Even though the pandemic slowed down burger openings in 2020, it could never hope to stop the public’s insatiable demand for ground beef on a bun.
But the pandemic did seem to influence the kind of burgers restaurants were serving. Instead of handsomely presented burgers with lots of froufrou toppings, the rise of takeout over the past year meant that chefs mostly tried to keep things simple.
In particular, the pandemic has seen a rush of new smash burgers, a style very close to my burger-loving heart. It’s the kind where a chef tosses a handful of ground beef on a griddle and literally smashes it down with a spatula until flat.
You’d think this would simply press out all the juices, but if done immediately before the meat gets warm, the losses are minimal. Plus, the meat gets a righteous sear from full contact with hot metal, developing complex, meaty flavors that grilled burgers couldn’t dream of replicating, along with craveable crispy edges. If you’ve ever tried Steak ’n Shake, Shake Shack or Culver’s, or even local favorites The Region or Schoop’s, then you know what I’m talking about.
The Tribune has extensively researched the best burgers in Chicago, including when I once tried 130 to find the best in the city and in the suburbs. These nine new burgers from restaurants that opened in the past year — plus one that technically opened in 2019 but deserves love nonetheless — prove Chicago chefs will always find inventive new ways to make this classic dish.
The Original Shiddy Burg at Shiddy Burgs
Yes, you are reading this correctly: There is a place in Chicago called Shiddy Burgs. (Though it’s also occasionally referred to as Shiddy’s Burgers, Uncle Shiddy and Shiddy’s Burger Barn.) Whether or not you think the project is unfortunately named, there’s no question it serves the smashiest smash burger in Chicago right now.
The meat is cooked well past medium, but the trade-off is an irresistible crispy exterior, from the edges to the center. It’s served under a bed of shredded lettuce (here called shreddy letty), which only increases the crunch component. It’s balanced out by a heaping helping of an ultra-creamy sauce, which helps smooth over all the sharp edges.
This is the burger I’ve thought about the most over the past few weeks.
Of course, try to search online for Shiddy Burgs (or its various other names) and you may come away with more questions than directions. Turns out, it is from the team behind Big Kids, a project that can most accurately be described as a seriously stunning sandwich shop run by a bunch of adults who adore old ’90s cartoons and think nothing of making cocktails with Tang. Considering that, of course they’d have a weekly pop-up with a needlessly crass name that changes every time they mention it, while simultaneously serving one of the most exciting new burgers in the city.
Currently, co-owner Ryan Pfeiffer plans to continue offering the Shiddy Burg every Monday. Hopefully, it becomes so popular that we’ll soon be able to order Shiddy Burgs, or whatever they’re called, every day of the week.
$11. 2545 N. Kedzie Blvd, 773-687-8385, bigkidschicago.com
Smash Burger at Three House
You can find another phenomenal new smash burger at Three House, where chef Tyler Nickson challenged himself to make the beefiest burger possible. He starts by sourcing chuck and brisket from Slagel Family Farm, which he then grinds in house. But to really amp up the flavor, he mixes in loads of beef marrow, the rich and unctuous material found locked inside beef bones. To get the marrow out, he soaks hundreds of pounds of beef bones for hours. “Then we scrape the marrow out of the bone, freeze it and then grind it into the beef,” Nickson says. “So the burger basically cooks in the bone marrow.”
As you’d guess, each bite is deeply beefy, but that’s just one component. You also quickly notice the salty, tangy coating of Hook’s Three Year Sharp cheddar. Nickson also smokes onions, pickles them and folds them into a garlic aioli, for a condiment he lovingly compares to Burger King’s barbecue sauce. The burger is served on a supersoft bun, which has more sesame seeds stuck to the top than seems possible.
Of course, this shop also makes it slightly harder than it should be to eat. Though the burger is listed on the lunch menu, the owners apparently believe lunch doesn’t start until 2 p.m. Plan accordingly.
$13. 1450 W. Chicago Ave., 312-465-2636, threehousechi.com
Rêve Cheeseburger at Rêve Burger
Curtis Duffy’s pandemic project doesn’t work as well as the previous two burgers, but it’s flirting with greatness. Duffy is best known for his relentless quest for culinary excellence at places like Grace, which had three Michelin stars before closing, and now with Ever, where he hopes to repeat the feat. But like most chefs during the pandemic, he had to figure out how to pivot when dining rooms closed. “We decided to do burgers, because everyone eats them,” Duffy says. “But I didn’t want to do a gourmet fancy chef burger. I didn’t want that, and people didn’t want that.”
Instead, he has crafted the kind of stripped-down burger he loves. “I wanted to do a burger where there are no changes to it,” Duffy says. “Here’s the burger, come and get it.” The result is a double cheeseburger paired with only pickle slices and Rêve sauce on a brioche bun. No lettuce, tomato, onion or whatever you can think of. (Though he has relented somewhat by offering a bacon cheeseburger option, and a version made with Beyond Meat.)
There’s no discounting the quality of each of the components, from the Black Angus beef to the oddly compelling burger sauce, which he admits is simply equal parts Duke’s Mayonnaise and Sir Kensington’s ketchup. I am not a huge fan of the big brioche bun, wishing it were softer. And while I admire his minimalist approach, the lack of onions seems like one step too far. (I believe onions are essential to a burger’s DNA.) All this said, I found myself sneaking more bites of this burger, long after I should have stopped.
$16.95 with fries. 1363 W. Fulton St., 312-763-3928, reveburgerchi.com
The Natural at Big League Burgers
The owners of Big League Burgers went all-in on the decorations for their baseball-themed Irving Park restaurant. Walk in, and you’ll notice ivy-covered brick walls, foul lines running across the floor, baseball bat-shaped light fixtures and enough flat-screen TVs so every seat has a good view of the game. It’s honestly impressive and worth seeing if you are a baseball fanatic. Fortunately, the team also cares about the burger, serving up freshly griddled Angus beef topped with a generous amount of gooey melted cheese. You also can dress up your burger with everything from bacon onion jam and fried eggs to chili and pulled pork, but I appreciate how the single Natural burger satisfies with just pickles, grilled onion and mayonnaise.
$7. 3734 W. Irving Park Road, 773-961-7558, bigleagueburgersusa.com
Gretel Griddle Burger at Gretel
You might already know about this striking double cheeseburger, since it was one of my top takeout dishes of 2020. But in case you need a reminder, the burger features two thin and well-seared patties set atop a distinctive bun dotted with two colors of sesame seeds. The burger also gets a healthy swipe of garlic aioli, lots of pickles, red onion, and both yellow and white American cheese. But its success relies on the great sear the two patties get on the griddle, which makes them taste extra beefy.
$12 with fries. 2833 W. Armitage Ave., 773-770-3427, gretelchicago.com
Bianca’s Original at Bianca’s Burgers
Siblings Rafael Royal and Elizabeth Royal launched Bianca’s Burgers in a ghost kitchen in Humboldt Park over the summer, but they truly found their home when they moved into Revival Food Hall downtown. While the food hall has seen several burger concepts pass through its doors, this one is my favorite. Instead of a gargantuan offering, each patty is a much more reasonable 4 ounces, so you don’t have to unhinge your jaw to take a bite. And since it is griddled to order, the beef develops a remarkably meaty profile, while staying juicy within.
$8.50. 3220 W. Grand Ave., 847-276-1911, facebook.com/Biancas-Burgers-100697548434279
Ramly Burger at Kapitan
While smash burgers are having a time in the spotlight, you’ll have to work much harder to find a Ramly burger, a fascinating Malaysian specialty. The burger patty is completely wrapped in a very thin egg omelet, so you might initially think you’re getting ready to dig into an egg sandwich. But the meat is there, and the omelet is actually far less messy than when restaurants toss a fried egg on top of a burger and wish you the best. The burger is doused in a couple of sauces, which add a slight heat and creaminess to each bite. Instead of pickles, you’ll find extra crunchy fresh cucumber slices, thick pieces of tomato and some lettuce.
$11.95. 2142 N. Clybourn Ave., 773-661-2281, kapitanchicago.com
The Burger at Pilsen Yards
The burger at this new project in Pilsen is one to keep your eye on. As the managing partner, Paul Abu-Taleb, let me know, the chefs are still tinkering with this creation, and it might look different in a week or so. But there are enough good things going on here that it’s worth trying immediately. I’m especially fascinated with the soft and squishy bun, which they get from The Spoke & Bird, a nearby bakery. The patty is on the larger side, and it’s topped with caramelized onions and lots of cheese. It’s finished with some house-made “mami” sauce, a creamy concoction that also adds a tinge of heat.
$12 with fries. 1163 W. 18th St., 312-243-2410, pilsenyards.com
Mom’s Burger at Mom’s at Marz Community Brewing Company
Mom’s was one of the highlights at Politan Row, the food hall located in the new West Loop headquarters for McDonald’s. But after the pandemic hit, Mom’s left and is now settled in at the Marz Community Brewing Company’s original taproom, which is located on the western edge of Bridgeport. The most distinctive feature of the burger is definitely the freshly baked furikake milk bread bun, which is incredibly soft, yet able to stand up to the thick beef patty from Slagel Family Farm. I also ate way more of the crunchy fries dusted with nori than I should have.
$14 with fries. 3630 S. Iron St., 773-579-1935, marz.beer/taproom
Darn Good Burger at JT’s Genuine Sandwich Shop
JT’s Genuine Sandwich Shop opened in late 2019, so it doesn’t technically qualify as new. But since it had the bad fortune of opening a few months before the pandemic, I’m going to make an exception, because I wasn’t able to try it before the shutdown. Plus, the Darn Good Burger deserves the love. The beef gets a great sear on a griddle, developing the stunning, crispy brown edges that I’ve been raving about through this whole piece. The addition of dijonnaise reminds me of Au Cheval at its best. Add to that a soft, toasted bun, plus lots of pickles and red onions, and you have another great burger contender in Irving Park.
$7.95. 3970 N. Elston Ave., 773-754-7729, jtsgenuine.com
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