites? Maybe don’t eat this before shopping for a new bathing suit on the nearby Mag Mile. Laissez les bon temps roulez.
CCR Prime Triple Cheese Burger ($16)
I would float away on a sea of contentment after eating this burger, but I’m a little weighed down, to be honest. Maybe because the American cheese (nothing melts quite like it), caramelized onions, house-made bread and butter pickles, and a generous smear of horseradish-mustard aioli along with three griddled patties might be too much of a good thing? Nah. That’s not it. I’ll start my diet tomorrow. Curse you, chef Pete Coenen! We just can’t quit this burger.
Burger and Fries ($16)
The Ace Hotel is an epicenter of cool in the West Loop, and what could be finer than sitting in the comfy modern lounge or outdoor on the hip patio with all the Google employees whilst devouring this deliciousness? A golden, sesame seed-dotted bun, piled high with shredded iceberg lettuce, house-made dill pickle slices, fresh tomato, onion, and a tongue-tingling special sauce on two griddled cheeseburger patties (American cheese, natch), especially when chef Pat Sheerin’s fries are so damn addictive? Special mention to their Herbivore Burger and Fries ($13), a symphony of mushrooms and black beans, topped with miso-mustard aioli.
Griddle Burger ($15)
I can’t wait to sit out on their huge covered patio this summer to fully enjoy this “elevated classic” burger, griddled double patties layered with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and house-made remoulade sauce on a toasted brioche bun. And don’t judge if I sneak in a pile of fried cheese curds, dipped in spicy ranch dressing. It’s not like that will prevent me from finishing those skinny, crunchy fries. Winnetka never had it so good!
Vegetarian Masala Tikki Burger ($6)
And now for something completely different. You wouldn’t expect to find a serious contender for best veggie burger at this fast-casual Indian spot in the DePaul neighborhood. Kati rolls on Indian flatbread are the specialty, but for the veggie burger they make an exception. The brioche bun is brushed with ghee (clarified butter) and toasted, then sandwiched around a spicy, flash-fried veggie patty made of beans and potatoes, and topped with onions, tomatoes, lettuce, sweet mango chutney, and creamy Tikka sauce. Masala Fries with Cilantro Aioli ($3.50), thick steak fries showered with masala spice to be dipped in the herby, creamy sauce, are a must.
Moroccan Lamb Burger ($15)
Beautifully spiced with cumin, sumac, chile pepper, and more, this juicy burger sits atop a substantial brioche bun that captures every drip of flavor from the lamb topped with olives in a yellow beet-yogurt sauce, and leaves of peppery watercress and refreshing mint. The optional grilled feta ($2) is a done deal. Chef Marco Bahena’s crispy fries come with the burger and boy, will you be glad. They also offer the very good Kinship Burger ($14) topped with duck fat-roasted onions, American cheese, and shallot mayo, but the lamb burger is clearly the flavor star.
The Loyalist Cheeseburger + Fries ($16)
Karen and John Shields are serving gorgeous Michelin bait upstairs at Smyth, but downstairs at The Loyalist, they’re proving masters of modern urban bar food as well. Just ask Bon Appetit, which named this one of the “3 Best Burgers of 2017” — high praise, indeed. A griddled blend of ground chuck, short rib, and bacon guarantees unctuousness, and paired with oozy American cheese, house-made bread and butter pickles, onion-confit aioli, and a smidge of British Marmite on a squooshy, sesame seed-heavy, toasted bun, it becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Go ahead. Dip those skin-on, super crispy fries into the pickle brine and chile-mayo dipping sauce. No one is watching because they’re busy eating.
Maillard Burger ($14)
Here, you get an outstanding burger — and a science lesson! The “Maillard Reaction” is an actual scientific term describing the nonenzymatic reaction between sugars and proteins that happens during the browning process. Chef/owner Tony Priolo (Piccolo Sogno, Nonnina) says that’s why he opted for two griddled patties, to maximize the surface area for browning, creating those great caramelized edges. This double burger, eight ounces in all, is an 80/20 blend of beef (chuck, short rib, brisket) to fat. Add melted sharp Cheddar cheese, house-made bacon jam, and fried onion strings on a Turano potato bun, and it’s a beefy masterpiece. (Not feeling the beef? They also serve the plant-based Impossible Burger.) And those fries! Priolo is bringing in the Norwis potatoes from the Northwest, frying them in vegetable oil, then tossing them in melted duck fat. I’m not weeping. Are you weeping?
Turkey Cheeseburger ($12)
You know there is just no way that the kitchen staff of award-winning chef Michael Kornick would produce a listless turkey burger — he simply wouldn’t allow it. But it’s always such a happy surprise when you bite into a turkey burger and don’t feel the slightest bit jealous of your companion downing a hamburger in your line of sight. That’s because this moist and well-seasoned turkey burger is topped with fontina cheese, arugula, tomato, and dijonnaise sauce, all piled on a pillowy brioche bun, and served with delightful fries (ask for cheddar dust). Should you add smoked bacon for two bucks? That’s a rhetorical question, right?
Mott Burger ($14)
As mentioned in my recent “Best New Brunches” article, this was voted Chicago’s 2016 Best Burger by Thrillist. Take two All-American griddled cheeseburgers, then (Asian) chef ‘em up with pickled jalapeños, hoisin aioli, and miso butter, with all the crunch provided by sweet potato shoestrings and dill pickle slices. What you have is the best flavors of both cuisines … and a certified umami bomb. It’s available at brunch, but only at the bar during dinner.
Double Char Burger ($15)
Put down your Frozen Aperol Spritz long enough to order this grilled double burger, with thin patties of Slagel Farms beef topped with Cheddar cheese, dill pickles, grilled onion, Bibb lettuce, and house “fancy” sauce on a sesame seed-strewn brioche bun from Buttercrumb Bakery. Keep it medium rare for ultimate juiciness. The irresistible skin-on fries are cooked in vegetable oil and sprinkled with sea salt. The Google folks and other West Loopers know that Wednesday night is time for the Velvet Hammer Special: a beer, a shot, and a burger for $15, a bargain by any definition. Get thee hence.
Blues Burger ($15)
Chefs John Hogan and Tony Mantuano are crazy about good music, so it’s no wonder that Chicago’s hometown sound inspired this thick, grilled burger made of house-ground prime chuck and brisket, topped with caramelized onions, Hook’s blue cheese, and smoked ketchup, all on an eggy brioche bun. It’s a music festival in your mouth, with notes of smoke, sweet, and funk (the blue cheese, not the music). I dig this riff on the classic, put on the map as the Judges’ Choice winner of last year’s Chicago Gourmet Hamburger Hop.
Griddled Hamburger Sandwich ($15)
Next time I’m lucky enough to score tickets to “Hamilton,” or happen to be down in the Loop for whatever flimsy reason, I’ll head right over to this downtown spot for a quick burger. They’ve also opted for the double 4-ounce beef patties, here paired with Mighty Vine tomatoes, crunchy iceberg lettuce, American cheese, dijonnaise, and pickles on a soft but sturdy challah bun, served with your choice of house-made potato chips, fries, or tabbouleh. Roanoke’s a bit of a hidden gem but very much worth finding.
Lucky Star Burger ($13.25)
This fast-casual vegan chain from the West Coast has opened four Chicago locations (West Loop, Loop, Lakeview, and River North) in the past six months, and business is booming for their thoughtful, plant-based spin on comfort foods from around the world. Even meat eaters can appreciate this burger, which starts with a grilled Beyond Burger (20 grams of plant protein, no soy or gluten) and adds smoked gouda-style vegan cheese, balsamic onions, “blue cheese” sauce, arugula, and spicy sriracha ketchup on a pretzel bun with a side of fries (add sliced avocado for an additional $1.25). You really won’t miss the meat, or the cheese, but you will miss the cholesterol — in a healthy way.
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.