#525: Burger Time

September 4th, 2015

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my intent to grab America’s best burger, only to find out I was at the wrong restaurant.

On Thursday night, amid the hip and trendy of the West Loop crowd, among a sea of identical men in business casual and women so beautiful and bland they could have been cranked out of a Beautiful Bland Barbie factory, I finally got the Au Cheval cheeseburger, which both Bon Appetit and the Food Network recently crowned best burger in the nation.

First, the verdict: It’s not the best burger in the United States, in the Midwest or even in the sliver of experience with burgers this one guy here has had. That would be Booches in Columbia, Mo.

Yes, it’s unfair to judge a restaurant for not being the best in the nation. But I didn’t see them turning anyone away, even as our wait time topped two and an half hours. If they get to profit off the hype, we get to judge them on the hype.

So the burger was… fine. Good even. But it’s big, fatty meat with an egg on it. That’s pretty hard to mess up.

Two hours plus of drinking in nearby bars during the wait helped the mood for food as well. The place still didn’t live up.

But my point’s not to review the food or to drive people toward or away from it. It was a wonderful birthday and I’m glad I had the experience, even if the burger left me several hours later with a roiling tummy and a sense of ennui.

My goal with this project is to create a sense of time, place and identity. My goal is for someone years later to stumble across my corner of the Internet and say, “Yep. That’s what it was like.”

I review cities, not hamburgers.

I was a little unfair when I described the crowd swamping the formerly industrial Randolph Street and the Fulton Market District as identical. They weren’t all Business Casual Kens and Beautiful Bland Barbies amid the converted warehouses.

They were, however, trying to be.

Whether they fit the mold of unaffectedly trendy, wealthy and worldly on food, drink and artisanal craft whatsahoozit or not, they — we — dressed, acted, walked and talked the part. The men, myself included, all wore button-ups and slacks. The women, my date included, all wore jaunty little sundresses.

I was reminded of intermission at an opera. Everyone had the same uncomfortable look on their faces, as if they couldn’t wait to get home and take off the uniforms they had donned for a night.

There are actually stats and figures on who we were all trying to dress, act and look like for the night. The Fulton Market Type is a median 32.8 years old, overwhelmingly in the professional workforce, with a median income of $106,902, according to a ridiculously specific website by a local developer that made its name flipping industrial space into playgrounds for the high-end.

Along Green Street, a line of second-shift men in hardhats squatted alongside Bridgford Quality Foods, huffing smokes during their break. They were entirely black. The restaurant crowds in sundresses and button-ups flocking Randolph was racially diverse, but overwhelmingly white.

I say this not as a indictment of us but as an observation. We played while the men in hardhats packaged frozen bread dough, biscuits, cinnamon roll doughs, sandwiches, beef jerky, snacks and deli foods.

The 2.5-hour-plus wait for a table wasn’t a surprise. We knew that was coming. It was part of the night’s plan.

Now, the summary. The nice, pat, what-does-it-all-mean ending wherein I damn a place as exploitive or praise it as a place of fun, fancy and expression with cooking.

I had a wonderful brunch at the nearby Little Goat once, another place with multi-hour waits and food people blog about.

I once made an old lady cry by asking her why her Randolph Street cash register repair shop was failing.

In the end, I don’t know. Change is the retch after getting punched in the stomach. Transition from smokers in hardhats and little old ladies weeping over repair shops seems somehow more violative when it’s committed by developers who say things like “We target overlooked and undervalued assets in emerging locations and transform them into high-demand strategic destinations to maximize value.”

But the developers didn’t drive off the industry. They just flipped the land when other forces made American industry a hip retro concept.

The neighborhood has changed to a playground, so I shouldn’t judge people for playing. I played too. Again, a wonderful birthday.

But here we are in 2015, in a neighborhood once filled with industry and repair shops, waiting in nearby bars for texts to tell us we’re three hours in to ordering blog-rated cheeseburgers.

Yep. That’s what it was like.

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