The 15 Best Burgers Around Chicago For Under $7
By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 22, 2016 4:49PM
Cheeseburger at Manzo's Burger. Photo by Michael Gebert.
By Michael Gebert
Everyone’s done best burger lists, but the fact is, it’s not hard to make a good burger if you’re going to charge $12 or $15 for it and top it with all kinds of exotic toppings. The real challenge is mastering the kind of burger most of us grew up on, where a few bucks gets you the primal satisfactions of beef on a bun.
Imagine you’re in a small town in the Midwest, and you spot a neon-lit white box of a building, maybe sporting some pointy wings like the tailfins on an old Pontiac. You pull into a slot next to a carful of football players and cheerleaders—go Stallions!—and place your order with a waitress.
She takes it inside, to an old guy who learned to cook in the Navy. He picks up a ball of fresh-ground meat and smashes it onto a hot grill. Then, this is where the artist’s vision comes in—diced onions, or sliced? Set on the grill by themselves, or fried under the patty once it’s flipped? Either way he scoops it all up onto a cheap white bun, and wraps it in white paper to be taken to you.
That’s a burger, people, and if you tried to pay $16 for it, they’d look at you like you were crazy.
So this list is a tribute to that kind of burger, the no-pretense burger. There’s only one hard rule—$7 was the cutoff for a baseline model. So no trendy Kuma’s or Au Cheval, no hipster Loyalist or Johnny’s Grill (even theirs is $9, admittedly for a double). That’s the only rule, but it’s not a coincidence that many of these places also use meat they’ve ground themselves. The frozen hockey puck patty is everywhere in Chicago, and it’s why Chicago’s burgers were long noticeably inferior to what you could find 50 miles away in any direction—but these are the places in our city that decided to do it right.
Top Notch Beefburger, photo via Chicagoist Flickr Pool user Stephanie Barto
Top Notch Beefburger
1/4-lb. beefburger: $4.25
Top Notch dates back to the 1940s, and thus fits right in on the small town commercial strip along 95th in Beverly. Freshly ground meat cooked in its own juices (I’m convinced that theirs is the flavor profile Au Cheval is aiming for) and fries fried in (shhh, don’t tell) beef tallow both make for a taste of Eisenhower America. But dairy is an important part of your daily nutrition too, so have a chocolate shake with it.
Top Notch Beefburger is located at 2116 W. 95th.
Hamburger at Bill's Drive-In. Photo by Michael Gebert.
Single hamburger: $1.90
Located just over the border with Evanston on what we call Western, Bill’s wins for the cheapest burger. That’s because, like White Castle, it’s a rare surviving example of what burgers were like back in the 1930s—a small patty served minimally with mustard, pickle and onion on a bun, then sealed in a white paper wrapper to steam itself a little into a unified concoction. If you want more, you don’t get a bigger burger, you order a whole bagful.
Bill’s Drive-In is located at 120 Asbury Ave. in Evanston
Millions have probably been to this famous drive-in without even considering having a burger, such is the lure of the Superdawg in his Tarzan-like skins as he looms over Milwaukee Avenue. But I swear by my pure beef heart it’s a good one, ground fresh daily and fried with tiny bits of diced onion.
Superdawg is located at 6363 N. Milwaukee.
BIG & little’s
Hamburger: starts at $5.50
BIG & little’s has fish tacos and shrimp po’boy sandwiches and all kinds of interesting things, so it’s a little boring to go there just for a burger. Nevertheless, it’s a good burger, a handformed patty on a toasted bun, accompanied by fresh cut fries—which you can get with a side of foie gras.
BIG & little’s has three locations, at 860 N. Orleans, 1034 W. Belmont and 1310 N. Milwaukee.
Big Guy Burger. Photo by Michael Gebert.
Big Guys Sausage Stand
Big Guy Burger: $6.95
Just making our $7 cutoff, the burger at Berwyn’s answer to Hot Doug’s is a loose-packed monster that ought to cost more than it does. I resisted owner Brendan O’Connor’s entreaties to try it on several visits because I love the housemade sausages so much, but finally gave in and promptly awarded it five Samuel Jacksons (“Damn, that’s a tasty burger!”)
Big Guys Sausage Stand is located at 7021 W. Roosevelt in Berwyn.
Burger at Red Hot Ranch. Photo by Michael Gebert.
Red Hot Ranch, Fatso’s Last Stand
Red Hot Ranch Burger: $3.65 (comes with fries)
Single Fatso: $4.65
A pair of independent no-frills stands, both making a burger with lettuce, tomato and Thousand Island dressing... in other words, the same flavor profile as the much-loved, not-available-here In-N-Out chain. Which I’m going to say in both cases is actually better than the California favorite.
Red Hot Ranch is located at 2072 N. Western Ave. and 3057 N. Ashland Ave. Fatso’s Last Stand is located at 2258 W. Chicago Ave.
Hamburger at That's-A-Burger. Photo by Michael Gebert.
This place makes really good freshly-ground burgers, but you should also go for the experience of the African-American owner blasting conservative talk radio all day while somehow taking 30+ minutes to grill a burger behind the glass of the kitchen (partly blocked with menus after someone tried to take a picture of him once). Anyway, the burger and the fries are great; no seating, so be prepared to dine... somewhere.
That’s-A-Burger is located at 8301 S. Stony Island.
Cheeseburger at Smallfry. Photo by Michael Gebert.
At this new Logan Square burger stand, $6.00 gets you a grassfed patty cooked fresh on the grill, topped with cheese, then squirted with gooey special sauce on the grill and placed, oozing, on a bun. It’s small but makes enough of a mess for two burgers, and I kind of loved it.
SmallFry is located at 2489 N. Milwaukee.
If the 18-store Schoop’s chain was on the North Side of Chicago, it would be a Chicago institution. Instead it’s mostly in Northwest Indiana, where it started in 1948, with a few locations this side of the border in the south suburbs, and thus remains something of a cult favorite. Anyway, it’s not just a good smashed burger, it’s an extremely smashed burger, fried till the edges are lacy and crispy. Locations vary a bit, but when you have a good one, it’s great.
Schoop’s has 18 locations in the south suburbs and northwest Indiana.
Charburger at Alley Dogs. Photo by Michael Gebert.
1/4-lb. Charburger: $3.75
You may think I’m crazy to recommend the burger in a bowling alley, just because any food where there’s a captive audience is likely to be mediocre. But this place is a small gem, taking more care than they need to—for instance, it’s one of the few places I know of to take the trouble to toast the hamburger bun before serving. The little things count.
Alley Dogs is located inside Waveland Bowl at 3700 N. Western Ave.
Ivy’s Burgers, Hot Dogs and Fries
Like Beverly where Top Notch is, Edgebrook has a '50s neighborhood feel. Ivy’s has the neighborliness of an old favorite combined with modern touches (try a Japanese dog, with seaweed and pickled ginger). The burger is inspired by Paradise Pup’s in Desplaines, a thick patty of fresh Angus sourced from a coop in Nebraska, served with gooey Merkt’s cheddar on a topknot bun.
Ivy’s Burgers, Hot Dogs and Fries is located at 5419 W. Devon.
Illinois Bar & Grill On 47th
1/3-lb. Baby Burger: $4.95
This South Side tavern has enjoyed a reputation for a great burger for years—enough to win it a spinoff location at Midway. As with the similarly-vaunted Moody’s Pub on the north side, I’d say others have made up a lot of that ground in recent years, but there’s plenty to enjoy in the greasy burger/neighborhood watering hole experience here.
Illinois Bar & Grill On 47th is located at 4135 W. 47th.
Edzo’s Burger Shop
Hamburger: starts at $4.75
As far as I’m concerned, the Chicago cheeseburger renaissance began c. 2009 with Eddie Lakin, who wrote on his future restaurant’s blog about research-eating small town burgers in Wisconsin and deciding that he would grind beef fresh every day. You can spend more at Edzo’s by ordering artisanal beef, but you can still get a great loosely hand-patted burger and fresh-cut fries for less than our $7 cap.
Edzo’s Burger Shop is located at 1571 Sherman Ave. in Evanston.
All five members of the Mexican family who opened this Far South Side burger stand in 2014 were on hand the day I visited, helping dad as he manned the grill. They use fresh-ground meat on locally-baked brioche-style buns, and have excellent fresh-cut fries.
Manzo’s Burger is located at 2353 W. 111th.
Michael Gebert is the editor of the online food magazine Fooditor and author of the upcoming The Fooditor 99: Where To Eat (And What To Eat There) In Chicago, who as the father of two boys, knows more cheap burger and hot dog joints than he cares to admit.