Au Cheval

A while ago, I started a blog chronicling my Chicago restaurant adventures as I ate my way through Michelin’s 2016 Bib Gourmand list. That project kind of fell by the wayside, but I thought I’d post some of my reviews here for the benefit of the Chicago foodies out there. Here’s what I thought about Au Cheval:

It’s time to try the famous Au Cheval cheeseburger, declared the most perfect burger in America by Bon Appetit, and featured in dozens of best burger lists across the country. Does it stand up to all the hype?

Chicago Neighborhood: West Loop

Au Cheval is located in the West Loop neighborhood, one of the many neighborhoods included in the Near West Side community. Formerly a skid row area littered with industrial factories and warehouses, the West Loop has now been largely gentrified, ever since Oprah moved her Harpo Studios there in the early 90s. Many of the old buildings have been transformed into upscale eateries and trendy boutiques, especially on Randolph Street (aptly nicknamed “Restaurant Row”). And now that Google has moved its Chicago headquarters to West Fulton Street this year, residents can expect even more bougie developments in the future.

The Atmosphere

We did our research before arriving on a Tuesday night, and read that Au Cheval’s no reservation policy, limited dining area, and crazy burger hype can result in insane wait times, even on weekdays. So we planned to get there just before the kitchen opened at 5 pm to try our luck. Stepping inside the dark, cozy bar, we saw that almost every seat in the dining area and at the counter was,already taken, and the grill wasn’t even fired up yet.

The music transitioned from funky jazz to boppy dance tunes as we took our seats at the counter, where we could watch the burgers grill, buns toast, and eggs fry right before our eyes. It was warm, but coming in from a frosty December night, I didn’t mind so much. The only downside to sitting at the bar was that there was nowhere to put our heavy coats and scarves except on the floor beside our stools. But it’s a bar, so whatever. Burger time!

The Food

I couldn’t resist getting a glass of root beer on draught, while my husband ordered Moody Tongue’s Carmelized Chocolate Churro Baltic Porter. We sipped on our respective drinks while waiting for our burger orders — and we had to wait a good while. Sitting in front of the grill gets less fun when you’re watching burger after burger get delivered to other people. So again — get there early.

Our burgers finally came, with a knife stuck dramatically through the middle of each. I had ordered the single with bacon, which included two thin burger patties, cheese, pickles, and their special “Dijonnaise” sauce (mayonnaise, lemon juice, Dijon mustard). First of all, the bacon slices were THICK. The slabs were at least a centimeter in height. Personally, I like my bacon thin and crispy because it adds a nice crunch to a burger that can be otherwise one-note in terms of texture. I was not a fan of this bacon, which was not in the least bit crunchy, and sort of just blended in with the patties as you took a bite, except for the fact that sometimes you were taking big bites of pure, thick fat. Kind of off-putting. It was also an extra $3.50 for the bacon (which they don’t tell you). I know what you’re thinking: Why don’t you just judge the burger itself as it was intended to be eaten? It’s your own damn fault for ordering the optional topping! Well, fictional reader, it doesn’t get much better when you take away the bacon.

The creamy sauce was tasty enough — slightly sweet, slightly tangy. However, there was way, way too much of it. I understand that burgers are messy, and sauces in burgers tend to drip out. But this sauce — the poor burger was just drowning in it! The experience was not unlike eating spoonfuls of mayonnaise at a time.

So was there anything good at all about this burger? I thought the meat patties were very well-cooked. The cheese was appropriately cheesy (although, Kraft cheese? come on). And I did enjoy the little crunchy pickles, which provided some sorely needed acidity to cut through all of the fattiness of everything else. I also liked how the buns were toasted so they wouldn’t disintegrate as you ate the burger.

We were each about halfway through our burgers, feeling extremely heavy with grease and meat, fighting our way through each bite, when the crispy potato hash with duck heart gravy we completely forgot we ordered arrived in front of us. It was a big dish. I mistakenly thought hash was a side order, but nope, this was an entree portion fellas. What were we thinking?!

It looked delicious, so, bravely and with full stomachs, we slowly shoved forkfuls of potato, egg, and duck heart into our mouths. The egg was impeccably fried, complete with quivering yolk glistening in the middle and some seasoning lightly thrown on top. The potato hash was nicely fried — the bottoms a dark, crisp brown, and the tops tender and moist. But the duck heart gravy was what really killed this dish. It was hardly seasoned at all, so what you did taste was just…organ meat. There’s nothing wrong with organ meat, but when it’s slathered over your entire dish without seasoning of any kind, you have to really like, and I mean, just absolutely ADORE, the pure, unadulterated taste of organ meat, in order to enjoy this dish at all. The overall flavor profile I came away with after just a few bites was…fat. Fat flavor. No salt. Just fat.

The best burger in America? Hardly. The best burger in Chicago? With the existence of a variety of thoughtful and expertly-prepared burgers cooked at Kuma’s Corner in Wicker Park, I just don’t see how any other burger could earn that moniker, especially one so uninspired and heavy as Au Cheval’s.

The Price: $52.80

For two drinks, two burgers, and an order of potato hash, this was a little on the pricey side, even though we were under our budget goal. It was filling, sure, but god, at what cost? Apparently, $52.80.

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