Better with Bacon

Michael Nagrant / 09.13.13

Chef David Burke (of Primehouse plus many NYC-based restaurants) is the P.T. Barnum of chefs. As evidenced by his current survival on “Top Chef Masters,” Burke is a great cook, but he’s an even better storyteller. The first time I ever met him, he asked if he could see my hand. I was a little confused; I hardly knew the guy, but he looked like he was about to propose. Then he whipped out what looked like a perfume mister, spritzed my wrist and said, “Smell that!” It was the unmistakable essence of bacon, courtesy of his newest line of flavor sprays. As the inventor of edible bacon perfume, it was only a matter of time before he opened Burke’s Bacon Bar (with Primehouse’s Rick Gresh as executive chef), the one sandwich shop that could finally prove the axiom that bacon makes everything better. I stopped in to see if indeed it does.

The scene: There were bouncers with clipboards and a rope line. I stood in it. But, it turned out that I gave bacon too much credit: The line was for the new cocktail bar Jimmy, which is hidden behind a secret door located in the lobby of Burke’s. This was confusing; bacon definitely deserves its own velvet rope. Instead, it gets a tiny kitchen lined with gleaming white subway tile fronted by a maple butcher-block counter. Like Al’s Beef on Taylor, the dining room, which features a single, small elbow-height counter, is standing room only. There is a backlit display case featuring a glistening headless duck carcass, mahogany slabs of country bacon and a few cans of Spam hanging on hooks behind the counter. Step outside and you can perch on the stone planters in front or claim a table up the block next to the James Hotel.

Sandwich gripes: With nine sandwiches priced $4 apiece or 3 for $11 (they’re dubbed “handwiches” by Burke because they’re the size of your palm, with about three making a meal), I was tempted, as I am when I’m drunk at Taco Bell at midnight, to order the whole menu. I did. I should have been more judicious. The smoked eggplant meatball parmesan was sogged down by a mess of aioli and the bottom half of the bun was slightly stale. The banh mi featured a baby food-like mush of chicken liver-bacon salad. The beef and cheddar sandwich featured tender, rich skeins of braised beef, but the cheddar flavor was smothered under drippy steak-sauce mayo and limp fried onions. The worst part was that if there were any hoppy funk to the strip of Matilda bacon (brined in Goose Island Matilda beer) on that sandwich, I couldn’t taste it because of how loud the other condiments were.

Sandwich likes: I’m very glad I ordered the River North Bacon Dog, a jalapeno bacon jam-slathered bacon sausage from local sausage maker Big Fork topped with sport peppers, relish, celery salt, tomato and mustard. It may be the best Chicago-style salad dog around. Another sandwich of five-spiced duck slathered in sweet hoisin stuffed in a cloud-like bao and sprinkled with cucumber and cilantro was righteous. Turkey roll wraps are usually rubbery cold tortillas filled with questionable deli meat, but this version was an inspiring reinvention of the form, featuring hickory smoke-walloped Benton’s country bacon, tomato fondue (tomatoes cooked slowly with vinegar, sugar, garlic, salt and pepper), bright lemon aioli and crisp tangy apples in a soft corn tortilla. The Angry Reuben was solid, but should probably be renamed the Sorta Miffed Reuben, as the chili pepper vodka-soaked sauerkraut nestled on top of peppery pastrami was only slightly spicy. The micro-slices of marble rye (from local cracker maker Nicole’s) are, however, cuter than kittens.

Beyond sandwiches: Burke’s offers a few salads; the glass noodle salad ($7.50) with five-spice duck, cucumber, carrots and cilantro that I tried was a little over-dressed and similar to what you’d find at your average Thai takeout spot. In the dessert department, Burke’s served a magnificent flurry of whiskey-soaked cherries and chocolate shavings swimming in vanilla soft serve. It was a beautiful blizzard of bitterness, hot spice and sweet cream ($4.50). The bacon peanut brittle ($5) was an addictive, glossy cluster of crunchy candied nuts and the bacon cookie was larded with bits of bacon fat and oozy chocolate chips ($2.25).

The service: The young cooks behind the counter were earnest and bugged their eyes out when I ordered all nine sandwiches. They fumbled trying to ring me up (I visited the second day they’re open). I was excited because the menu promised Blenheim’s ($3), a fiery South Carolina-made ginger ale I love. But when I went to retrieve it from the case, it wasn’t there. They only had Boylan’s. I flashed the guy behind the counter a grimace. I wish the guy who rung me up would’ve told me they were out when I ordered.

Bottom line: The desserts and the killer bacon dog are so good that Burke’s should draw a line down the block like Hot Doug’s; however, the masses probably won’t gather until the cooks use a lighter hand with the sauces and maybe even edit out a few of the weaker sandwiches.

Mini-review: Burke’s Bacon Bar
610 N. Rush St. 312-660-7200
Rating: *

This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.