When former fast-food execs Ed Rensi and Tom Dentice decided to open their own casual restaurant, they knew they'd have to do some research. In the years since they'd started in the business, the burgeoning foodie culture had transformed this beefy staple into a gourmet food. Honoring the dish's roots in American roadside diners, the duo decided to take a road trip, visiting about 100 restaurants across the country to study what made a gourmet burger.
What they found was a lot of hype and inconsistent execution, starting with inadequate equipment. For instance, the average commercial griddle has hot spots and cold spots that can be 30 degrees different. "You can't get a consistent cook … if you got that much range in temperature on the grill," Ed said. He also saw inconsistencies with ingredient quality: toppings can't save a burger, no matter how good, if a restaurant uses beef from spent dairy cattle. Likewise, good beef loses impact when dressed in drab toppings such as iceberg lettuce.
Once Ed realized what the gourmet burger needed—consistent process and quality across every ingredient—he and Tom went to work. They found an AccuTemp grill that uses steam pressure to uniformly heat the surface. They sourced Midwestern-raised Angus beef ground from chuck with the shoulder clod still intact. And they filled the 20-item condiment station—dubbed the "Tower of Taste"—with all-natural fixings such as three types of organic Heinz ketchup and mustards from Mustard Girl, a company started by a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.
With a surefire process in place, Tom and Ed began extending their menu to other sandwich fillings, such as fresh chicken breasts, sushi-grade ahi tuna, and edamame burger patties. Sides also benefit from the duo's attention to detail. Hand-dipped ice cream and fresh strawberries swirl into strawberry shakes, which are served with extrawide straws that make it easier to sip when the drink is at its coldest. And at the drink station, fountains pour Boylan sodas sweetened with cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup.
All too often, embracing authenticity means sacrificing creativity, but the chefs in San Gabriel Mexican Café’s kitchen strive to incorporate both. They infuse classic tuna ceviche with bites of mango and passion fruit, melding tropical sweetness into the savory dish. They busily wield mortars and pestles all day to grind guacamole to order, while their ovens churn out a continuous stream of fresh-baked tortillas. Those tortillas enwrap tacos, enchiladas, and fajitas, but the chefs’ true specialties lie elsewhere on the menu. They enrich the flavor of pablano-chile sauced chicken with ground huitlacoche, an earthy, sweet fungus that grows on corn. They heartily recommend the molcajete, a traditional bowl made from volcanic stone and filled with stewed meat, three chile salsa, and cactus leaf.
Ever since they met back in 2004, Cynthia and Teddy Spears shared aspirations of opening a restaurant. Having achieved that dream, Teddy now relies on his passion for cooking while Cynthia falls back on her background in the restaurant industry to offer diners comfort foods from a menu packed with family dishes passed down from her father. Those dishes include creative touches such as homemade fried pickles served with apricot-chipotle sauce. In their restaurant's dining room a fireplace roars and stone pillars hold up the high ceiling while diners sink teeth into big, 100% pure-beef charbroiled burgers and steamed or grilled hot dogs. Up to 120 visitors can fill the space for private parties, while family and friends can pop in any time to watch sporting events on flat-screen TVs.
Established in 1990, the bar and grill formerly known as Pete's Pizza took on its new nommé de cuisine in 2008 after extending the menu to encompass burgers, sandwiches, pasta, and Greek fare from chefs Spiro Theodoropoulos and John Patouhas. The hugely varied pub fare weighs down tables in the expansive, relaxed dining room. In the adjoining bar, raucous games of darts, pool, and sudoku wait to break out. During warmer weather, diners take in fresh air on the stone patio that also provides the ideal amount of give for toe-tapping to the sporadically scheduled live music.
The original Dear Franks location in Deerfield flung open its doors back in 1978 and has served the same quality dogs, burgers, and fries ever since, only now at two additional locations in Niles and Glenview. Charred Vienna Beef hot dogs drag through a garden of traditional Chicago-style toppings, and freshly cut, double-crisped fries are draped in creamy wisconsin sharp cheddar. Italian-beef sandwiches, tuna melts, and assorted sausages also assuage cravings for comfort food, as do chocolate malts and teddy bears stuffed with foie gras.
Cookers Red Hots’ menu of classic American fare fills mouths with grilled burgers, dogs, and sandwiches alongside fresh, made-to-order salads. Bite into a third-pound patty with a Cookers hamburger ($5.19), or nibble on sea samples with a shrimp basket ($5.39). The chicken salad’s american and swiss cheeses, poultry, and kalamata olives rest peacefully on a bed of fresh veggies ($5.99) alongside specialty sandwiches ($3.99+) and side dishes including a chili bowl ($2.89) and Idaho fries freshly cut by the barber.