The Greatest Burger That Never Was

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You only turn 50 once.

I think it was the great philosopher Fred (Mr.) Rogers who first uttered those famous words.

So when my IPA drinking friend asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I said “A great beer and a great burger in a great place.”

The last part was the easiest. We were sitting at a pub in Chicago, perhaps our favorite city in the entire United States. We’ve both been to Chicago numerous times. Why not? We’ve both lived in Illinois — she in Carbondale, and me in Champaign-Urbana — and would visit Chicagoland whenever possible. In fact, I’ve always told people that, because I lived just 100 miles south of Chicago, I could easily get there in an hour.

So there we sat, at a pub, in Chicago, about half a block from where Michigan Avenue crosses the Chicago River. A great city? Check.

Great beer was pretty easy also. Of course, Howells & Hood has 100+ beers on tap, so it’s hard to go wrong. I’d already enjoyed a Eugene Porter from Revolution Brewing, while my drinking buddy had downed an Anti-Hero IPA from the same Chicago-based brewery. Both were delicious.

The Eugene Porter, named after famous railroad union leader Eugene Debs, is a dark, dark beer with a ton of malt flavor and hints of chocolate. An excellent porter. Checking in at 70 IBUs, the Anti-Hero IPA has a nice hope bite that is complimented by lots of citrus aromas and flavors. It’s one my IPA slurping friend had in the past, which means it’s a go-to IPA whenever she has the chance.

And now I was on to my second malty beverage, and one that I’d never tried before — a White Stout.

The White Stout from James Page Brewery tasted like a combination of Pilsner and chocolate.
The White Stout from James Page Brewery tasted like a combination of Pilsner and chocolate.

What is a white stout, you ask. Well, it tastes like a Pilsner up front and nutty chocolate at the end. Who knew? The one I had was called Casper White Stout from James Page Brewery in Wisconsin, and is a two-time gold medal winner. So before you cast aspersions toward the white stout by claiming that merely adding coffee to a pale ale is BS, know that this beer has been approved by the judges at two pretty good competitions.

Good beer? Check.

The final piece of the birthday trifecta was a great burger. And where to find that, we didn’t know. So my IPA chugging companion polled the staff by asking two bartenders, a waiter, and a busboy.

Both bartenders (one male and one female in an effort to avoid any data collection bias) responded the same: Au Cheval. The waiter was asked. His answer? Au Cheval. Well, you can predict what the busboy said. That’s right … Wataburger. No, not really. He said Au Cheval, too.

The problem, the female bartender said, is that the wait to get a table can be a couple hours long. Two reasons: 1) the space is pretty small, and 2) the burgers are the best in Chicago. The good news is that diagonally across the corner from Au Cheval is Haymarket Pub & Brewery.

We checked out the menu online and found the restaurant had two bugers — a hamburger, and a cheeseburger. Wow, they’ve really gone all out in the creativity department.

It was 5:30 p.m., so we grabbed a cab and headed to Au Cheval. Twenty minutes later we were inside the front door putting our name on the waiting list. And the wait? Well, it wasn’t the two hours the bartender had predicted. It was three and a half. Yikes. This burger had better be damn good.

We added our name anyway, and after walking around the area taking an inventory of all the cool restaurants, bars and brownstones, we ended up at Haymarket, where we found plenty of ways to occupy our time waiting for the summons from the burger gods over yonder.

I started my now three-hour wait with the Defender American Stout, a big, bold beer (7.5% ABV) with a powerful malt kick that perfectly balanced a brewing process that included hops and then dry hops, and earned it numerous gold medals. My IPA sipping friend tried the Toonces #six IPA, the sixth version of Haymarket’s single-hop IPA that the IPAer said was “light and crispy.”

The Toonces IPA and the Defender American Stout, both from Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago.
The Toonces IPA and the Defender American Stout, both from Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago.

After taking our time with those two, and having a delightful conversation with the bar staff, I moved on to the Woot Stout, an impressive Imperial Stout that tasted of roasted caramel and a hint of pecans, one of my favorite beer ingredients.

More delightful conversation with the bar staff ensued. And by the time I’d finished off the stout, my IPA drinking buddy had found a table for us outside in the warm summer evening. But before I could make my way outside, the bartender poured the Cuppa Joe Hill Coffee Porter and gave it to me as a birthday gift. Aww.

This porter is made with lots of chocolate malt and 10 pounds of fresh coffee. You could definitely taste both. But even though each was in-your-face flavor, neither overpowered the other. The perfect present.

Two hours had passed, and we were starting to get hungry when my IPA chugging pal remembered there was a Tex-Mex restaurant on the next block. Perfect. We’ll go there for some chips and salsa, maybe even guacamole or queso, and have that as an appetizer before we, hopefully, eat at Au Cheval.

Two baskets of chips, a plate of guacamole, three servings of salsa, and a giant bowl of queso filled with chorizo later, there was no room for anything else. So much for Au Cheval. So, being full, and having our craving for grease-ladended Mexican food fulfilled for another year, we wandered toward the El to catch a train back downtown.

As we stood on the platform and the train approached, I received a text … from Au Cheval.

“Your name has moved into the top five on our waiting list. Please have your FULL party at the hostess stand in the next 10 minutes if you still want to eat at Au Cheval.”

I wrote back:

“No thanks. The wait was too long so decided to eat elsewhere. Too bad, because we’re really good tippers.”

Guess I won’t be getting a table at Au Cheval anytime soon.

So if you’re ever in Chicago and want a great burger, apparently Au Cheval is the place to go. And if you do go, please do me a favor … tell me how it was.

— Eric Van Steenburg

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