Sunday, December 25, 2016

Au Shit, our journey to Au Cheval (The Best Burger in America??)

The famous Au Cheval Burger 
I've never owned anything of great importance in my life. It seemed like a privilege afforded to only those who deserve it. The ones who had it all "together". I've been a vagabond for so long, that it seemed superfluous to collect silly material objects. I'd rather spend my time and life making the people around me beautiful.

Lately, however, I've come to realize that my inability (or perhaps reluctance?) to collect material objects is rooted in my blatant disregard of traditional paths.  While most of my peers settled down, had kids, and bought houses, I was off blazing a most nontraditional trail. I do not mean by this declaration to belittle or chastise traditional choices. All choices are valid ones, so long as they remain true to one's values.

Going off the tried and true path has added a few brilliant failures to my record. But why on earth should that matter? I think that failure should be celebrated in a cacophony of sound.

Speaking of brilliant failures, this post is going to be vastly different than any posts I've previously concocted. In this post, my friend Lauren and I chronicle our journey to go and try the purported best burger in America! We failed twice to get in to Au Cheval in Chicago, but found other journeys on our path to the legendary burger.


The Path to Au Cheval: A Journey, a Legend, and a Life Affirming Adventure

Lauren and I have been friends for almost 5 years now. We met in the hallowed halls of 20 Rockefeller Plaza, during our brief stints working for Christie's. It was a harried time, Elizabeth Taylor's jewels demanded all of our attention, but our friendship flourished. It has survived my moves away from New York City, to London, and finally culminated in our joint moves to Washington, DC. And so, a vivid description of our journey in Chicago...

 Day 1: Little Goat Diner and Duck Duck Goat

The monstrosity known as "The Goat Almighty"
In a harried attempt to thwart the notoriously long wait at Au Cheval, Lauren and I decided to try our luck at a lunch seating. I arrived 20 minutes after the place opened and the wait was already bordering on 2+ hours. 

We were reluctant to waste a good day in Chicago, and settled on starting an impromptu tour of Stephanie Izard's Little Goat Diner in West Loop (we had reservations at another one of her establishments later in the day).

Our conclusion for Little Goat? Completely overhyped and underwhelming. While there, we indulged in a blue fish crostini, fries, and the unholy creation known as "The Goat Almighty". The flavors on the blue fish crostini, which consisted of cream cheese, pickled jalepenos, and blue fish, did not seamlessly meld on the crostini. A crostini that was far too thick to use as a serving vehicle. The fries were cut so thin that they ended up having the texture of potato chips. Finally, the burger was far too ambitious, so much so, that each individual meat on the burger seemed horrifically neglected. Instead of doing one meat perfectly, Stephanie decided to do three meats (goat burger, braised beef, and bbq pork) in an unspectacular fashion.

Duck Duck Goat:

After a brief 3 hour break, Lauren and I returned to the West Loop to try our luck at Stephanie's Duck Duck Goat, Izard's take on Chinese flavors.

A delicate butternut squash broth
We started with a beautifully made wonton soup in a butternut squash broth. The flavors in this soup were so well balanced that nothing competed against each other on my palette. The wontons, however, left much to be desired. The filling was overwhelmed by the wrapper, and the wrapper was rubbery.

Next, Lauren ordered a shaved broccoli and rabe salad. We were both convinced that we could have seasoned and prepared these vegetables much better on our own. The greens were under-salted and overwhelmed by sesame oil and garlic.

The Sichuan Eggplant with Goat Sausage followed closed behind the greens, and we finally understood some of the hype around Duck Duck Goat. The sausage and eggplant combination was heavenly.

Finally, we finished with the hand pulled beef slap noodles. Stephanie traveled to China to learn how to make these noodles by hand, I think she needs to fill some of the gaps in her noodle education. The flavors of the dish were excellent, but the noodles themselves did not have uniform thickness nor were they as thin as traditional Chinese noodles.

Overall, although the flavors at Duck Duck Goat were excellent, the restaurant itself still has a long way to go.

Take 2: The Publican and Au Cheval

On Saturday morning we were energized and ready to try again with the behemoth that is Au Cheval. Both Lauren and I prepped for the burgers with a quick early morning workout and began the 45 minute walk to Au Cheval. We were going to make it through the door this time, no way anyone was stopping us!

"It looks like it's going to be a 2 to 3 hour wait, and the kitchen closes by 3, we can't guarantee that you'll get in."

Lauren and I glanced at each other.

"I don't care, I'll camp out at the bar from 3 to 5 while we wait for the kitchen to open again."

Lauren replied with determined resolution. She was ready to sell her soul for the burger that Bon Appetite had named the best burger in America.

So off we went to The Publican to get through the wait.

We hunkered down at The Publican and decided on what "appetizers" we would wait with. Lauren picked a few oysters and I chose a savory monkey bread.

We went around tasting the oysters from different states and farms and quietly traded notes on which were our favorites. We enjoyed the savory monkey bread with a delicious beer cheese as I feverishly checked our place in line. Two hours later the line showed that we went from 60th in line to 10th. We nodded and made a beeline back to Au Cheval.

The hostess informed us that we had 15 more minutes to go and had it made it in time before the kitchen closed. Lauren and I mentally high fived one another, and prepared for the meat dream that was now firmly within our grasp.

That baby just couldn't stop drinking
We were seated and immediately ordered a few libations (I forgot to mention that Lauren's beautiful daughter joined us throughout this adventure). We both ordered the single patty (Note: Au Cheval's single patty is actually a double patty and the double is a triple patty) and an order of the Morney fries with a sunny side up egg. We debated whether to add bacon and egg to our burgers, but decided to try a classic burger with cheese. After all, there's nothing wrong with a good old missionary burger from time to time, it certainly gets the job done.

And then, it CAME....

Hark the herald angels sing!!!
OH! Ohhh Ohhh.....OHHHh Babbbyy!
As we bit into our first succulent bite of the burger we smiled in ecstasy. The patty was smashed (as all good burgers should be), had a lovely charred crust, and was salted to perfection. The burger had young slightly crispy pickles with a brine-y sweetness, a lovely mayo and onion secret sauce, and perfect slices of melty American cheese.

(In case you were wondering I have absolutely no issues with processed cheese, and neither does J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. So get off your high horse and read his article on the virtues of American cheese HERE)

We both died for the mornay and the fries were (I believe double) fried to golden perfection. I would go back for these fries alone.

The Ultimate Question

So was it the best burger in America?

Although it was delicious, and worth the wait, I think I would have to safely rank Au Cheval within the top 5 to 10 burgers in the country. I wouldn't call it the best burger in the country. I realize that Au Cheval suffers from it's designation as the best burger in the country, there is so much hype it has to live up to, but it is still one of the most delicious things I have had in my mouth.

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