In 1983, newspaper columnist Mike Royko, then at the Sun-Times, measured sanity in hamburgers.
It was a column that ran July 20 of that year, entitled — at least in my world-weary used bookstore copy of the Royko collection “Like I Was Sayin’” — “’California Burger’ Can Drive You Nuts.”
In the column, Royko and an unnamed friend stopped in a fern-laden early ‘80s California cuisine restaurant for lunch.
“Hamburger,” I said to the waitress.
“With or without pecans?” she said.
“With or without what?” I asked.
“Pecans,” she said.
“Uh, maybe you misunderstood me. I asked for a hamburger.”
“Yes, I heard you. With or without pecans?”
It went downhill from there.
Royko couldn’t figure out if you ask for pecans well-done, he couldn’t get Velveeta on top and, when he had to ask for mustard, it was “that brown, French kind” instead of “honest, yellow American mustard, which is the only mustard you should put on hot dogs or hamburgers.”
He described the burger when it came as a challenging mess the size and shape of a baseball, inedible not because of its taste because he couldn’t get his mouth around it.
And then he noticed everyone around him was eating their hamburgers with forks and knives.
There are many gray areas in life. Some things can’t be called right or wrong.
But it is wrong to eat certain foods with knives and forks. Ribs, hot dogs, fried chicken, egg rolls, and hamburgers—they should all be eaten with hands.
To eat a hamburger with a knife and fork is as unnatural as drinking a shot and a beer through a straw.
The column concluded with Royko stopping in for a real hamburger and some sanity at the Billy Goat, that downtown haunt of Royko’s known as a newspaperman watering hole and for the Saturday Night Live cheezborger cheezborger cheezborger skit (Royko spelled it “chizbooger”).
When he joked with owner Sam Sianis about putting pecans in the burgers, Sianis grabbed a bag of beer nuts and slapped it on a hamburger.
“OK, you got nuts in your chizbooger.”
Ah, sanity prevails.
The column, like much of Royko’s writing, had an undercurrent of class war in it. There was a defiant Us vs. Them through it, the real Chicagoans represented by Sianis and Royko facing off against the pecan-shilling waitress and “a wan young man at the next table… sipping white wine with his hamburger.”
So I wonder what Royko would have thought of the burger at Small Cheval.
Small Cheval is a new spot in the Wicker Park/Bucktown area in a freestanding Milwaukee Ave. storefront that seems to have a new restaurant shut down every few months. It’s an offshoot of Au Cheval, which both Bon Appetit and the Food Network recently crowned best burger in the nation.
The name Au Cheval, despite literally translating as “by horse,” is apparently French cooking slang for having an egg on top of something, like the egg is riding a horse. Whatever. If Royko can have his burger at the Goat, I can eat at Small Horse.
But would it past the Royko test? If we’re using hamburgers to draw the lines in the class war, where would Small Cheval fit?
The mood in the burger shop on Milwaukee was the deliberately crafted version of socially acceptable punk common to the West Town area. The speakers blared bass-heavy dance music at a level that made everyone inside shout, that old restaurant trick to make a place appear jumping.
Among the shop’s stained wood — apparently a holdover from the last place to go out of business there — you wait in a line to order both your burger and your beer. I guess getting a second drink would require a return trip. I stood slightly annoyed as the couple in front of me chatted and gabbed with the woman taking the orders and pouring them drinks.
It’s perfectly normal to chat with the bartender, but having the bartender also be the only person taking food orders meant I was worried the seat I wanted would be snatched up while the couple deliberated whether to do a round of shots (they eventually did).
The only person there other than me with any gray in his hair was bussing tables.
The burger was fantastic. Greasy and fatty and falling apart in my hands. I was a bit annoyed when I got home from Small Cheval to find out from Yelp that they do their burgers differently than they do at Au Cheval. My incredibly tasty meatfest was not the best in the nation. Still a damn good burger amid the young and stylish screaming over bass.
So what would Royko think?
My guess is he wouldn’t like it.
Royko’s best trait was his sense of justice, evidenced in every line of his masterwork “Boss.” His worst trait was a crabby old “Get off my lawn” sense of Chicagoana, as if any resident who disagreed with his fictional native Slats Grobnik about the slightest detail of burgers, beer or pitching pennies was a wrong-headed interloper.
He spoke for the neighborhoods in the era the condos went up and that’s fine, even noble. But it meant neither Small Cheval nor I would pass Royko’s sniff test.
The dedication to, almost recreation of, old timey might have stirred a sense of belonging in Royko, but I doubt it. The sense of Americana created with burger, beer and shot was too deliberate at Small Cheval. They would have tried too hard for Royko’s taste.
We’re still the waitress and wan young man at Small Cheval; the difference is styles now crave beer and meat over white wine and pecans.
I can’t compare a burger at the Goat with one at Small Horse. I love them both (slight preference for the Billy Goat because, bejeebus that Small Cheval burger was rich — my digestion is working double-time right now), but they’re not even trying for the same thing. One’s a quick and easy bite, the other’s haute cuisine disguised as a burger-and-shot joint.
But it was a solid, greasy, American burger, even if the mustard was brown and French.
And it didn’t have pecans.