The Gadabout—May 23, 2008

Cheeseburger in Paradise

By Clay Smith

Two astronauts are eating in a burger restaurant on the moon. One says to the other, “The food here is great, but this place has no atmosphere.”

That’s A Burger, buried in the heart of the South Shore neighborhood at East 71st Street, offers a similar experience, in that there is no atmosphere whatsoever. For that matter, the wait time for your order can take longer than the moonwalk of Apollo 11, and three miles south of Jackson Park might as well be another planet. But if you choose to accept the mission, That’s A Burger’s amazing hamburgers and turkey burgers will justify your efforts entirely.

The first time we walked down East 71st Street to the restaurant, a passerby stopped us abruptly to ask, “Where’d you get your ghetto pass?” It was a misguided question, given the ubiquitous Starbucks a few blocks to the west, a bustling Dominick’s across the street, and Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s office to our right. That’s A Burger is located on a busy commercial street bifurcated by Metra stops that link the neighborhood to the 55th-56th-57th Street stop in Hyde Park via a 10 minute ride. The restaurant is easy to miss, since its presence is only denoted by a small sign in the window and air tinged with the scent of French fries.

The room inside has no furniture at all except for a counter shrouded in bulletproof glass. The menu on the wall not only distinguishes this as a takeout joint, but also differentiates That’s A Burger from any other such eatery. The Whammy Burger ($5.25) is like a regular cheeseburger in every way, except for the split Polish sausage on top. The TAB Special, in the same vein, crams in a few more extras—that is, cheese, bacon, chili, and a fried egg.

Unlike the gut-busters of Hardee’s, everything at That’s A Burger, from the fries to the ground-beef patties, is handmade. You’ll have to wait 20 or 25 minutes even on a Friday afternoon, but the tradeoff is one of the best hamburgers in Chicago.

We ordered a Whammy and a cheeseburger with bacon and a fried egg. A perfectly cooked beef patty, a bun without sesame seeds, and the terrific toppings made us wonder why fried eggs and sausages are not naturally burger staples. It’s also impossible to order a hamburger or cheeseburger without fries. The skin-on fries were fresh and had the perfect amount of grease to help the burger slide down. Single patties were fine—order a double burger only if it’s your last meal before a round of gastric bypass.

That’s A Burger also features critically acclaimed turkey burgers, veggie burgers, Polish sausages, hot dogs, and chili. Although the toppings aren’t marked on the menu, all of the standard options are available for everything, plus grilled and raw onions, nacho cheese, fried eggs, bacon, and more chili.

Takeout hamburger places on the South Side probably aren’t haute enough for the Slow Food movement, but That’s A Burger makes a perfect case. Every combination of burger and fries is lovingly handcrafted the moment it’s ordered, and the result is nothing short of delicious food tradition. Phone in your order if you must, but take a lesson from the guys who do it slow and well. The moonwalk was worth the wait, right?