By Michael Nagrant
Not since Karl Marx and Martin Luther have manifestos been so hot. Though these days, the protesting masses aren’t quite the blood-spattered, frothy-mouthed rabble they once were. Rather, like blogs, the green movement and plastic bracelets etched with catchphrases, i.e. anything that was once relevant or cool, corporations have also co-opted the yearning declaration for their marketing purposes.
I know, because last Saturday I set out to find the ultimate griddled patty from new burger spots Epic Burger in the South Loop, Marc Burger in the Macy’s food court and The Counter in Lakeview. During my quest, I was inundated by laundry-list rules and table-top tomes about the evils of trans-fats and frozen spuds, and the virtues of hand-formed antibiotic- and hormone-free grass-fed meat.
It turns out, most of these proclamations were a grand Shakespearean case of the lady, or in this case, the restaurant, protesting too much. I still subscribe to the idea that a great product rises above all and sells itself with no marketing necessary. If these burgers were really all that great, there would be no need for screeds.
Seemingly proving that rule, the best burger of the bunch, Marc Burger, from NYC top toque Marcus Samuelsson (also of C-House in the Affinia hotel) had the shortest dining-room declaration. There was a quick paragraph about the importance of serving “American grass-fed black angus ground beef” that was “humane, safe and high quality.” Though, even as a regular meat eater, I’m pretty sure there’s very little that’s “humane” about raising cattle to slaughter them for lunch.
The paragraph was accompanied by a glamour shot of Samuelsson wearing a freshly pressed chef’s coat that probably had never seen the griddle line at the Macy’s food-counter kitchen. Instead a hair-netted posse of griddle jockeys flipped ten-to-twenty burgers at a time. While I waited for my burger, this crew seemed more attentive to their fellow co-workers than the meat, and I expected an overcooked patty.
Instead, I received a medium-rare coarsely ground patty featuring television-commercial-ready cross-hatched grill marks that dribbled peppery juices down my chin with each greedy bite. Either I’d lucked upon an especially attentive cook, or Samuelsson had found a way to create a paint-by-numbers training regimen that turned out a steady stream of perfect burgers. I might even say this particular burger was one of the best I’ve had in the city, though the patty was a little thin, making the ratio of beef to bun found in a Kuma’s Corner burger still supreme. Marc Burger, though, offers a thicker “prime” burger option which might remedy that problem. What really put things over the top at Marc Burger were the crafty chef touches including housemade pickles, tangy cole slaw and spicy ketchup.
As the first stop on my tour and still blissfully ignorant of the juicy number that awaited at Macy’s, I was actually pretty happy with the Epic burger. Though Epic’s entry was more of a McDonald’s-like case of the whole package working rather than superior individual elements. (Try eating a McD’s cheeseburger without the bun, condiment and cheese—and you’ll find a patty that manages to have less taste than raw tofu.) The toasted bun, the tangy “Epic” sauce, the grilled onion and the meat-to-bun ratio were a total package. What held Epic back was the dense, extremely fine grind and thinness of the patty. While it was seasoned well and juicy, it was also grilled to well-done, with nary a shade of pinkness.
The skin-on fries at Epic (clearly “French” and not “freedom,” as Epic manifesto rule number number four states “When made right, fries are délicieux”) dotted with sea salt are some of the better potato sticks around. However, they were preternaturally crispy, almost in that experimental Burger King coating kind of way. If you like a soft fluffy interior, you probably won’t like these.
At The Counter, a “concept” burger joint from California, the fries, including crispy sweet potato and fluffy McDonald’s-style regular versions, were really the only thing I liked. My bun was untoasted, dense and dry. The burger was thick and cooked with a nice amount of pinkness, but lacked juiciness or seasoning. And, for those who fear standardized testing, the multi-faceted menu featuring a multiple-choice quiz to help you build your burger might be intimidating. This ordering process supposedly allows for 312,120-plus different burger combinations, but it also allows for a lot of doubt like, “If I choose a honey wheat bun, does that signal that I’m an old bastard who needs fiber?” or “Does wanting Dijon Balsamic glaze make my burger hardcore foodie enough?” If I were writing my own burger manifesto, rule number one would be, “Burger joint menus should never make you feel like you’re taking a Cosmopolitan magazine ‘sexual experience’ quiz and leave you feeling inadequate.”