Chicago’s Au Cheval received the crown of Best Burger in America from Bon Appétit in 2012 and from there a cascade of similar awards followed, most recently from The Food Network. The restaurant has long been famous for its burger — and the 3-hour wait times — so Food Network’s declaration only intensified the hype (and likely the wait).
I couldn’t resist wondering: What is so special about this burger at Au Cheval? Is it really worth the wait? And most importantly…
Is Au Cheval the Best Burger in America?
First of all, what’s all the hype?
Bon Appétit was first to crown Au Cheval with the Best Burger in America back in 2012, saying the burger is almost perfect thanks to its “spot on bun-to-burger ratio.” Since then, Eater, USA Today, Huffington Post and just about every other publication (including a Michelin Bib Gourmand nod) has echoed the sentiment. Food Network’s show Top Five Restaurants is the latest to worship Au Cheval, claiming it has a “perfect burger-to-cheese ratio.” But I admit I was still skeptical.
Why is the wait so long at Au Cheval?
Au Cheval is a tiny restaurant. The interior is a darkened version of a 1950s diner with a long row of bar stool-clad counter seats looking into the open kitchen on one side, flanked by bulky leather booths up against windows on the other. It is noisy, hectic and crowded, but the energy is exciting. Reservations are not accepted, so the small number of seats combined with the title of Best Burger in America equal very long wait times. I overheard a five-hour wait time just a half hour after opening on a Saturday!
What makes Au Cheval’s burger so special?
Turns out, the answer is nothing. (Well, sort of.) When I started researching Au Cheval’s burger, I was shocked to learn that it’s not piled with exotic ingredients or fancy toppings. In fact, it’s topped with Kraft American Cheese. Yeah, that slimy cheese from your childhood! The single cheeseburger is actually two thin patties, each topped with cheese, while the double cheeseburger is packed with three patties and plenty of melty cheese in between.
Next, thinly-sliced house-made pickles are stacked on the burger and enclosed on a bun from Z Baking Company that’s been toasted on both sides and smothered with Dijonnaise sauce (lemon juice, mayo and Dijon mustard). Peppered bacon ($3) and a fried egg ($2) are optional extras. Oh, and did I mention the burger is only $10.95?! The double is a whopping $12.95. Unbelievably, this isn’t one of those fancy shmancy $18 burgers, despite its popularity.
So is the burger really the best?
I was skeptical the burger wouldn’t be that mind-blowing. That is, until I saw the thick, juicy piece of “bacon” on my burger. What Au Cheval calls bacon, the rest of us refer to as pork belly. The luscious, fatty pieces of heaven dripping with the yolk of the perfectly fried egg, mixed with the melting cheese and medium-cooked patties was nothing short of culinary perfection. It is without hesitation the best burger I’ve ever tasted.
Maybe it’s the simplicity of it (although that pork belly bacon is by no means simple) or maybe it’s the ratio of burger-to-cheese-to-bun. But whatever it is, it works.
Would you like fries with that?
A burger isn’t complete without fries and Au Cheval’s crispy, salty potato sticks come in a shareable-size cone with aioli for dipping. My boyfriend affectionately described the sauce as “garlic and fat” in the best way. Other available sides include hash browns ($4.95), butter pickles ($4) and mashed potatoes and gravy ($5.95) as a reminder that they are, after all, a diner.
Other diner favorites include a chopped salad ($11.95), potato hash ($9.95), ham and cheese fondue sandwich ($10.95) and house-made bologna sandwich ($10.95). On the more adventurous side, there is bone marrow ($17.95), a 32 ounce porterhouse steak topped with foie gras ($38.95), scrambled eggs and foie gras ($18), and chicken liver with toast ($11.95).
So how do you get in?
The wait at Au Cheval is not going away anytime soon, despite the debut of their sister restaurant, Small Cheval, in Bucktown. To get in, get there early (or before it opens) and prepare to wait. The kitchen closes from 3-5 pm daily but is still open for drinks, so use that time to snag a seat, order a cocktail and wait til cooking time.
We went around 4 pm on Saturday, put our name on the list and had a drink down the street. (All the tables were full so we couldn’t stay there.) A table was ready by 5:45 (a half hour earlier than they quoted). But a word of warning: the restaurant sent us a text when the table was ready but only gave us a 10 minute head’s up to get there with our entire party, so be prepared to dash out of wherever you are pretty quickly.
Another option is to go late at night for an easier chance of getting in. They are open til 1 am so if you bypass dinner time, you’ll likely avoid the rush too. No matter when you go or how you get in, rest assured that the burger will be worth the wait.
Go to Au Cheval for :: hands-down the best burger in America. Don’t forget to add bacon and a fried egg. Notes :: Open Monday – Saturday, 11 am-1 am, and Sunday 10 am-12 am. The kitchen closes from 3-5 pm daily. Reservations are not accepted and wait times can easily stretch over 3 hours so be prepared to wait!