When you’ve accidentally taken your friends 60 blocks in the wrong direction because you transposed the address to the new hip Chicago hot dog joint with the address to the new hip Chicago burger joint, and it’s just starting to rain (fairly hard, mind you) and it’s your husband’s birthday and he hates hot dogs, do you throw up your hands and call it a night? Or do you soldier on, wrangle a taxi, and pray to god that the burgers you’re taking an emergency $20 cab ride for will make everyone forget your mistake?
If the place you’re dragging them is The Bad Apple, all your sins will be forgiven.
Especially since The Bad Apple is the only place in Chicago where you can sample a signature Pat La Frieda burger blend. Co-owner/chef Craig Fass, a friend of head meat genius Pat La Frieda Jr. from their college days at Albright, called in a favor after deciding to try his hand at a burger bar. (Fass and his partner, co-owner/chef Mandy Franklin, are the original brains behind the Lakeview bar Cooper’s, for those of you with long memories for the Chicago restaurant scene.)
The Bad Apple duo of Fass and Franklin works diligently on stocking a beer list with highly-regarded craft brews like Belgian sours and regional pale ales, and then assembling clever beer and food pairings. “We like to play with food and drink great beer, so naturally it’s fun to put that together,” Craig says, and it shows in menu offerings like the Ole Imperial burger featuring Gonzo Imperial stout-glazed mushrooms, Hefeweissen-spiked goat cheese fondue, and pork belly braised in Dragon’s Milk ale.
It was 10:00 pm by the time we finally got to the bar and the entire table was more than ready to order, but making a choice between all the handsomely-topped burgers took another 10 minutes. I settled on the Slow Burn (Left Hand Milk Stout sautéed spicy chilies & onions, bacon, white cheddar) with the optional pretzel bun add-on.The shiny-smooth crust held in the beefy juices without disintegrating, making me think pretzel buns should be mandatory for all burgers over a quarter-pound. (Shake Shack, you’re allowed to keep your potato buns.)
Craig and the LaFrieda team keep the specific blend proprietary, but the details to note are that out of the three cuts used in the burger mix, one is ribeye and none of them are chuck—the cow part most often used in burgers.
I’m not going to speculate on the specific mix—that’s for others to work through—but I’ll say that the beefiness of the burger was so strong that I goddang forgot there was bacon on top of my patty. Bacon usually dominates the flavor of any burger you pair it with, but here it barely registered in the overall profile, instead acting like the ground pancetta in your bolognese that subtly amps up the meatiness of the entire dish.
Go with a group so you can sift through the vast array of options without growing an extra stomach. Fries come with the burgers and sandwiches, and taking the kitchen up on its offer to add minced garlic to the pile of hand-cut, double-fried potatoes on your plate is always the right decision. Starting with a crock of the beer-battered cheese curds with homemade buttermilk ranch dipping sauce isn’t a bad thought either.
But if one of you isn’t hungry for beef, take Craig’s advice and try the Ebel’s Ham sandwich, his undersung favorite on the menu. In a typical Bad Apple move, the ham is crusted with Two Brother Ebel’s Weiss beer, dijon, brown sugar, and a special spice blend for over four hours, and then the ham drippings are reserved to make a sandwich-specific mustard.
Served with swiss, pickled peppers, and onions on that beautiful pretzel bun, it’s something I’ll be biting into next time I’m at the bar. Craig laments, “I eat it a few times a week and am waiting for it to take off. It’s a great sandwich, but falls through the cracks because we are a burger joint.”
Despite the fact we’d been sampling the wares at another of Chicago’s great beer emporiums, Hopleaf, for a good portion of the afternoon/evening, we found it within ourselves to do a little damage to the Bad Apple beer list too. I decided to keep my choices local for the evening, sipping a Goose Island Sofie, a sparkling ale with a Champagne-style feel, and a grapefruity, floral Daisy Cutter pale ale from Half Acre, the brewery just across the street from the bar. (God, Chicago is a great beer town.)
By the time we were ready to leave, the epic downpour had ended and we were able to roll ourselves into a cab. And even though I committed another crime that evening by trying to steal the housemade pickles off my friend Ellie’s plate, no one punished me by making me sit in the front seat of the taxi with the driver. The Bad Apple: crowd-pleaser and drunken-mob-placater extraordinaire since 2009.
The Bad Apple, 4300 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL. 773-360-8406.