This Cow Don’t Moo

Michael Nagrant / 11.09.06

I like it animal style–my burger that is.

Whenever I get off the plane in L.A., I go straight to the nearest In-N-Out Burger and order up a mustard-cooked beef patty with cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, extra “spread” and grilled onions, or as it’s billed on In-N-Out’s “secret menu”–“animal style.” (The secret menu, which is actually available on the Web site, is the worst-kept secret since Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s White House tryst.)

Accompanied with a side of freshly cut fries, every bite feels like a taste of home, and I’m not even from California. The Hollywood store off Sunset Boulevard is also a great celebrity-watching spot–last time I was in town, Art Alexakis, the frontman for the band Everclear, was sitting on the hood of a SUV, chomping down on the famed patties.

This week the long-awaited and much-hyped Patty Burger, the brainchild of wunderkind and ex-Jimmy John’s honcho Gregg Majewski, opened in the Loop. Majewski’s quick ascent as CEO and controller of the sub giant by the time he was 24 had earned him quite a bit of press, and he’s been using that pulpit to espouse his vision for an In-N-Out-style burger, made-to-order with fresh ingredients and high-quality meats. So with visions of flattop-griddled smoky burgers dancing in my head, I headed over this weekend to check out the goods.

The Patty Burger logo is a pinup of what looks like Bettie Page’s redheaded stepsister in full diner-waitress regalia, wielding a spatula as if it were a riding crop for naughty burger eaters. According to the Web site manifesto, “She’s fresh, she’s hot, and she’s stacked.” Clearly the target demographic at Patty Burger is frat boy.

The décor is modern diner with brushed stainless tables, Arne Jacobsen-style maple chairs, huge orange pendant lamps that cast a hazy washed-out light and a disconcerting wall of painted dots that make you feel as if you’ve fallen into a giant pail of grey Legos.

My wife and I ordered up two single burgers, one with cheese, one with bacon, a large fry and a small drink for $12.31. There’s no super-value menu here. Singles start at $3.29, and then you get quartered and dollared from there: 29 cents for cheese, 99 cents for bacon and 59 cents for mushroom or grilled onions. Assuming you like a fully packed burger, you’re already looking at $5 for a single one-third-pound burger, but this was a patty formed and cooked to order and spiced on the spot, a relative bargain in comparison to pre-frozen patties used at other fast-food joints.

Then again at other fast-food joints, you get your order in a couple of minutes. There were reports that, in the Patty Burger development laboratory, they had shaved the wait time down to four minutes per burger. So much for practical application. It took twelve minutes to get our order and we were the only people in the restaurant.

I’ve waited in line for three-and-a-half hours to eat a sublime twenty-minute meal. Wait is no problem if the food is good. Ripping open the foil yielded a pillowy bun with a yellow-egg-wash pallor and a charred ring from the toaster. The patty looked hefty, the veg crispy and the orange “sauce” was studded with black flecks of pepper.

Majewski, a former controller, might be good with numbers, but he must be the Helen Keller of tasters. The burger looked great, but a few bites yielded a stark verdict: while the Patty Burger meat had a nice char, and looked nothing like the gray lifeless discs you’d find on a Big Mac, excepting for a slight smokiness, it was pretty similar in taste. The bland and dry patty would get whupped by In-N-Out in any respectable beef match, and my wife remarked that she preferred the single at Wendy’s.

You can go down to the Ramova Grill, a classic Bridgeport diner open since 1924, where the heat from grill steams the plate-glass windows during the winter, and chomp on a much better burger, and at $1.30, you’ll save a couple of bucks.

Patty burger doesn’t sell much beyond burgers. There’s some chili, shakes and breakfast sandwiches, and the fries, which come from industrial brown-paper bags straight to the deep fryer, have a crispy sprayed-with-PAM taste, similar to the new fry formula Burger King used a few years ago to compete with the trademark McDonald’s crunch.

Ultimately Patty Burger is a mediocre burger in a town that, despite its culinary creativity, still knows its meat. As Majewski said in a January Chicago magazine interview, “At Patty Burger, the product should be talking for itself.” Hopefully this meat’s as outspoken as Rosie O’Donnell, because it’s sure got a lot of explaining to do.

Patty Burger, 72 East Adams, (312)987-0900.

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago.