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November 4, 2011

Hunger Strike: Oh, burger, where art thou?

The noble profession of the butcher may be a dying breed, but the fast-casual burger is very much alive and kicking. Five Guys, Smashburger, The Counter, Shake Shack, In-N-Out—they are taking over the world like the conquistadors of yore. Five Guys has opened 300 outlets in less than five years, Shake Shack made it to Dubai, and In-N-Out will now send you two burgers anywhere in the country for the princely sum of $50. Even the Burger King is getting in on the action, desperately trying to defend his sovereignty with a new “chef’s choice” burger that’s not only “premium” and “hand-crafted,” but also “artisanal” and “fresh.” Clearly someone in the marketing department has been studying the art of foodie seduction. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a shame that, in this burgeoning burger market, the burger at Butcher and the Burger cannot rescue the butcher from life support.

You would think the restaurant (and ye olde butcher shoppe) has a lot going for it besides its Lincoln Park location. The concept comes from Executive Chef Allen Sternweiler of the progressive New-American restaurant Duchamp in Wicker Park, whose vision calls for a combination specialty butcher and burger spot that’s “simple so the average college kid can come in and eat.” While I appreciate Mr. Sternweiler’s concern for my simple college palate, nothing here sounds too crazy—or particularly novel for that matter—that it shouldn’t work in principle. The wood and steel interior does actually resemble some weird fusion of being at a meat counter and soda fountain. There are some tables upfront, and a long counter that runs the length of the space. The defining feature of the space is a tiny, open burger prep area in the middle of the restaurant, operated by five chefs, and consisting of a tiny stove top, a fryer, a char-broiler and a shit ton of smoke.

But on to the burning question: Where’s the beef? Despite the “simple” intentions of the menu, the number of options was pretty overwhelming. Just between the patty choice and spice mix, there were nearly 100 possible combinations—will it be the House Blend with Chicago Steakhouse seasoning or Elk Burger with Grandma’s Onion Soup…whatever the hell that is. This is not including the bun, toppings and extras (from a fried egg to foie gras) that brings the final count to somewhere near infinity. I put my average college mind to use and decided that I would make this a tale of two burgers—one simple, straightforward and clean, the other slightly more interesting, but not too absurd. With that in mind, my dining companion and I split a House Blend with simple salt-and-pepper seasoning, a Grass-Fed Prime Blend with Sonora Desert Chili, and a side of fries. I spied “Bacon Custard” on a little chalkboard near the menu, but the notion struck me as gimmicky and I decided against it, opting instead for some “Benton’s Tennessee Mountain Smoked Bacon,” and adding significant class to my simple burger.

A not so fast-casual 20 minutes later, our burgers were served up on cute little chopping boards (aw shucks) and the feast was afoot. Actually, the feast was quickly interrupted when my dining companion nearly choked to death on the “bacon.” Turns out this fancy, artisanal, semi-locally sourced bacon was something more along the lines of pork belly—chewy, fatty and waaaaay too smoky. On its own? Maybe a delicious entree. On a burger? You’re a long ways from home, stranger. But safety hazards aside, the burgers were both fine. Emphasis on the fine. The meat was clearly a high quality affair, cooked to the requested medium rare, but the char-broiling method renders it far too smoky so certain bites feel like a mouthful of barbecue sauce in the least enjoyable sense. The Sonora Desert Chili mix, which sounds pretty intimidating in the Scoville sense, turned out to be something more akin to a smoked pepper flavor, so now we were faced with smoky flavor inside a smoky burger within a smoky restaurant. Insert Inception or Yo Dawg reference here. Finally, it’s worth noting (or rather not) that the fries tasted kind of like under-seasoned potato chips—a little too bland, a little too blanched. Overall, nothing particularly spectacular, but I won’t obnoxiously pretend that the meal was beyond salvation, as in the end our chopping boards were stained with burger juices and nothing more.

I sympathize with Butcher and the Burger, and their ambition to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Chicago ain’t lacking when it comes to burger joints—Kuma’s, Edzo’s and DMK are pretty much Chicago institutions at this point and well worth the inevitable wait. It also has more than enough butchers—from hipster hub The Butcher & Larder to the oldster Paulina’s. And it’s great that B&B offers all of these options, trying to elevate the burger and give it some intrigue. But that doesn’t mean that you can just ignore the fundamentals. The burgers ultimately failed because of rookie mistakes; the bun was too thick, the toppings were unbalanced (i.e. a slathering of Dijon that would clear Adrian Brody’s nose), while the concept is ultimately overhyped and under baked. “But they’ve only been open a week!” Yeah, well I’m going to assume they’ve been cooking for longer than that. A burger should be right the first time and execution should be spot on every time, especially if that’s your self-professed specialty. In this case, consistency and quality is the only combination that Butcher and the Burger needs—otherwise they’ll just become another outpost of the fast-casual burger empire. Maybe the first Shake Shack in the Midwest! Or Five Guys’ second Lincoln Park location! Or, in keeping with their theme of having a burger “your” way, the gazillionth Burger King in the universe.

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