American classics on fire with flavor

January 22, 2011 7:34:35 AM PST
It's hard to improve upon the formula for the basic burger, but several local companies are trying to create a new niche for the American icon lodged somewhere between fast-food and fast-casual dining.

Not only are the new burger flippers riding a wave, they're awfully ambitious. Each new concept, it seems, is hoping to crank out additional stores.

In River North, Lettuce Entertain You ripped out the private dining room at Tru, and turned it into M Burger, essentially a gussied-up fast-food operation with fries and shakes; they just opened a second location on Ontario.

In Lincoln Park, former Levy Restaurants Corporate Chef John McLean has opened Burger Bar Chicago, which feels like a neighborhood joint but has bigger aspirations.

"The whole thing about Burger Bar Chicago is that it's definitely more of a regional place, you know, it's not chain-oriented. It's just, this has a nice comfortable feel to it, I really like the concept," McLean said.

That concept is sourcing ingredients from local farms, offering corn or grass-fed beef, even some alternatives, like goat. His barbeque pork burger is crammed with bacon and ham, crowned with an apple-cabbage slaw. Toppings range from the usual to the exotic, like tomato chutney and crumbled feta cheese.

"But my niche on this is obviously the ingredients. I always look for the best ingredients, the most regional ingredients, and also the highest quality ingredients," McLean said.

Then there's Tom & Eddie's, a completely new concept at the Yorktown Mall in Lombard.

"I went to work in McDonald's when I was in college, and I spent 33 and a half years there, as did Tom (Dentice)," said Ed Rensi, the co-founder of Tom & Eddie's.

Dentice and Rensi realized that customers today want more options, so they've stacked the menu with dozens of add-ons or alternatives: turkey burgers, tuna burgers, gourmet cheeses and sauces -- kind of a hybrid between fast food and sit-down fast casual.

"Well the interior and the decor are different, we want people to be able to come here and have a relaxing, casual dining experience," Rensi said. "We've spent an enormous amount of time trying to be good tasting in everything, particularly the food."

You can expect to see a lot more of Tom & Eddie's down the road -- they already have a store in Geneva, with plans to open in Deerfield and Vernon Hills. Apparently, they feel people want more than just ketchup and mustard and American cheese on their burgers.

Tom & Eddie's
348 Yorktown Center, Lombard

1042 Commons Drive, Geneva

Burger Bar
1578 Clybourn Ave.

M Burger
161 East Huron St.

5 W. Ontario St.

Some other notable burger joints in the area:

DMK Burger Bar
2954 N. Sheffield

Edzo's Burger Shop
1571 Sherman Ave., Evanston

Schoop's Hamburgers
1449 Indianapolis Blvd.

2555 W. 75th St., Naperville

Five Guys Burgers & Fries
(several locations in the region)
1115 Lake St., Oak Park

2140 N. Clybourn

15100 LaGrange Rd., Orland Park

Epic Burger
517 S. State St.

The Counter
666 W. Diversey Pkwy.

Kuma's Corner
2900 West Belmont Ave
(773) 604-8769