By Mason Johnson
2900 West Belmont Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
Last time I went to Kuma's, I was in immense jaw pain. To even open my mouth sent pain throughout my body. Eating a gigantic bar burger seems insane when you're under this kind of pain.
But that's exactly what I did.
Kuma's is that good.
But are they the best? Let's find out...
Click here to read last week's Best Burgers In Chicago article, which lays out the standards I use to judge an establishment.
It's big. It's juicy. Nicely salted and pleasantly seasoned, it's got enough substance to please, but doesn't overpower the great taste of the meat.
Which is what matters, right? The meat.
And it's on a pretzel bun.
There are those who say it used to be better. Who say there used to be a different head cook--a shaman or something--who made heavenly burgers with nothing but pure ingenuity! One day this shaman was murdered or fired or quit or returned to Middle Earth or something, and then the quality (supposedly dropped). Is this true? Who knows. Does this mean the burgers aren't good? Not at all. The burgers are great. I'll address this more later, but it seems to be a bit of a moot point to say the place isn't as good as it was the first time some snob had it five years ago. Accurate or not, you'll just come off as pretentious instead of helpful.
They've got the mac & cheese with bacon in it, they've got the handcut fries, what more could you want?
Oh, waffle fries? Yeah, they don't got those anymore.
If you read the fine print of their menu, they don't seem to be too ashamed by this.
Personally, I miss them. I get why that would annoy them. They've theoretically put effort into finding better, homemade fries for me to stuff into my mouth. Yet here I am, dreaming about the inferior waffle cut fries. Maybe it's the shape I loved... Who knows. I just don't care too much about their new fries ("new" might not be the right term since, by my calculation, they've been around for at least a year).
When it comes to toppings, they've got a long list, which provides with a buttload of themed burgers. My favorite is the Led Zeppelin (pulled pork, bacon, cheddar and pickles). Pulled pork is no longer a rarity on a bar burger, there's a handful (like a big handful, like an Andre the Giant handful) of bars where you can put pulled pork on your burger. Regardless, this is the first spot I had it on a burger.
You always remember your first.
The signature Kuma burger keeps it simple: bacon, fried egg and cheddar. Honestly, you can't find anything wrong with something this simple. Unless you're Tom.
My friend Tom, who's an a-hole, thinks that this combination of toppings doesn't make for a good signature burger. That it's too bland. Not that the burger necessarily tastes bad, just that a signature burger should be more special than a fried egg and bacon. Well, Tom, that's a horrible way to judge a burger and a restaurant. You are a bad person. Also, you shouldn't argue with someone who writes for a major news organization. Leave comments below if you want, Tom, I'll just delete 'em.
What else can you get on a burger? A pile of fries, garlic pork, mustard braised onion, chorizo, roasted poblano peppers... all kinds of wonderful crap. At this point in Chicago's burger history, there's a slew of places that have long insane lists of stuff you can get on your burger. Kuma's isn't any different, they've got a nice long list, all of it's quality, well made grub that won't take away from an already good burger.
As far as beer goes, they've got a few good drafts from Great Lakes, Metropolitan, Three Floyds and more, along with a pretty long list of bottled beer. So, you know, you're not going to go thirsty.
Ambiance. Still hate that word.
Anyway, Kuma's is what it is. A small metal bar with loud music and, oftentimes, a two hour wait. I'd say the wait is worth the taste. Others might say that no burger is worth a two hour wait.
I've never had a bad experience with the staff. I haven't had great experiences with them either. There's not usually any chit chat, no joking around with the server, it's too damn loud and busy for any of that. Can I fault them for not treating me like an old friend?
But I won't, cause that'd be weird. I've got enough friends, I don't need any more from the staff at Kuma's.
Coming back to the idea that Kuma's "isn't as good as it used to be": who cares?
Plenty of people might care, sure. But for new people, that has no relevance to the here and now. And, if the quality has dropped, it's a matter of Kuma's going from being a super duper restaurant, to just a super (minus the duper) restaurant. It's not like their burgers aren't still great, cause they are.
With that said, one thing is interesting to note: there are a lot more gourmet burger bars around now than there were three, four, five years ago. Maybe Kuma's isn't worse than they used to be, maybe they just have better competition than they used to. I reviewed a metal bar that serves great burgers last week, Lockdown Grill, and it almost seems insane that there's not one, but two (and probably many more) bars in this city that play metal music so loud you can't have a conversation and serve great burgers.
But it's reality.
Even with better competition, Kuma's is still one of the best burger places in the city. In fact, I'd say they make my top five. Are they number one? Probably not. I've got to eat some more burgers before I decide that. And, to eat more burgers, I need more suggestions. Leave YOUR suggestions in the comments section below.
Mason Johnson, CBS Chicago
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