Open for over three years now, Au Cheval has become one of the hardest spots to get into in Chicago and a lot of the reason for that can be attributed to their cheeseburger. Six months in, even before Bon Appetit declared it the best in America, the Au Cheval cheeseburger had become the talk of the town. Once the Bon Appetit declaration was made its popularity went supernova and pretty soon suburbanites, tourists and celebrities were clamoring to get in and wait times ballooned in excess of three hours.
General manager Erika Golz: "Brendan (owner Sodikoff) came in the next day and said ‘I don't want you to ever say that to anybody.'" She adds her own take on what telling people that could do. "If you say you have the best burger, they're thinking about the burger that they ate when their grandma had fireworks on their porch and they were five years old and it was actually probably a really bad cheeseburger. But all of the emotions and nostalgia surrounding it twenty years later, that burger's going to be the best burger for the rest of their life. If we say we make a pretty good burger, they'll make their own assessment."
People are obviously not put off by the long wait times since the restaurant sells around 400 single (2 patties) and double (3 patties) cheeseburgers each weekday and up to 500 a day on the weekend.
The burger starts with prime beef from W.W. Johnson Farms (by way of Sysco) that gets formed into four-ounce patties and slapped onto the 450 to 500 degree griddle until medium (they will do well done, but c'mon...). A layer of Kraft American cheese goes in between and on top of each patty and then before resting for a minute or two.
Then the buns from local Z Baking get toasted under the salamander. "We toast both sides of the bun (in the salamander). I think (this) is where a lot of places go wrong with their burger. So you (don't) just get a soppy mess at the end. If you toast it, then it gets crispy and (adds) extra texture," Gano says.
From there the burger gets "dressed" with Dijonnaise (lemon juice, mayonnaise, Dijon mustard) and housemade pickles. You can add a fried egg, thick-cut peppered bacon and, if you really want to gild the lily, a three-ounce slab of foie gras for $9. "I feel like a lot of people come in from states where foie is illegal," says Golz.
As for strange burger requests they've seen? "It's interesting to see people wait three hours for the Au Cheval cheeseburger and then come in and turn it into something that isn't (that)," Golz says. "I got a burger request for no bun, no cheese, well done, add grilled onions, add avocado, add foie gras. By the end it wasn't the cheeseburger anymore." "It (is) kind of defeating the whole purpose of coming here," Gano adds.
Another one Golz remembers as "epic" is the time someone "ordered a double burger with the regular bun and a hash brown bun (for those with certain allergies), egg, bacon and foie gras."
Au Cheval is, unsurprisingly, a hit with industry folks. "Grace is down the street and they love to come in for a cheeseburger after their service is over," Golz says. She continues, "We're a good late-night industry spot, because they all get off work and they can come here and relax."
As for getting in to Au Cheval, Golz offers the following. "If you want to come in and grab a burger, avoid prime time hours on nights, especially weekends. Try and swing in here for a quick lunch or a late night meal if you don't want a long wait." Sound advice. Who's hungry?