Where’s the Beef?

February 2022 View more

Top 10 Burgers by Nick Kindelsperger and Phil Vettel
Other Stories by Peter Gianopulos

Roasted Hatch Green Chilies Burger from DMK Burger Bar

From patties and toppings to buns and meat blends, we took a deep dive into the state of burger affairs. Here are all the juicy details, including our suburban Top 10. Get the napkins ready.

Nick Kindelsperger’s Top 5

The Chicago Tribune’s Burger Meister gives us his best in the burbs.

Build Your Own Burger with cheddar and onions from Crusade Burger Bar

With beef grease still coursing through my veins, I released a list of the best burgers in Chicago back in 2019. For one glorious minute I sat content at my desk, happy that I got the chance to highlight what I thought were the meatiest and most alluring burgers in the area. Then the emails came. Dozens of people angrily pointed out that I had skipped their favorite joint and was therefore an idiot. Who cared that I devoured 71 burgers in less than a month? I had apparently missed a few places.

As I gathered up recommendations, I noticed one dominant theme: Most places I still wanted to try were in the suburbs. And the thing is, a lot of people live in Chicago’s suburbs—more than 6.8 million, out of the 9.5 million in the metropolitan area. The vast scope of the suburbs excited me so much I decided to limit my next burger quest to finding the best one outside the city.

A week in, I wondered if I’d made a huge mistake. After three frustrating burgers in one day, I tweeted out the following message: “Maybe most suburban burgers are bad?”

Before the hate mail floods in, let me explain. For whatever reason, a lot of suburban restaurants feel the need to serve outrageously huge burgers, often with patties that weigh in at eight to 10 ounces. While not my favorite style, I can appreciate them when done well. But most of these burgers were cooked with little to no salt. If they were skinny little patties draped in salty cheese, that would be one thing; but these were half-pound monsters of unseasoned meat. That’s just bad cooking. 

Fortunately, as I moved past the obvious picks, I found a crop of newcomers, along with a couple of elders of the scene, who served burgers with serious culinary chops. In the end, I tried 60 suburban burgers, which brings my overall total to just over 130. I realize that’s an insane number, and I don’t even want to think about what my doctor would say about the feat. But this burger obsession chose me, and I feel completely unable to resist. 

Build your own burger
Crusade Burger Bar, Yorkville
One of the very best burger buns in the whole of the Chicago metropolitan area can be found at this heavy metal bar in the far southwestern suburbs. Instead of an imposing pretzel bun, Crusade uses an absurdly soft potato-based brioche one, which acts like a fluffy cradle for the half pound of freshly ground beef. Unfortunately, most of the burgers on the menu feature large quantities of other meats on top, like braised brisket or Korean barbecue pork belly. With beef this good, I suggest keeping it simple and crafting your style by going with the “build your own burger” option. I went with salty aged cheddar and grilled onions. crusadeburger.com

The Richie burger on a pretzel bun
Labriola Bakery & Café, Oak Brook
$15 with chips, salad, or fries 
Because Labriola is a top-notch bakery (see p. 54), it makes sense that it would make an excellent pretzel roll for its burger. But I wasn’t prepared for just how soft it would be, or for how much dark, roasted pretzel flavor would come through in each bite. As distinct as it is, the bun doesn’t overshadow the rest of the show. The Black Angus beef patty is enormous, but cooked to a spot-on medium-rare, while the two-year-old white cheddar adds a real sharp bite. labriolabakerycafe.com

Vie Burger

Vie burger
Vie, Western Springs
$20 with fries 
Chef Paul Virant admits that the burger at Vie is straightforward; he just uses the finest quality ingredients he can find to construct it. That means grinding dry-aged beef from CDK Angus, a quality local Illinois beef producer, in the shop, and then serving it on a freshly baked bun that’s plush, yet sturdy. A salty cheddar cheese joins the beef, along with Vie’s own smoked bacon, bread and butter pickles, and creamy Dijonnaise. Find the Vie burger on the “Vie Classics” à la carte section of a new three-course prix fixe menu. vierestaurant.com

Local Burger

Local burger
The Burger Local, Geneva
$14+ with fries, salad, or mac and cheese 
As should be clear by now, I’m not the biggest fan of oversize patties. But the Burger Local’s immense 10-ounce one is so juicy and meaty that I had to surrender to its power. The beef is seasoned so well I didn’t even need any other components to touch it besides some good aged cheddar. theburgerlocal.com

West Coast burger
Fuller House, Hinsdale
$15 with fries 
Here’s an attempt at a double-double pioneered by the California-based fast-food chain In-N-Out, albeit ordered animal-style. Like the regular double-double, you get the sauce, along with lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles, but this burger also adds a mess of caramelized onions. The key difference is that instead of two 2-ounce patties, here you get two 4-ounce patties. This amps up the ridiculousness of each bite to a level I found gleefully absurd. Sure, it’s crazed and messy, but it’s worth trying at least once if you love this style. fullerhousebar.com

The Daily Grind

Casey’s Foods

For all we’ve gained from online food delivery—one-click groceries and on-demand take out—we’ve also lost something in the transition. Take freshness, for example. Dan Skulavik, the meat manager at Casey’s Foods in Naperville, is one of a few remaining butchers who still orders hanging cattle. Huge sides of beef. An old-school hook-and-rail system. And cold locker storage, which breaks down muscle fibers and produces tenderer meat. “A lot of places get their meat in tubes,” says Skulavik. “We’re a little different in that way.”

He’s being modest; differences abound. Skulavik grinds his burgers fresh multiple times a day, sometimes hourly, and makes customized blends. You want bacon ground into your burgers? He’s your man. Plus, on weekends from March to October, Casey’s fires up a diverse menu of burgers on a giant outdoor grill. They’re all quality, but Skulavik is proudest of the Gourmet Burger: one-third brisket, short rib, and chuck topped with a garlicky housemade seasoning. It’s available year-round with one catch: You’ll have to physically go to Casey’s to get it. Trust us, it’s worth the drive. 

Naperville Meats

Kurt Allgauer, who’s been in the food-supply business all his life, will let you in on a little secret. When it comes to making great burgers, high-end restaurant chefs demand consistency—not just in the quality of their beef, but in its provenance, too.

Lucky for you, so does Allgauer’s company, Naperville Meats. Order a package of his USDA Certified prime hamburger patties—they come Costco-sized in five 1-pound units or one 5-pound unit—and you’re guaranteed consistency. All grass-fed and corn-finished beef. Black Angus or Hereford cattle. All sourced from within 250 miles of Omaha, Nebraska. 

“I’ll tell you this, if you like one of my products the first time, you’re going to like it every day afterward.” —Kurt Allgauer

Allgauer, who launched the business after hearing loss forced him into temporary retirement, is so assured of his burgers that he’ll deliver them to your front door for a small fee. Or he’ll drop them off, free of charge, at three locations in the suburbs:, including at Malloy’s Finest Wines & Spirits in Naperville and Glen Ellyn and SavWay Fine Wines & Spirits in Oakbrook.

Prime “N” Tender Meats

You’ll never ever see a funky-looking steak staring back at you from the behind the glass at Prime “N” Tender Meats in Hinsdale. Owner Dan Qualtier simply won’t allow it. An unsightly vein? An extra band of gristle? An odd-shaped cut? He’s not selling it. “I can’t send anything like that home with people,” says Qualtier, “and expect to keep my customers happy.” Qualtier’s loss is your gain, because every time a steak doesn’t make his case, it gets ground up into his famous steak burger, which may be the single richest burger blend in town. We’re talking a 70-to-30 fat-to-steak ratio. 

“It’s really the best burger you’re ever going to eat, but I do warn people it’s not the kind of thing you can get away with eating every day.” —Dan Qualtier

Mouth feel somewhere between boeuf bourguignon and seared foie gras. He sells his patties raw for takeout or will grill them up for customers—with onions and cheddar—for lunch.

Where’s the Not Beef?

Lab-produced plant-based burgers? Nah. Better to go au natural with veggie patties
made from some of the best stuff on Mother Nature’s good green earth.

Some veggie burgers are too beany; others too sweet. Empire Burgers + Brew in Naperville strikes the ideal balance by folding sweet corn into a black bean purée, then piling on the Southern charm with green tomatoes, onion straws, and avocado aïoli. 

In terms of vegetables per square inch, no one can touch Lazy Dog in Naperville. Its patties are packed with onions, mushrooms, beets, raisins, black beans, oats, and brown rice, plus a host of spices, all topped off with a homemade barbecue sauce. 

Talk about a health hack: In Oak Brook, True Food Kitchen’s veggie patties are made with
the anti-inflammatory holy trio of mushrooms, beets, and walnuts, then topped with vegan cheddar and other fixings on an easy-to-digest flaxseed bun. 

The wood-grilled patties made from brown rice, quinoa, red pepper, and walnuts at White Chocolate Grill in Naperville produce a Whopper-like sizzle—but it’s a one-two punch of pepper Jack cheese and a spicy jalapeño mayo that gives it a lasting kick.

Burger Anatomy

When you form, flip, fire, and fry as many burgers as chef Eric Olson does at the Burger Local in Geneva, you look for ways to challenge yourself.

“I’m always interested,” says Olson, “in experimenting with assertive flavors.” Exhibit A: His Elotes Burger, an ingenious mash-up of a Mexican torta, street corn, and one undeniably rich hunk of Americana. 

A 10-ounce burger stacked with more flavors than a seven-layer salad deserves a seriously sturdy bun. Go for the house pretzel roll: crispy outer skin, hint of malt, super-absorptiveinner crumb. Perfection.

By folding diced chipotles into homemade aïoli, Olson dials down the spice while preserving an alluring lilt of smokiness.

The buttery flesh can be a deliciously creamy—and colorful—binder. “People still eat with their eyes,” says Olson. “When in doubt, add some green.”

Tortilla strips 
A great burger always conceals one shocking surprise: Here the addition of chile-lime-dusted tortilla strips does the trick. 

Don’t be surprised if Olson’s use of elotes as a condiment spawns a trend. It’s a simple recipe—corn, mayo, Cotija cheese—that doubles as a surprisingly shrewd surrogate for umami complexity of melted cheese.

Enough with the waterlogged iceberg. Better to grab a handful of richly aromatic microgreens. Olson loves baby cilantro for its peppered citrus notes. 

Most chefs will tell you that an 80-20 meat-to-fat ratio produces one seriously rich burger. Olson’s patties tip the scales at a 73-27 ratio, made primarily from short rib scraps with a little ground chuck for balance. Need we say more?

Chef’s Tip 
If you make an off-menu request, Olson will slip in a secret add-on: pickled onions. “Rich burgers love extra acidity,” says Olson.

Bottom bun 
By brushing clarified butter along the interior of a bottom bun and toasting it quickly on a griddle, tiny crispy crevices form, which will capture the burger’s delicious drippings.

Phil vettel’s Top 5

A seasoned food critic scouts the suburbs in search of the perfect patty.

Goudacris Burger from Pierce Tavern

What makes choosing five favorite burgers difficult, even when narrowing the field to the western suburbs, is that first-rate burgers are available everywhere—from modest pubs to fine-dining restaurants to big-name steakhouses.

At the height of the restaurant lockdown in 2020, quite a few restaurants pivoted to burger sales. Ever, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Chicago, started selling them on a carryout basis. This proved so successful that it kept selling its Reve burgers (Ever spelled backward) after the restaurant reopened its doors.

I confess to a particular bias when it comes to burgers. I much prefer a substantial hunk of meat over the stacked double-patty burgers that are in vogue right now. I understand the popularity of the latter—the extra surface area means more of that satisfying, Maillard-reaction browning—but it virtually guarantees medium-well-doneness, and when at all possible, I take my burgers medium-rare.

My picks include burger-specific pubs, a food-court kiosk, and two very good restaurants at which burgers are just a small part of their overall menus.

Goudacris burger
Pierce Tavern, Downers Grove
$15 with fries, chips, or slaw 
I’d give this one high marks for the clever name alone. But apart from being a superior burger, the novel accompaniments—smoked Gouda cheese, spicy cherry-pepper jam, truffled mayo, and arugula—contribute sharp, contrasting flavors, and the sturdy egg bun holds it all together. If you’re feeling flush,
the $2 upcharge for truffle Parmesan sprinkled over your french fries is a wise investment. piercetavern.com

Craft Burger

Craft Burger
Craft Urban, Geneva
$15 with fries 
Chef-owner Bernard Laskowski’s résumé includes work at some of Chicago’s top restaurants, from Le Ciel Bleu and Everest to Bin 36, Marche, and Red Light. His last city stop was at Park Grill, whose menu included a stellar burger, and Laskowski is still making a great one in the Fox Valley. The Craft burger is deceptively simple sounding, dressed with sautéed onions, cheddar cheese, and tomato jam, but when the hand-packed meat is this good, frills aren’t needed. Good fries and a toasted bun are pluses. Pro tip: The Craft Burger is half price on Mondays. crafturban.com

Drunken Pear Burger

Drunken Pear burger
Jackson Avenue Pub, Naperville
$15 with fries 
This downtown Naperville pub is so serious about its burgers that the menu’s three “other” sandwiches are grouped under a “Not Burgers” heading. There are 18 half-pound burgers available (substitute grilled chicken or black bean quinoa if you wish), which can be served with four different buns (including a gluten-free option). They bear names such as Goodfella, Hell Fire, and Heart Attack. I recommend the Drunken Pear, made with bourbon-poached pear slices, goat cheese, arugula, and balsamic glaze. There’s a slight sweetness to this combo, but nothing cloying. A very good beer selection is a plus. jacksonavepub.com

The Nickburger
Nick’s Tavern, Lemont
$9.50 (no fries; chips $1) 
Nick’s Tavern opened in downtown Lemont in 1945 and hasn’t changed much since, apart from adding a quartet of flat-screen TVs and some video gaming. It’s a small, wood-paneled pub in which everybody seems to know each other (while greeting first-timers warmly). The signature Nickburger is a massive one-pounder, served with ketchup, mustard, relish, pickles, and raw or grilled onion, but you can customize. You can save a couple of bucks (and a lot of calories) by ordering the Little Nick ($7, including chips), but are you really coming all this way to get the short version? (“It reheats really well,” my server assured me of the big version.) The beer list isn’t huge, but includes Two Brothers’ Domaine DuPage on draft, as well as Big Wave golden ale from Hawaii. Nick’s accepts cash only but has an ATM onsite. nickstavern.net

Roasted Hatch Green Chile burger
DMK Burger Bar, Oak Brook
$12 (fries sold separately) 
Tucked into the District Food Hall in Oakbrook Center is this tiny burger spot, one of only three DMK Burger Bar locations (the others are in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood and Soldier Field). Anyone who’s had Hatch green chile burgers in New Mexico (where they are extremely popular) would likely be disappointed with the tame heat level of DMK’s version. So think of this as an introductory burger, one that offers roasted-chile flavor without the tonsil-scorching fire favored by Santa Feans. DMK uses grass-fed beef, which is leaner and healthier, but this is no diet fare—not with the inclusion of Sonoma Jack cheese, bacon, and a fried egg. Turn any burger into a double for an extra $4. dmkburgerbar.com

Serious Dough

Still disrespecting your burgers by serving them on mushy, flavorless rolls? It’s time for a pretzel-flavored upgrade.

The Richie Burger on a pretzel bun from Labriola Bakery & Café

World-class bakers, suggests Rich Labriola, approach their craft the way monks study prayer books. Time isn’t your enemy; it’s your greatest asset. Consider, for example, the pretzel rolls that Labriola sells at his eponymous bakery and café in Oak Brook. Those beloved buns take time to prepare—four hours minimum. Plus, Labriola’s team makes them with special flour that’s aged in-house to ensure boulangerie-level freshness. “I know a lot of people who’ve tried to copy them,” says Labriola, “but no one’s managed to do it right yet.”

His secret weapon is indeed time. It took the self-taught artisan baker years to refine his skills enough to develop that roll. Back in the early 1990s, he was a local bread distributor who’d zip around the suburbs with bags of other people’s bread rolling around the trunk of his Ford Escort. Better, he figured, to make the bread—and a little extra dough—himself. So he started studying bread bibles and headed off to San Francisco Baking Institute. Upon coming home, he hired a seasoned old German bread cleric named Hans Kraus, who made a mean loaf of rye and some darn good pretzel breads. Labriola liked Hanz’s pretzels but sensed they weren’t a bit too dense—and too Teutonic—for American taste buds.

So Labriola tried making his own. By adding extra sugar into his base dough, he could increase his use of caustic soda (the alkaline granules that give pretzels their signature crust and color). The result: a salty-sweet bun just bold enough to pair with the richest of American burgers. “There’s just something about the combination of a salty pretzel and red meat that works,” says Labriola. 

Visit any of Labriola’s restaurants—he also runs the Stan’s Donuts empire—and you can buy his rolls take-out or stay for a seared Black Angus Richie burger (see p. 47) served on the same bun. Although Labriola has strong opinions on how best to use his creations—burgers, he says, should flop a bit over the side so you taste the meat before the bread—he trusts you to treat his rolls with respect. You are, after all, holding his life in your hands. 

Photos courtesy Crusade Burger Bar, VIe, Doughboy Restaurant Group and Nick Kindelsperger, DMK Burger Bar, Craft urban, Jackson Avenue Pub
Photos by Kira Anderson and John Jennings and courtesy Craft urban, Jackson Avenue Pub
Illustrations by Kevin Sterjo