Chicago's Au Cheval has become a skyscraper on the foodie skyline, having been hailed as the birthplace of one of the best burgers in the country (see: Bon Appetit, Eater, Food Network, Business Insider, et al.). The Au Cheval cheeseburger has transcended being a mere meal and become a proudly sought-after merit badge that foodies flock to earn by Instagramming (and, ultimately, eating) in a feverish quest-to-consume akin to Dominique Ansel's cronut, Darren Wong's raindrop cake or Keizo Shimamoto's ramen burger.
So needless to say, when I was asked to untangle the hype from the reality of the Au Cheval burger, I jumped at the chance.
Ah, the wait. Au Cheval does not take reservations and the wait has become almost as legendary as the burger. Stories abound of patrons shifting hungrily for hours and hours before being graced with a table and a menu—a Herculean-level trial to get at that sweet, sweet burger.
Yes, you will wait. For a long time. The longest I've heard of anyone waiting was five hours for a table and it was "totally worth it," they claimed.
I ventured into Au Cheval just 15 minutes after they opened for dinner on a Monday night and every seat was already taken, with my wait time stretching to an hour and a half (it ended up only being an hour).
But there is a silver lining (besides, of course, the proverbial pot-of-gold cheeseburger at the end of the rainbow). Au Cheval has a refreshingly modern method for its wait list: the host will take down your cell number and text you when your table is ready. They'll send you a confirmation text and invite you to download the NoWait app where you can track your place in line. Once your table is ready, you'll receive another text from Au Cheval. You just have to be back to the restaurant within 10 minutes to claim your table.
A Menu of Lies
Au Cheval brands itself as an upscale diner, which means leather booths and counter seats, candlelight, fancy root beer on tap, and a soundtrack of trippy beats. It also means a straightforward, almost blunt menu that doesn't waste space on describing their offerings in the flowery, pretend poetry as other trendy restaurants are apt to do.
There is one thing on the menu that needs a little insider explaining: a single vs. a double cheeseburger. Don't believe them. The tricky little crew at Au Cheval has a pleasant surprise for you—an extra patty! Order a single cheeseburger, and you'll get two patties. Order a double, and you'll get three patties.
Why do they do that? Why not?! Maybe it's because life is better when there's a surprise, so stop trying to control everything and enjoy yourself.
Where You Should Sit
Do yourself a favor and take a counter seat. I know, I know—those plush booths look mighty inviting, but the counter seats give you a front row view of the your burger's progress and the talented chefs who are slaving away to fill Chicago's demanding tummies. The narrow aisle between the counter and the grill somehow houses at least four chefs at once—all turning and reaching and dipping and flipping in perfect synchronicity, that practiced tango of the line, that veritable burger ballet.
The Burger: A Verdict
With all the anticipation surrounding the near-mythical burger, and after an hour-long wait time, I couldn't imagine it could possibly live up its own hype. RuPaul would have to roller skate out to serve me the burger herself to match the legendary build up this meal was receiving.
Then, the clouds parted and the cheeseburger arrived.
You know those stories you hear when people say they see their true love for the first time? How the sound drops out of the world and the room melts away? That's what the first bite of this burger was like. I'm not lying to you when I say that I involuntarily closed my eyes upon the first bite. I might have trembled.
I ordered the single, which, as discussed, came with two patties sandwiched around a velvety layer of melted cheese. On top, the burger was slathered with a Goldilocks-like perfect helping of a creamy Dijion-and-mayo sauce. Thinly sliced pickles were there too, delivering a sharp, crunchy tang, as well as onions so finely diced that I started calling them "burger sprinkles" and refused to refer to them as anything else. It was heaven. It was a burger you wait five hours for.
Let me be very clear: The Au Cheval burger lives on it's own, as it's served. There's absolutely no reason to top it with anything extra, lest you veer into gluttony territory. However, let's face it, sometimes you need a little gluttony in your life. For those days, Au Cheval offers a few indulgent burger decorations.
First up: bacon. Throw out everything you know about bacon and picture this instead: two giant slices of pork belly, half an inch thick and so impossibly sweet and smoky that I momentarily stopped listening to my dining companion's story when I bit into it. (I literally said, "huh?")
You're also welcome to order a fried egg topper, or "cheeseburger à cheval" (French for "on horseback"). Each egg is fried perfectly in it's own, tiny egg pan and rides atop your burger (or fries!) as prettily as a satin-jacketed jockey.
More, you say? Are you not entertained? If you have to go even further with your burger, I have a new, post-Au Cheval quest for you. Au Cheval owner Brendan Sodikoff is currently hard at work building an empire of delicious restaurants that will make every other city in the world side-eye Chicago with culinary jealousy. One of those precious gems is 3 Green Market, a chic-ed up romper room-ish space where they serve an Au Cheval-like burger topped with homemade pastrami.
Let me type that one again: Home. Made. Pastrami.
So, foodie friends, once and for all: Is Au Cheval worth the wait? Not only is it worth the wait, it's worth the vacation time to fly to Chicago.