There were times when I felt like a doofus for ordering a cheeseburger, taking a few bites and calling for the check.
But when you're eating four burgers in a single day, portion control is crucial.
Actually, I did that four-burgers-in-a-day thing twice. With just one day of rest in between.
And by most reckoning I had the easy job.
My 33 fellow colleagues, after all, were the ones who, over the course of one month and three rounds of judging, winnowed 100 burgers down to the elite eight finalists I was enjoying. They were the ones who filtered out the overcooked, underflavored and soggy also-rans.
Not that there were many outright rejects. A majority of the reader-nominated burgers were pretty darn good, according to the judges' reports. Chicago, known for deep-dish pizza, salad-on-a-bun hot dogs and the Italian beef sandwich, is one great burger town as well.
The last time we named Chicago's best burgers was in 1995. Not surprisingly, the results today are considerably different than they were then. Of this year's Top Five burger places, for instance, only one was in business when we conducted our 1995 search. And several of the top finishers from 10 years ago weren't around to compete this time.
What hasn't changed is the high level of competition. As was the case in 1995, some well-loved burger purveyors were eliminated in the very first round -- this time it was names such as Boston Blackie's, Charlie Beinlich's, Country House, Moody's Pub and the 1995 defending champion, Pete Miller's Steak House.
How did we pick? The main criteria were flavor and texture. We looked for burgers that had a good, beefy taste, were properly seasoned (judicious amounts of salt and pepper and not much else) and came with a bun that was both tasty and sturdy (buns that disintegrated because of the burger juices lost points).
We allowed our judges to order cheeseburgers or plain hamburgers, and permitted some leeway on preferred doneness, so long as they ordered each burger the same way. And we paid close attention to the accompaniments, including fries, which were judged separately. (More on fries and other discoveries from the first three rounds of judging are in the accompanying story.)
Judges were instructed not to be influenced by atmosphere. Frankly, I would have been just as happy if all our top burgers had originated from little mom-and-pop shacks. As it happened, four of our five top burger spots are more "high end" spots; possibly because restaurants that pay attention to the niceties of the table pay attention to food quality as well.
A number of our judges found even the first round -- in which they picked the one or two best burgers from a sampling of just four -- a difficult chore. More than once, a judge's written report would include words to the effect of, "I'm promoting [X and Y], but [Z] was sooooooo good!"
And when only eight burger places were left standing, I got the seemingly easy job of selecting a Top 5. I say "seemingly easy," because every burger in the final eight had been judged superior in three consecutive rounds. And always by a different judge.
So I got the job of splitting hairs, of determining the most pleasing tastes and textures from a field of excellent candidates. The early judges did nothing to make my job easy; every burger was very good.
But you have to land somewhere, and I did. Here, in order, are Chicago's Top Five burgers:
1. Rosebud Steakhouse
If you can get past the eerie feeling of ordering from a tuxedoed captain, this Streeterville steakhouse is Burger Heaven. The burger is a massive 12 ounces, and so juicy the kitchen should consider issuing bibs. The burger, cooked precisely to order, arrives on a soft but chewy pretzel-dough bun that handles the juicy meat without falling apart, and the flavor --with or without melted cheese -- is sensational. All this in an upscale steakhouse atmosphere that is superior in every way except attitude; you're treated the same here whether you order one of the $30 steaks or the $9 burger. And if you dine solo at the bar (perfect when you want to watch the ballgame), the bartender sets your place with a tablecloth -- actually an oversized napkin, but what a cool touch.
About the burger:
Burger available: Dinner Mon.-Sun., opening at 3 p.m.
Size: 12 ounces
Meat: 80 percent lean prime ground beef
Bun: Pretzel roll
Comes with: Lettuce, wide tomato slices, pickle slices on the side, plus thin, crispy fries
Options: American, swiss, cheddar or bleu cheese ($1), sauteed mushrooms ($1), bacon ($1)
Flavor: Like a buttery steak
Comments: Burger perfection. So juicy you'll want a bib.
The second-best burger in town can be found in a restaurant that nobody considers to be a burger destination and that offers the burger only at lunch. But, says Naha owner and chef Carrie Nahabedian, "Even a fine-dining restaurant can put out a great burger," and indeed Naha does. The half-pound of Angus beef is cooked over wood (hickory and cherry) and arrives on a soft and sweet toasted onion-brioche bun. The flavor and texture are outstanding. And Nahabedian puts a lot of effort into the accompaniments; cheese aficionados can top their meat with such exotic choices as Hudson Valley camembert, Spanish manchego or Great Hill bleu (along with the more-familiar varieties). Tomatoes range from good Romas (now) to heirloom varieties (late summer). And the fries! Hand-made every morning from huge Idaho potatoes and tossed with sea salt and chopped parsley.
About the burger:
Name: Angus beef burger
Burger available: Lunch only, Mon.-Fri.
Size: 8 ounces
Meat: 80 percent lean Certified Angus Beef
Bun: Onion brioche
Comes with: Caramelized onions, soft lettuce, tomatoes, house-made fries tossed with sea salt and chopped parsley
Options: More than a half-dozen cheeses (no charge), applewood-smoked bacon (no charge)
Flavor: Rich, beefy, juicy; perfectly seasoned
Comments: Fine cheeses and top-quality tomatoes make this burger the gourmet's choice.
3. Park Grill
As if there weren't enough reasons to visit Millennium Park already this summer, now add the Park Grill burger to the list. Another half-pound vision of ground-beef Nirvana, this one wrapped in a soft multi-seed bun and packed with Angus-beef flavor. Various cheeses are available, though the signature choice is the Herkimer, a white cheddar from upstate New York, whose sharp flavor is a perfect complement to the beef. The fries, cooked in beef fat ("the right way," says chef Bernie Laskowski), are crisp and delicious. FYI: In the dining room, the burger is available at lunch only; at dinner there's a fancier (and much pricier) Kobe beef burger that, frankly, we like less than we do the lunch version. But when the outdoor restaurant, Park Grill on the Plaza, is open (i.e., if it's not raining), the regular burger is available lunch and dinner.
About the burger:
Name: Park Grill Burger
Burger available: Lunch only indoors, lunch and dinner in outdoor plaza, Mon.-Sun.
Size: 8 ounces
Meat: 80 percent lean Black Angus ground chuck
Bun: Poppy- and sesame-seed brioche
Comes with: Lettuce, beefsteak tomato slices, grilled red onion, pickle spear and fries
Options: Cheese ($1), bacon ($1), balsamic grilled onions ($1), sauteed mushrooms ($1)
Flavor: Luxurious and robust
Texture: Firm; good "bite" to the meat
Comments: The signature Herkimer white-cheddar cheese is not to be missed.
4. Select Cut Steakhouse
I've driven by this Lincoln Park restaurant a dozen times without ever stopping by, which is probably why the excellence of the burger was such a surprise. True to steakhouse tradition, owners Tony and Gail Munoz make their burgers from the trimmings that materialize from the hand-cut ribeye, New York strip and filet mignon steaks. The result is a burger that's a smidge leaner than most and has a distinct steaklike flavor; I even detected a little bleu-cheese tang to the meat, suggesting aging. Carpeted floors and cloth napkins add a little formality to a double dining room equipped with plenty of TVs for sports fans.
About the burger:
Name: Half-pound steakburger
Burger available: Lunch and dinner Mon.-Sun.
Price: $7 lunch; $7.95 dinner
Size: 8 ounces
Meat: 85 percent lean mix of steak trimmings, ground in the kitchen
Bun: Sesame seed, from MaryAnn Bakeries
Comes with: Lettuce, tomato slice, pickle spear, steak fries
Options: American, swiss, cheddar or mozzarella cheese (50 cents)
Flavor: Very beefy, with a tang reminiscent of bleu cheese
Texture: Thick and firm; uniform consistency
Comments: Who needs steak with a burger this good?
5. Paradise Pup
If the weather is merely decent, the line snakes out to the parking lot of this tiny Des Plaines burger shack, which has been run by brothers George and Anthony Manos for 22 years. There's plenty of parking but precious little room to sit; there's counter seating for 11 cramped people inside, and a few large picnic tables outside. And yet people line up, cash in hand (which is all Paradise Pup accepts) to order a char burger with various toppings, though the signature version is slathered with Merkt's, a cheddar crock cheese from Wisconsin. The operation is as low-frills as can be, but the burger, heavily charcoaled and cooked to about medium (no one asks how you'd like your burger cooked) has great flavor and is plenty juicy. And under $4. Seasoned or crinkle-cut fries cost a little extra, but if you're feeling adventurous, try the fries layered with Merkt cheddar, sour cream and bacon; it's like somebody exploded a stuffed baked potato.
About the burger:
Name: Char burger
Burger available: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Size: 6 ounces
Meat: 80 percent lean ground chuck
Bun: Egg challah with sesame seeds
Comes with: "Everything" includes lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard
Options: Grilled or raw onions; Merkt's crock cheddar, American or mozzarella cheese (30 cents); crinkle-cut or Cajun fries ($1.29-$1.69)
Flavor: Plenty of exterior char
Texture: Soft and very juicy
Comments: If you love a real charcoal taste, this is your burger.
OTHER TOP CONTENDERS
Here are 11 other restaurants whose burgers made it to our third round of tastings.
Bristol Tap, Bristol
Candelite, West Rogers Park
Hackney's, Palos Park and other locations
Hunker Down Steaks, Alsip
Jake Moran's, Mundelein
Medici, Hyde Park
Nick's Tavern, Lemont
Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill, Ravenswood
Silver Palm, River West
Square Kitchen, Lincoln Square
Wollensky's Grill, River North
Phil Vettel is the Chicago Tribune restaurant critic.