Burger review: Leadbelly
5739 W. Irving Park Road 773-283-7880
Rating: !!!! (out of 4)
As I look back on all of my burger-eating adventures, one sentiment has continued to hold true: A good burger is worth the journey.
So when I heard the delightfully beefy news that a new burger shop with a peculiar name, Leadbelly, had opened in the far northwest neighborhood of Portage Park, I was not deterred by its distance from downtown. I do not balk at taking the Blue Line-to-bus trek necessary to visit Avondale for a Kuma's Corner fix; Leadbelly is just a bit further afield.
The story: This modest counter-service establishment—there are but six tables, plus a few barstools—is the brainchild of Nicole and Steve O'Brien, two burger lovers who have envisioned owning a burger restaurant in this very neighborhood for years. They titled their creation after the nickname of folk musician Huddie William Ledbetter, who they found influenced many of the artists they held in high esteem, from Led Zeppelin to Johnny Cash to Kurt Cobain. In reverence, their photos are featured on the walls and songs serve as the names of burgers.
The burger: If a burger with a pink, juicy center is what you crave and you will be satisfied by nothing less, then let me first state that Leadbelly is not for you. The O'Briens carefully curated blend of meat—ground right on-site for maximum freshness—consists of ground beef with pork belly, and consequently all patties are cooked to medium. Though I generally prefer a medium-rare burger, Leadbelly's specimen is supremely moist, beautifully charred and supremely moist throughout.
The bun: A sign near Leadbelly's door and a notice on its web site warns, "When our homemade buns are gone, so are we … so get your buns here early." Though the reference to my posterior region made me slightly uncomfortable, I heeded this advisory and arrived at the restaurant at 5:30 p.m., just a half-hour past weeknight opening time. The shop bakes 150 buns on weekdays--twice that on weekends—and has ran out but once in its two-week existence, but the disclaimer still stands. In what has become a ubiquitous sea of pretzel buns, Leadbelly's fresh-baked buns are a delight indeed. Their puffed-up silhouette makes the burger taller than it is wide. It is at once soft and sturdy, with a bottom portion cut generously enough that it compresses only slightly under the weight of the toppings, but does not bend or break. A sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds on top is a lovely feast for the eyes.
The fixings: Not shy to play favorites, Nicole O'Brien attests that the Black Betty ($8.95) is hers. I must admit it may be mine as well, with its chunks of creamy blue cheese, divinely crunchy bacon slices, an ample pour of buffalo-blue cheese sauce and crispy onion strings that enjoy a dunk in buttermilk before frying. The Midnight Special ($8.95) combines the O'Briens' favorite spicy toppings: jalapeno-flecked jack cheese, chipotle cream sauce, pico de gallo and—I jest not, fellow burger fiends—chili-cheese-flavored Fritos. Even the classic cheeseburger, called simply the Leadbelly ($6.95), is spiced up thanks to sriracha pickles that are tongue-ticklingly tangy. Should you desire, the table next to the counter features any sort of mustard, ketchup or hot sauce one could dream of, along with Leadbelly's own spicy ketchup made right on the premises.
The fries: How does one create fries as crispy as Leadbelly's? By frying them twice, of course: Hand-cut potatoes are flash-fried at a low temperature and sent to rest in the cooler before taking a high-temperature dip. Each portion is served in a wax paper-lined metal fry basket with your choice of topping, from sea salt and pepper ($1.95) or garlic and parmesan ($2.95) to the rather iconoclastic Polish Fries ($3.95) topped with sauerkraut and Polish sausage bits. Portions are moderate, so even the most heavily adorned variations—such as the Belly Fries ($3.95) with Carolina mustard barbecue sauce and tiny cubs of pork belly—are not as over-the-top as they sound.
The drinks: The only thing The Great Burgerelli enjoys more than a milkshake is, but of course, an adult milkshake. In icy creations such as the Red River ($7.95), Leadbelly has found a suitable purpose for the curious spirit that is whipped cream-flavored vodka by combining it with cherry vodka, mixed berry ice cream and a crown of whipped cream. Milkshakes are garnished with a whimsical curlicue of pulled sugar and are also available non-spiked (vanilla, chocolate or berry, $4.95). There is also an impressive selection of craft beer, including canned brews by Revolution, packaged just a few miles away in nearby Avondale. What a marvelous instance of local synergy for fans of both burgers and beer!
Everything else: Each burger is accompanied by treat inconspicuously tucked into a wax paper bag. That would be the "almost famous" butter cookie—a thin, shortbread-like beauty that you will eat and then immediately want more. (Clearly that is why they are stacked by the dozen into ribbon-adorned Ball jars ($9.95) to bring home.) Ask why they are called "almost famous" and you'll be regaled with this entertaining anecdote: Steve baked them for an event attended by at-that-time President Bill Clinton, and he apparently took such a liking to them that his Secret Service men were reportedly sent back for seconds. Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that Leadbelly embodies the genuinely personal service one would expect of a small neighborhood operation. This is the sort of establishment where they take down your name for the order and then remember it later when inquiring how you enjoyed your burger or helping to clear your tray.
The bottom line: If one heartily indulges in everything Leadbelly has to offer—burgers, fries, milkshakes and cookies—then one is perhaps destined to leave feeling as if their belly is indeed full of lead. But I have never been one to shy away from eating oneself silly, so I am proud to declare Leadbelly a gluttonous gem of a burger shop.
The Great Burgerelli is a fearless seeker of fine burgers. firstname.lastname@example.org